Everyone knows that as a race us Scots tend towards a less serious approach to life; even when dealing with the big issues, we’re happiest when dishing out self-deprecating humour and poking fun our fellow countrymen. This glorious ethos may seem strange to other nations but it has stood us in great stead and allowed our wee country to make a big mark on the world stage. We’re less about the high fives and ‘Go Team’ cheerleading and more about the shoulder punch and ‘Nae Limits’ attitude. Happy in our own skin and emphatic in the use of the guid Scots tongue.
Right here in Perthshire, we have the embodiment of this very approach wrapped up in a world-class adventure company; John Mason-Strang is the man behind Nae Limits, the white-water rafting, river tubing, cliff jumping business that gives thousands of people, hundreds of action-packed reasons to flock to Perthshire every year. Such is their appeal that it’s highly likely you yourself may have cruised down the rapids at Grandtully on a Nae Limits raft. And if you haven’t done it yet, I promise you’ll be inspired into booking up by the end of this story!
We’ll go back to John’s life pre-Nae Limits, when he spent his time coming down the side of a mountain rather than crashing through the rapids of a river. His love of outdoors adventure sports started on the mountainside at the age of twelve when he went skiing with the cadets. A boy from Blairgowrie, he was never really kitted out properly and would spend days in the snowy Scottish Highlands in nothing but jeans and an old wax jacket. (This photo is MUCH later!)
He loved it instantly and went at it in this gung-ho carefree manner until his natural talent was spotted. He was skiing for Scotland at national level and competing freestyle both here and in the pro-ams abroad but realised that this would never fill his entire year. Looking for something that would fill his summer months and keep his outdoor spirit happy he ended up back at college, learning the skills that would set up his life.
“I decided to do an HNC in Outdoor Education and from there I headed abroad, doing a bit of travelling while working with various rafting companies. That’s when the bug for river side of things really took off. When I came back to Scotland I went to Dundee College to study further and from there I moved onto Croft Na Caber on Loch Tay and then to Free Spirits.
The guy that owned Free Spirits was also the coach for the Scottish White Water Rafting Team and while I was there working as a raft guide I ended up on joining them and competing for Scotland again, this time on the river. We were good, we ended up in the Eurpoean Championships and were heading for the Worlds in the United States when 9/11 struck and we didn’t go.
Anyway, at the same time as this was going on my pal Jonny MacLaren had started up a wee river rafting company called Nae Limits. That was back in 1999, and to be honest, when he told me the name of his business I thought it was rubbish. In fact I told him he was an idiot. He worked out the back of the car at Grandtully car park and occasionally, if he was busy, I’d give him a hand.”
Jonny ran Nae Limits for about twelve months but when his girlfriend fell pregnant he decided to sell up. During this time John had met Kate (his now wife) during a rafting exercise for a Corporate Team Building Event; at the time she worked for a Financial Institution based in London.
“It was Kate who talked me into looking seriously at Jonny’s business and her who eventually prodded me into going for it. The only problem was we needed seven grand and I barely had seven quid so it was a bank loan that got off us the ground and helped start Nae Limits properly. I bought four 2-man rubber boats, a dozen wetsuits, a dozen helmets and the name I had told him was rubbish!”
Setting up as competition, John then left Free Spirits to work on his own business and he’d drop off leaflets round the hotels and timeshares in Aberfeldy and Highland Perthshire, picking up maybe two or three parties a week. Some weekends there’d be nothing at all and so he supplemented his income with a job in Dundee as an Outdoor Ed Teacher. Balerno School was home to disruptive boys and John was privy to the details of the crimes and lives of the boys in his care.
“Balerno taught me a lot; I’d read the files in depth and understood what had happened in these kids’ lives. I found I developed more empathy than I ever had before and over the three years I was there I had a very real and personal education.
Nae Limits was ticking away fine but wasn’t enough for me to leave my main job. It was a couple of years later when another friend decided to sell up and get married that we saw an opportunity to grow. Watergators in Alyth was the full set up with a minibus, proper rafts and about fifty wetsuits. While I was sitting going ‘I wonder if we could?’ Kate got paid off and it became ‘Right, we’re doing it!’ She bought Watergators with her redundancy and we pulled both businesses together.”
This was about 2002 and the business moved from doing just rafting to canyoning, gorge walking, cliff jumping and some winter stuff. At this point they were still mobile, meeting people at the river and carrying all the kit with them. As things grew though, they quickly ran out of space and working out of their home garage and a minibus began to feel ridiculous.
They took the plunge and moved to Dunkeld into an office and shop in the square and a hut on the river by the Atholl Hotel Gardens. That’s when it really took off for John and Kate. Previously, you wouldn’t have known about Nae Limits unless you were into that sort of outdoors activity. Now there were people moving around Dunkeld in wetsuits and piles of rafts lying at the side of the river. In the shop, they secured sponsorship from Smith Sunglasses and Chiemsee Clothing people could now buy products alongside their experience.
