On 30th June 1878 there was an announcement in the Inverness Courier about a partnership created between Roderick Macrae of Beauly and William Dick of Redcastle. Together, the two gentlemen promised to provide horses and horse-drawn vehicles for hire to all Invernessians and visitors and to serve them to the best of their ability.
Today, Macrae & Dick are still major providers of vehicles in the Highlands, and the high quality of service promised by the company in the 19th century remains the same as we approach the 21st century. Roderick Macrae was born in 1825 in Strathconon to parents whose forebears originated from Kintail. He was named after his uncle who had been a Captain in the British Army and took part in the American War of Independence.
Roderick attended school in Strathconon and learned to read English but when he was aged 12 his family was cleared off the land to make way for a deer forest. Shortly afterwards he moved into the service of Mrs Matheson of Hedgefield (the mother of the distinguished Highlander Sir Alexander Matheson MP). She must have been impressed by the boy for she deducted £1 from his first wages to deposit at the bank and quietly added £2 of her own each week for the rest of her lifetime. On her death bed she handed the pass book to Mr Macrae. When he took it to the bank he was told that of their thousand or so depositors, he had the largest balance. It is probable that this represented a large element of the capital he subsequently required to set up in business, which he did by buying the Lovat Arms Hotel stables and horses at Beauly.
On 6th June 1878, Mr Macrae and Mr Dick announced by the way of an advertisement in the Inverness Courier that they had secured two stables and yards in Inverness - Edwards Court behind the Station Hotel and at the Glenalbyn Hotel on Young Street - and consequently they looked forward to “executing orders for posting and hiring in a style hithero unknown in Inverness”. The partnership agreement was not actually signed until a year after its first announcment, such were the business ethics of the day that a “gentlemen’s agreement” was made by gentlemen!
Each partner invested £1500 to create the partnership capital of £3000 and Mr Dick, who worked full-time as a manager, received a wage of £50 per annum. The profits, after wages and costs had been deducted, were shared equally between the two. Four years later, in 1882, the hiring business of Messrs Grant & Co, which was conducted from the Highland Club Stables in Baron Taylor’s Street, was taken over. This business has been established some 50 years earlier in the coaching days prior to the existence of the railways. It therefore had a wide connection throughout the northern counties.
Railway construction developed in the Highlands in the second half of the 19th century, thereby making greatly increased mobility of travel available between the North and the rest of the country. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had completed Balmoral Castle in 1856 and so it had become fashionable for the wealthy and the aristocratic to own or rent estates in the Highlands.
The business of Macrae & Dick expanded year after year, and in course of time a unique clientele was built up of the landed proprietors in the North of Scotland and the shooting, fishing and stalking tenants who rented properties during the sporting season. Horses and carriages and other horse-drawn vehicles were hired out for use on these estates and on occasions were retained by overseas visitors for the duration of their stay in the UK, including London. As many as 200 horses were kept for this and other purposes, such as local cab hiring, transport of passengers and their luggage to and from the Caledonian Canal steamers and the running of coaches to places of historic and scenic interest in the neighbourhood during the tourist season. One example of the last was the “May Queen”, a four-in-hand coach, which conveyed passengers from Station Square in Inverness to Culloden battlefield.
Accommodation to house their expanding activities was becoming a problem for the partners but fortunately the old Inverness Royal Acadamy building on Academy Street, with its extensive playground to the rear, became available when the school moved to its new premises in Midmills Road. Mr Macrae and Mr Dick were not the only people to be interested in purchasing the vacated Academy property. The Highland Railway Company, which also had hopes of expansion, arranged for a partner in its Edinburgh firm of solicitors to attend the submission and opening of sealed offers for the property at midday on a Friday within the offices of an Inverness firm of solicitors.
The Edinburgh solicitor travelled overnight on the sleeper and was met at Inverness by two members of his profession who took him for breakfast to the Highland Club. It is recounted that it was a fairly liquid breakfast, and after the local solicitors had left for their offices, the Edinburgh solicitor took up a chair in front of the open fire. Thus warmed within and without and following a disrupted night’s rest, he fell asleep, and slept through the noon deadline. Consequently Mr Macrae and Mr Dick purchased the Royal Academy building unopposed. History does not relate what happened to the solicitor on his return to Edinburgh!
Mr Macrae and Mr Dick paid £7500 for the building and its one-and-a-half acres of grounds. They promptly sold the school building for £4500 and spent this sum on erecting the massive building which stood on the site until 1984 and which was the centre of the company’s operations until the move to the Longman Industrial Estate in 1983.
The Academy Street site, which that had effectively bought for £3000, was sold a century later for £1.25m.
On the advent of the motor car, it was a natrual development for the business to become interested in this new mode of transport, not only in the business of hiring cars but also in their sale and servicing. This aspect of the business increased steadily over the years as the horse hiring and posting element declined. Information on the make of cars for which the firm held agencies is scant but an advertisement in 1910 gives Albion,Renualt and Arrol Johnston, and another in 1916 adds to this Sunbeam, Rover, Argyll, Overland, Ford and Studebaker. Other advertisements offer “repairs to any make of car by expert motor engineers”,“experienced and careful Chauffeurs”,”shooting boxes and country mansions specially catered for”, “mechanics despatched to any address on receipt of Wire”, etc. Further expansion followed not only in the company’s normal activities as motor agents, engineers and hiring contractors but also in the ancillary fields of road haulage, road passenger and air passenger services. In 1932 a subsidiary company - J. C. Brooke & Co. Ltd.- was formed to acquire the road haulage business carried on by Mr Brooke, with Macrae & Dick taking up two-thirds of the share capital.
Carrier services were developed by which motor lorries operated from Glasgow to Inverness and thence northward to Wick and Thurso. This company was acquired by London, Midland and Scottish Railway Company in 1936. Macrae & Dick also claim the honour of having introduced the Land Rover to the royal family. In 1948 King George VI visited Beaufort castle and, on his way through Inverness, he glimpsed the first prototype of the Land Rover at Macrae & Dick’s premises. The King then sent a note to the company, asking to try out the vehicle, which was sent to him at Beaufort Castle. On the King’s return to London and in the years to come, the royal family purchased many a Land Rover. As horse-drawn coaches were replaced by motor coaches, it became possible to offer tourists a much wider range of sightseeing travel, and programmes of half-day, one-day and two-day tours were operated from Inverness and Nairn. At the same time passenger services were introduced between Inverness and Fort William, Inverness and Nairn via Cawdor, and Inverness and Tomatin. These road services and the summer tour services were successful and made a useful contribution to the company’s profits, but in 1951 the policy of compulsory nationalisation by the post war government meant that this business had to be sold to the British Transport Commission. The company’s board was reluctant to surrender the business which it had built up but ultimately the offer submitted by the commission was accepted.
In 1932, in co-operation with the pioneer Captain E.E. Fresson and other interested parties, an associated company - Highland Airways Ltd- was formed to institute an air service to operate from Inverness to Kirkwall in Orkney. The service commenced in 1933 and one year later, in consequence of the reliability of the service, the company was awarded a contract to carry the Royal Mail by air - the first award of the Royal Mail Pennant to any internal air service operator in the UK. Later on, the service was extended to include the route from Aberdeen to Shetland and in 1939 Highland Airways was acquired by the predecessors of the present British Airways. Since that time, Macrae & Dick has concentrated its efforts on the motor trade.
What else was happening in July 1878 when Macrae & Dick was founded?