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Cairngorm Group celebrates 70 years of serving the Highlands

By Rachel Smart

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The directors, and long-term staff members joined together to celebrate 70 years of the Cairngorm Group.
The directors, and long-term staff members joined together to celebrate 70 years of the Cairngorm Group.

Cairngorm Group is celebrating a very special anniversary this month: 70 years in business.

To mark the momentous occasion, the directors of the company and long-term members of staff came together for a celebratory lunch at the Drumossie Hotel to exchange stories of the past seven decades.

Of those gathered together on a sunny afternoon, was Alastair Dowling who joined the company in the 1950s to run the business with his father-in-law, the founder of the business.

Alastair recalled: “I left everything I knew to take a big risk and join my father-in-law with the business.

“I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I had a great teacher, and I was soon taught how to grind glass and how to run the business.

“It was very humble beginnings to start with, and the only running water in the building was the condensation on the windows! We had to gather our water from the river to fill up the kettle!”

Back then advertising was not what it is now, and the team had to take a slightly different method of market research to find out how best to get their name out there.

“Inverness was a lot more compact back then, and I decided we would get a few hundred leaflets and pay kids a couple of pounds to distribute them across the city to find out the best way to advertise”, said Alastair.

“We listed all the newspapers in the area, and we asked people which one they bought. We discovered that everyone bought the Inverness Courier except one.

“I was so intrigued to find out why this person didn’t buy it that I went to the door myself. I thanked him for filling in the questionnaire and asked him why he didn’t read the Courier.

“He said that he just borrowed it from his neighbour when he was finished with it! So we’ve advertised with the Inverness Courier ever since!”

One of the services that Cairngorm Group offered in the 1960s was to turn people’s glass bottles into lamps - very like the much-loved Harris Gin lamp today.

Alastair said: “All these people that came in to get their lamps made weren’t insignificant, as they were all potential new customers of the other services that we offered!”

When asked at the lunch if he expected that Cairngorm Group would still exist 70 years later, Alastair said: “No I didn’t! We had no luxuries back then and we only had one vehicle.

“I used to hear people say, ‘he will never make it’, but the biggest lesson I’ve learned is to not listen to unqualified opinions!

“You’ve got to rely on your own self-belief and determination and stick it out!”

Four generations were at the lunch. From left: David, Chris, Caleb, Alastair and Scott Dowling.
Four generations were at the lunch. From left: David, Chris, Caleb, Alastair and Scott Dowling.

Another of those present at the lunch was previous director, Alastair’s son, David Dowling. Having spent summers and holidays at the business, he was set on going into the family business.

David told: “I didn’t enjoy school and I had made up my mind that I wanted to leave at 16 and go into the family business!

“I joined when we had first started making our own windows with the frames, whereas before we would just supply the glass to a joiner.

“We also started double glazing in the 1970s, which was much better for the Highland weather! I helped do a lot of the houses that were at Nigg during the oil boom!”

There have been many ups and downs for the business over the years, with some particularly hard times for everyone involved.

“2008 was incredibly hard times,” said David, “people that would normally order from us, didn’t order anything at all, and it was a completely new challenge for us.

“But we have such an incredible team behind us, who have so much experience and have helped get us where we are today.”

David Dowling. Picture: Callum Mackay
David Dowling. Picture: Callum Mackay

The current directors at the helm of Cairngorm Group include David’s sons, Scott and Chris, who both decided to follow in the footsteps of the previous generations.

Chris’ first day at work was after the 1994 World Cup final, where he was soon taken under the wings of the trained staff in the business.

He said: “I really wanted to just work my way from the bottom up, so I spent a bit of time getting bacon rolls for the boys!

“I remember my grandma telling me that I didn’t have to go into the business if I didn’t want to. But, I knew that I genuinely wanted to work at Cairngorm, and I’m so glad I did. It has opened a variety of doors for me, and I love all the different aspects of the role.”

Scott, however, decided to take another path first and tried his hands at a few different interests before going into the family business.

“I was never pressured into going into the family business and I tried a few other things first before coming into Cairngorm.

“I worked in a few other companies first, and I think that has given me a good grounding as to what it’s like to be an employee in other places.”

One of the many long-term members of staff present at the lunch was Graeme Smith. He has been with Cairngorm for over 41 years, after starting as an apprentice when he was 16 to now managing the store in Elgin.

For him working in a family led company has allowed him to have a voice. He said: “We are all genuinely valued at Cairngorm, and we are allowed to disagree with things if we want to.

“Everybody brings something different to the table at the business, and it is a great place to work.”

Donnie Mackay has been with the business for 26 and half years, and manages the sales team. Over this time he has been into over 27,000 houses in Inverness – sometimes even into the same house with a different set of owners!

He said: “I remember this one time I went round to someone’s house to chat to them about getting windows as they had booked in for an appointment.

“Much to my surprise, there were already two sales people there from different companies! The lady asked all of us to give our speeches, to see which one of us would be best!

“This one guy lost his nerve and just walked out – I ended up getting the sale!

“But generally, I find that local people like to buy from local suppliers. We make it, sell it, fit it and look after it for 10 years!”

There is an element of the business that the team at Cairngorm Group is particularly proud of: its community engagement.

This is something it has always been passionate about, starting back 70 years ago when it would give free straw out for local children’s pet rabbits, up until today, where it has Jennifer’s Fund.

Jennifer’s Fund was set up in memory of David’s daugther, and Chris and Scott’s sister, Jennifer McBurnie after they lost her to cancer at the age of 42 in 2021.

Jennifer’s Fund has been set up in memory of Jennifer McBurnie.
Jennifer’s Fund has been set up in memory of Jennifer McBurnie.

She was married to Adrian and had three children. Jennifer had worked in the family business during the school holidays as a teenager but chose a career as a Physiotherapist within the NHS.

One of Jennifers priorities in life was making memories with her family. To use her own words, she valued family time together more than having the latest toy or gadget.

To honour her memory, the Cairngorm Group have pledged a minimum of £10,000 per year into Jennifers Fund for groups or individuals.

David said: “Losing Jennifer is the hardest thing I have ever gone through.

“She was so passionate about experiences in life, and that is why we have created this fund in her honour.

“We want to give others the opportunity for different experiences in life that they may not have access to.”

Speaking about the type of applications they have received recently, Chris said: “We’ve had a lot of people apply for funding for feeding kids in the last batch of applications.

“It shows what is needed at the moment with everything that is going on.”

The lunch was also an occasion to celebrate David’s retirement and he was presented with a cake in the shape of his beloved motorhome at the do.

Picture: Callum Mackay..
Picture: Callum Mackay..

For the Cairngorm Group being able to provide the region with quality windows, conservatories, solar panels and doors, along with a variety of other services is a privilege and something the team hopes they can continue to do for the next 70 years and beyond.

Scott concluded: “We don’t take for granted what we do, each sale we make and the incredible staff that we have here.

“We are very proud of what we have achieved to date and we are so thankful for everyone’s support along the way.”

Cairngorm Group
Cairngorm Group

1 Longman Dr, Inverness IV1 1SU

T: 01463 238000

W: www.cairngormgroup.co.uk

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