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Small business focus: North retailer Andy Johnston reveals ‘great debt’ to pop icon Madonna

Andy Johnston, taking a break from the hustle and bustle of retail life.

Each week we ask small businesses key questions. Here we speak to retail boss Andy Johnston, of The Jail and Country Interiors in Dornoch.

How and why did you start in business?

As one of five children of farmers in the Yorkshire Dales, the countryside is in my blood. After leaving school in Scotland, I spent three years at the Royal Agriculture College in Cirencester studying rural estate management.

On graduating, I didn’t fancy becoming an estate agent so, with a £500 overdraft facility at the Midland Bank and an 18% interest rate, I set myself up as a fencing and forestry contractor.

I then returned to the Dales to both manage the farm and my thriving contracting business.

Waymarked paths in the Yorkshire Dales.

But with four siblings and not enough for us all to do on the farm, I decided to move on.

I have always loved the north of Scotland, so bought Mullardoch Lodge in Glen Cannich to run it as a base for sportsmen and women.

Lochcarron then decided to sell The Jail in Dornoch and I saw an opportunity, buying it in 2000. I wasn’t sure how I was going to develop it but I knew it was right for me.

How did you get to where you are today?

After conversations with a number of people whose experience and judgement I trust I decided The Jail would sell quality products at sensible prices, and that we’d have something for everyone.

I also bought the old post office across the road as an extension of The Jail, naming it Country Interiors.

More recently, I’ve started operating a Jail Dornoch shop at Inverness Airport.

We upgraded The Jail and then, eight months after I’d taken over, Madonna hit town.

My business and Dornoch as a whole owe a great debt to that lady. She married at Skibo Castle and had her son baptised in Dornoch Cathedral.

Madonna arrives at Dornoch Cathedral in Sutherland, in December 2000, for the christening of her son, Rocco.

It’s amazing how over the years what was a few fleeting days in her life has put countless millions into the local economy.

I suppose I got where I am today through hard work and, I think, commonsense and a good bit of luck along the way.

But business is all about people and I’ve been really fortunate to employ a great team. I am very grateful to them all.

Who helped you?

I love meeting enthusiastic and passionate people – after spending time in their company all I want to do is go out and do great things.

James Sugden, formally chief executive at Johnstons of Elgin, is one of them and it’s great to see his son and daughter-in-law, John and Nicola, carrying on that ethos now.

Clydesdale Bank was very helpful over the years, and membership of the Federation of Small Businesses allows me to access a wide range of help and support as and when I need it.

Last but not least, I’m particularly grateful for the support we receive from locals who regularly shop at both the Jail and Country Interiors.

What has been your biggest mistake?

Too many to choose from.

What is your greatest achievement?

Buying The Jail.

If you were in power in government, what would you change?


What do you still hope to achieve?

Fully rebuild my business post-Covid. Thanks to the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, we managed to keep all staff on, but what with enforced closures and travel bans we suffered our first annual downturn since we opened 21 years ago.

Our Inverness Airport shop has been particularly badly hit by the lack of flights and flyers, but the airport has been very supportive.

What do you do to relax?

Not always relaxing, but I love sailing a classic wooden yacht off the west coast.

What are you currently reading, listening to or glued to on TV?

I’m reading – again – Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy.

What do you waste your money on?

A wooden boat and horses, but to be fair nothing is really wasted if it brings you contentment.

How would your friends describe you?

Goodness knows.

What would your enemies say about you?

I dread to think.

What do you drive and dream of driving?

I drive a 10-year-old Land Rover Discovery workhorse – it does the job and who needs more?

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