Published: 06/07/2012 11:00 - Updated: 06/07/2012 11:43

Caithness contractor celebrates centenary

John Gunn having a dram at the viewpoint at Struie Hill.
John Gunn having a dram at the viewpoint at Struie Hill.

JOHN Gunn and Sons Ltd today is a prominent and well-established Caithness business which employs over 30 people and has an average annual turnover of £7-8 million.

But 100 years ago, the founder of the firm, John Gunn, had just won his first major contract at the age of 26. His successful tender for a new one-mile stretch of road between Lybster and Mavesey was for £171 16 shillings and 8 pence.

That contract signalled the beginning of a company which was to expand and diversify into the business it has become.

John, whose father was a crofter who augmented his income by running a carting business, was born at Achavar, near Lybster, in 1885.

In the early 1900s, better roads were beginning to be required for the motor car and the Development and Road Improvement Funds Act of 1909 provided local authorities with grants for approved highway works.

John’s father supplied stone base course from local quarries for the road builders and was helped by his son.

When he was in his mid-20s, John formed his own business and in 1912 was awarded the contract for the Lybster to Mavesey road.

The job involved the digging out and shaping of the road and putting in stone which had to be broken by hand.

The men who worked on the road would have used little more than picks and shuffles. They would also have had to dig out two ditches. It was a labour-intensive operation.

Just 12 years later, the business was bidding for and getting much bigger contracts. On March 10, 1924, it was awarded a contract for £1057 3s 10d to build the Burrigle road, south of Lybster. The road, which was about one-and-a-half miles long, had to be completed in eight months.

Other work followed and the business began to expand, constructing many of the new roads in the Lybster area up until the outbreak of the Second World War.

Sadly, the war claimed two of John’s sons, David and William, who were killed in 1944 within two weeks of one another. John had served in the First World War.

Just after hostilities ceased in 1945, the firm acquired an ex-Army truck and in 1953 bought its first-ever lorry – a Dodge – which was regarded as a major milestone in the company’s development.

About this time, two other sons of John’s – George and Robert – joined the business as directors and the firm became known as John Gunn and Sons Ltd.

The company continued to expand and branched into other areas of civil engineering, including the Latheronwheel diversion in 1966 and in the late 1960s the yard and offices moved to its present location of Swiney.

It also undertook marine and harbour works; built a reservoir at Heathfield in Thurso; and carried out work on the Causewaymire.

But the firm did not rest on its laurels and in 1980 George and Robert retired and the reins were taken by George’s son, David, who served his time as a joiner and joined the business in the early 1970s. He became a director along with engineer David Sutherland who worked with the company for about five years.

The firm opened a quarry at Skitten near Wick to provide its own road-making materials. It also took over the Bower quarry from Bardon Aggregates in 1997 and runs Melvich quarry as well.

John Gunn and Sons invested in plant and equipment for tar and asphalt work, a concrete plant supplying ready-mix and concrete blocks. Over a 10-year period David Gunn reckons that the firm invested over £2 million in that area of the business alone and did so "without any public assistance whatsoever." It also invests around £400,000 a year in other parts of the business.

About 15 years ago, the company diversified into housing and built and sold houses at West Gills and at Mount Pleasant in Thurso. It also secured work at Dounreay and at Subsea 7’s Wester site while more recently it has been supplying concrete for wind farms in Caithness and building roads into them.

"We basically have three divisions – civil engineering, the quarrying business and house building but we also do some plant hire as well," explained David in an interview with the John O’Groat Journal this week.

"We employ around 35 people and have an average turnover of between £7 million and £8 million a year although that dropped to about £5-and-a-half million three years ago during the recession. Our contracts vary in price but we have one at the moment for about £1 million," he said.

David, whose son Ian joined the business as a director in charge of contracts about 20 years ago, is delighted the company has reached its centenary.

"Not many construction companies in the north of Scotland reach 100 years. We are one of the few to do so and that makes me feel quite proud," he states.

David explains that the Civil Engineering Contractors Association invited the company to its annual dinner in recognition of its achievement but, unfortunately, no-one was able to attend. Instead, representatives of the organisation came north to present the directors with a certificate.

Throughout its existence, the company has had its share of ups and downs but always managed to pull through no matter what. "You get low points every now and again but we have also had a lot of highs," said David.

He adds: "When you get highs, don’t spend the money then when you come to lows you can slide through them."

David, who is 66 and semi-retired, said he thought his grandfather John would also have been "absolutely delighted" with the progress made by the firm in the past 100 years. "My father, who died in 1990, would also would have been very, very proud," he said. His son, Ian, is the fourth generation of the Gunn family to be involved in the business.

David feels the future of the firm is in good hands.

"Hopefully, it will carry on for many years to come. There’s a good chance it will go for a long while yet," he adds.

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