Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Great Glen Cattle Ranch

What connects trendy Edinburgh bar and restaurant Cruz with American style cattle ranching?

Well, the answer is not the steaks on the menu but the fact that, in a previous life, Cruz was the steam ship Ocean Mist which was the private yacht of Joseph W Hobbs, the Anglo-Canadian owner of the Great Glen Cattle Ranch between Fort William and Spean Bridge in Lochaber.

Below is a picture of the Ocean Mist berthed at Banavie on the Caledonian Canal near Fort William (Ben Nevis in the background) when it was Hobbs' yacht:-

Joe Hobbs was born in Hampshire in 1891 but emigrated with his parents to Canada in 1900. From ranching in Calgary, he became a naval flyer during the First World War and then went on to make a fortune in shipping and real estate. But he was ruined during the Great Depression of 1929 and that's when he came to Scotland and got involved in the whisky trade. Before long Hobbs owned seven distilleries, including the Ben Nevis Distillery at Fort William.

In 1945, Hobbs bought Inverlochy Estate at Fort William and renamed it "The Great Glen Cattle Ranch" with the idea of introducing American style cattle ranching to the Highlands of Scotland. Now I have to confess I don't understand enough about cattle farming to know the difference between "ranching" cattle and farming them in the usual Scottish fashion. Suffice it to say that the Greensburg (Pennsylvania) Daily Tribune reported in 1951 that Hobbs was employing "four Gaelic-speaking cattle hands. From dawn to dusk they range this Scottish ranch on horseback and carry 12 foot whips." And in the Glasgow Herald in 1957 Hobbs was quoted as saying that the ultimate object was to "make the hills of Lochaber like the English Downs or better."

Hobbs sold the Great Glen Cattle Ranch in 1961 but retained 300 acres centred on the estate mansion house, Inverlochy Castle. He died two years later, coy about whether he was a rich man but with his ideas about cattle ranching never really having caught on. But Joe Hobbs certainly left some legacies even if they were not the ones he imagined or hoped for.

His yacht, the Ocean Mist, you can read a detailed history of here. In short, she was built at Greenock in 1918 for the Admiralty as part of a programme to replace the many fishing trawlers called up for service as minesweepers and lost during the First World War. But with the end of the war, she was surplus and sold as a yacht to a member of the Guinness brewing family who adapted her fish holds to carry his racing cars to the Mediterranean. After passing through a number of hands, including doing duty during the Second War as a torpedo recovery vessel on the Clyde, she was bought by Joe Hobbs in 1960. After he died, the Ocean Mist was kept on by his son Joe, Junior and she remained on the Caledonian Canal until moved to Leith in the mid 1980s. I don't know exact sequence of events of her history there but this is what she looked like when first parked at Leith (pretty much how she looked at Banavie):-

Photo credit Martin Third

It was in 2005, I believe, after around 20 years at Leith, that the Ocean Mist was radically altered by having her original superstructure and funnel removed and replaced with the current superstructure as seen in the first picture in this post. The picture below shows her during the transformation:-

Photo credit Leith Podcaster
Meanwhile, back in Lochaber, Joe Hobbs, Junior and his wife opened their home as a hotel in 1969 and Inverlochy Castle Hotel has since gone on to become one of Scotland's finest hotels, with a Michelin star and patronised by the international glitterati. Joe Junior's wife, Grete, was still running the hotel personally in 1976 but I don't know if the Hobbs' still own it - I suspect not but I don't know who does. As ever, leave a comment if you know.

Photo credit Celtic Castles - Ben Nevis in the background
And the Great Glen Cattle Ranch is still on the go, 5,922 acres (according to Andy Wightman) based at Auchindaul Farm just up the road from Inverlochy Castle in the direction of Spean Bridge and belonging nowadays to Paulo Berardelli. I'm not sure if there are any gaelic speaking bull-whip wielding cowboys these days but they've kept up the white painted steading buildings with the GGCR logo in that distinctive typeface.

