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John Hugh Dunnet - Obituary

31st May 2017

Photograph of John Hugh Dunnet - Obituary

John Hugh Dunnet, Justice of the Peace; born Seater, Canisbay, Caithness on 08.10.1933: died 23.05.2017, at Seater. Agricultural contractor & community political activist.

John Dunnet, JP, who passed away at the age of 83 on the 23rd of May, 2017 at his home at Seater, Canisbay after a lengthy illness, was for decades a well-known agricultural contractor to the Caithness farming & crofting communities.

In this capacity, he was commissioned by the late HM Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, as the holder of a Royal Warrant for his regular, meritorious, work on her Longoe Farm, in Mey. This 'By Appointment' accolade came to John Dunnet in 1978.

Throughout his life he was known locally as 'John Cox'n', in a reference to his grandfather after whom he was named, who had been Coxswain of the volunteer crew based at the former RNLI station at Huna, on the eastern shores of Gills Bay, in the early years of the 20th Century. His schooling was at Canisbay Primary and Wick High.

John had been a regular worshipper throughout his adult life at the nearby ancient Canisbay Kirk, where the large funeral congregation gathered on Saturday 27th May, 2017, to hear his memorial service conducted by Church of Scotland Minister, the Rev. Ian McCree, of Brora, Sutherland. This was immediately prior to John's interment in the adjoining churchyard.

John Dunnet was born on October 8th, 1933, the only son of crofter James Dunnet and his wife Nan, at the handsome stone-built two-storey house at Seater, adjacent to the A 836 John O'Groats to Thurso route's turn-off road junction to Canisbay village and to the A99 via Stemster farm.

John's father had built the house, with the help of 'salvage money' awarded to a particularly heroic 'ship-saving' mission by the Huna RNLI crew under Coxswain James Dunnet. The fully-laden 6,000 ton British steam-ship Indian had struck rocks and badly holed her bows in a thick 1910 summer fog at the notorious ebb-tide roost known as The Rispie, just South of Duncansby Head whilst on passage from Germany to Florida, USA. Although the 482 feet long (147 metres) vessel had partly keeled over with one deck-rail awash, her Captain took Coxswain Dunnet's advice and she floated clear on the rising flood tide. The lifeboat escorted her for beaching at Sinclair's Bay, where emergency repairs were instigated. The Huna lifeboat-men stood by the Indian for several days, until she was out of danger.

John Dunnet was brought up in the proud Canisbay crofting tradition, where tales were still current of the freedoms and opportunities won through the 1886 Crofters (Scotland) Act and its local champion, Dr Gavin Clark (1846.1930), MP for Caithness in late Victorian years.

Dr Clark was J. Keir Hardie's Vice-President at the founding of the Scottish Labour Party in 1888. He is best remembered for his successful campaigns on behalf of crofter-fishermen constituents for new piers and harbours that he won; almost all of those are still in use, though some now only for leisure purposes. As Dr Clark envisaged, facilities at Gills Bay and John O'Groats later developed into important sea-transport hubs for the Pentland Firth traffic to Orkney.

Accordingly, John Dunnet developed a life-long interest in local, national and international politics and had no doubts about the benefits that a Labour Government could and had brought for working-class families in rural areas, as well as in UK's bigger towns and cities.

In his adult life, John was repeatedly elected chairman of the Canisbay & District Labour Party branch that for decades was arguably the most active in the rural Far North and regularly sent a delegate to annual Party Conferences.

The branch held a yearly dinner-dance to which major-name Labour politicians were invited. It was in this context that John Dunnet shared a top-table place with future Prime Minister the Rt. Hon. James Callaghan at the function at the Seaview Hotel, John O'Groats, in the early 1970s.

John Dunnet was deeply involved with local affairs and acted as the lead-sponsor for several local Labour Party members who went on to be elected as County, District and Regional Councillors for NE Caithness.

A highly-intelligent, cultured, man with a quick, witty 'turn of phrase', John had a firm knowledge of the local farming and crofting sector, including such matters as the importance of livestock pedigrees for crofters raising sheep.

His work as a agricultural contractor led him to a thorough understanding of advances in agricultural science, technology and engineering that could bring advantages locally.

As a self-employed small businessman, he acquired a succession of modern machines, including combine harvesters, crop-spraying devices, straw balers and wrappers, field-drainage units, silage handling equipment and so on, that could bring real benefits to his customers who could not have afforded such expensive equipment on their own crofts' acreage. It all started after he purchased a powerful 'Field Marshall' British-made tractor to power a mobile threshing mill, a necessity for crofters and small-holders in the era when combine harvesters could only be afforded by large-scale farmers.

John was married for fifty-six years to Isobel (nee Bain), originally from Keiss. He was first diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease seven years ago and had near-total memory loss for his final three years.

John leaves a family of two grown-up children; James and Anne plus three grand-children as well as widowed Isobel. James delivered a heartfelt eulogy to his father's memory at the funeral service.

James, who graduated in mechanical engineering from Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh, was a one of the earliest recruits in 1979 to the (then Kestrel Marine, now Subsea7) 'flow-line bundle' fabrication yard at Wester, on the shores of Sinclair's Bay.

John Dunnet's son has since gone on the enjoy a lengthy, high-profile professional career in the international sub-sea oil & gas pipelines industry. He is a senior executive with a Paris-based offshore engineering multi-national corporation's key Brazil joint-venture subsidiary. Fluent Portuguese-speaker Jim's home is in Rio de Janerio, where he lives with his partner Maria.

Anne, who has two teenage children with her oil industry facilities engineer husband David Wilson lives in Huntly, Aberdeenshire.

As James reminisced during his eulogy, his father had said to him when he stated that he was planning to move abroad to further enhance his chosen career: 'Well, first we gave you roots and now we're giving you wings!'

Bill Mowat

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