Photo credit Keith Long

I recall these buildings clearly from when we used to go on family holidays in the West Highlands in the early 70s (when I was about 7-10 year old). The GGCR shelters, clearly visible from the A82 between Fort William and Spean Bridge, were landmarks on our journeys by car and I always felt we were missing out on something by not stopping for a closer look. "We'll be stopping for chips at Fort William in about 10 minutes" was usually the riposte from my father.

I'm glad the GGCR buildings are still here. My father isn't.


  1. Another fascinating article Neil. I worked close to the 'Ocean Mist' and had a most unpleasant bar meal there the week that she closed in 2000. The interior bulkheads were decorated with photographs of her in her wartime guise but I didn't appreciate the Great Glen Cattle Ranch connection. I've always been drawn to those numbered white sheds that were originally yellow. My father said that if I watched carefully I might spot one of the cowboys that lived in them. 30 years on I still slow down in anticipation of spotting a cowboy. Thanks again.

  2. I'm 1100 miles or so WSW of Calgary, snowed-in and enjoying your blog. I noted your confusion over ranching and farming. The former is for animals, the latter for things that sprout from the soil. Thank you for your insights, facts and historical notes.

  3. Very interesting to read. I have a website about Glenlochy Distillery which Mr Hobbs owned for a time. I was in Edinburgh recently and saw the Ocean Mist. Would it be possible for me to use the picture of Ocean Mist at Banavie?
    Best regards
    Louis Reps Sweden

  4. Louis - you're welcome to use the pic of the OM at Banavie as far as I'm concerned although it's a postcard, not my own photo, so I don't have copyright over it.

  5. My Grandfather, Charles Palmer, was Hobbs's Factor and a great friend of the man. Charles was the intellect behind the GGCR and my late father clearly remembered summer holidays spent cruising the Western Isles on the Ocean Mist...must have been a lot of fun! - Richard

  6. Hello
    Interested to read your historical account. I'm a friend of Joe Hobb's grand daughter and I'll send her this link.
    They did indeed sell the hotel, Im not sure but I think it might have been to a Japanese consortium?
    Anyway, Grete, now widowed (who is Danish and in her 80's) lives in Leicester where they moved to.
    Their son lives in France and Anne-Marie Hobbs (never married) has lived in Italy for 20 years and runs the most beautiful agroturismo business in Tuscany
    I have met Grete a few times and she is the most delightful lady and her house is full of pictures of the royalty and celebs she entertained at Inverlochy.

    1. An interesting submission and very accurate. As a distant relative, my grandmother Alexandria Hobbs emigrated to Canada with Joseph around 1900 and married Frederick Robinson Wilkes in Sault St. Marie Ontario. The Hobbs had a long history in Newbury, I have been researching our family heritage for the past 5 years which is available on under Wilkes3. Would love to make connections of living descendants in GBR and Europe!

  7. Thanks for that update on the Hobbs family Lanie - interesting.

  8. As a distant relative of Jo Hobbs mother who emigrated to Canada in 1900 I am fascinated by this story. Both his father and his grandfather were cattle dealers and farmers near Newbury.

    1. Joseph W. Hobbs was my great uncle. His sister was my grandmother. I am living in Toronto, Canada

  9. I've been trying to find out more about Joe Hobbs and found this site last year when I was looking in to the history of his Ben Nevis distillery. Your blog provides a diverse and enjoyable look into your appreciation of Sotland's wonderful west coast. I'm now focusing on Hobbs's Lochside distillery. I plan to host a whisky tasting including 5 examples of the varying styles of spirit the distillery produced. Living in Edinburgh I have a hope to host the tasting on Ocean Mist. If anybody can help my research I would very much appreciate it. My website is: Cheers Mark Davidson

  10. My father Alex Kerr managed the ranch from 1961 till 1982 during which time it carried nearly six hundred suckler cows and 20 score of blackface ewes.

    1. Noticed Mr and Mrs Hobbs gravestone in the cemetery near Onich. Was wondering who owned the GGCR after 1961

    2. Who owned the GGCR after 1961. Noticed the Hobbs gravestone today in the cemetery near onich.