If you were to draw a graph representing the growth of Nae Limits it would look like a spike at this point. It went from John, with the occasional hand from his pals, to five staff guides and three office staff in about 24 months.
“Occasionally I’d pause and just think ‘look at what’s happening’! We loved it. Rafting’s not an everyday job like a joiner or an accountant where you can train and then go and work for just anyone. We had something special and I know that we made it because everyone involved understood that. There was passion running through all of us. We’d sit round at the end of the night at Dunkeld, having a beer or a BBQ and I knew every single person there cared about Nae Limits like I did.
I love the river; you need to want to do this all the time and I’ve always looked for people like that to work with us. If you get it right, then that enthusiasm will roll off into the customers and everyone will have a great time. We’ve been lucky; we’ve had some great employees since the start.”
As a wee aside, John and I are sitting in front of the wood burner in Rivers Meet, their new café, while he tells me all this. I’ve met other company directors, spoken to men and women who have built up great success stories from nothing and so when I say there is nothing about him that suggests he is the man who steered this wee rubber raft of a business into greatness, I mean it in the kindest sense.
He is warm and welcoming, dog at his feet being moved every now and then while he sticks another log on the fire. Kate comes in, Nicki comes over and you get a very real sense of a company that has grown not in spite of doing things differently, but because it did things differently. It may very well run like a well-oiled machine behind the scenes (and I’m sure it must) but on the face of it, it has a carefree warmth and a genuine sense of decent folk wanting to make sure you enjoy yourself in their company.
He explains that of course there is a time to be serious, and a business built on adrenalin and thrills must have its systems and processes in place. However, they have worked hard to ensure it never becomes too corporate or too clinical and always remains true to their belief that people will work well when they love what they do.
“I can train anyone into getting the bits of paper that they need if they have a passion for this. Number one on my list is ‘Can I be your friend? Will you share my love of a great experience?’ I can usually tell that within ten minutes of meeting someone. We’ve had people come in on a corporate day from offices in Edinburgh, and then go off to train so they can come back and work with us at weekends. Whenever that happens I’m always reminded of how lucky I am to do what I do.
Well, I say lucky. I do believe you make your own luck by working towards what you love. I’ve never once woke up and thought I should be somewhere else.”
Back to the story! After three or four years in Dunkeld it was time to expand again and this time they headed north to the old motor cycles parts building at Ballinluig. Suddenly they had a giant sign on the motorway and they began to see big changes. It started to feel as though people knew who they were.
“We were over in Australia on holiday and we’d say to people what we do and they’d say ‘Oh we know Nae Limits’. It was amazing. We knew then that we were doing something right. Visit Scotland approached us to become a case study and we became part of the team that created the Industry Standards for their activities centre grading system. Then a government tourism committee asked what we’d change in Adventure Sport in Scotland. People wanted OUR opinion because we were seen as being leaders in what we were doing.”
I am curious, of course, as to his answer. What would he change?
“Same thing I’ve always said. When we were travelling round Australia and New Zealand we arrived at Christchurch Airport and there were big images of everything we could do in NZ. It made it feel accessible. As soon as we arrived at one attraction they were telling us about another – customer rugby we called it. In Scotland we still suffer a wee bit from a Clan mentality when in actual fact, the experience of a tourist or visitor needs to be shared.
Things are a bit better since then and you can see areas and businesses promoting each other. Scotland is about far more than Edinburgh castle and Loch Lomond nowadays!”
John tells me that while about 70% of their customers are Scottish, they get their fair share from South of the border and a large number of international visitors. That Scottish name wasn’t so idiotic after all it seems!
“I maybe did get that one wrong. We encourage our team to use Scottish phrases and chat in a very casual vocabulary. Sometimes we need to explain what ‘dinnae be daft’ means but that’s all part of the fun!”
In May this year they moved to their new premises, just along the road, at the old garden centre at Ballinluig and with this inherited a café and massive undercover terrace. This new addition to the Nae Limits experience has been part of the plan for a long time, with aspirations to give people a more rounded experience, some top-notch Scottish hospitality and the opportunity to sell retail again.
“Dunkeld gave us more than we’d realised with the retail and with the space we have now we can do it again properly. We’ve also got plans for onsite activities where you won’t need to get in a bus or put on a wetsuit to enjoy a Nae Limits experience.
We’ve tried to go at this before but never quite had enough control to do it right. We rented a log cabin and did accommodation, bar, home cooking, log fires… the concept was flawless but the building was forty years old and came with all sorts of headaches. In the head rush of ‘this will be amazing’ we were a bit naïve.
You can’t cut corners on that sort of thing and with damp rooms and broken floor boards it needed lots of ongoing maintenance – unfortunately the landlord didn’t have quite the same standards as us! Come the first exit clause in the lease, we were out. It was disheartening and frustrating but sometimes you need to go through these things.
This time, we don’t have the accommodation but we do have the hospitality with the café we’ve plans next year for an outdoor eating area and BBQ and we’ll bring in live music for events and parties. We’re also going to introduce a climbing tower, a zipline and maybe archery. It’ll be brilliant.”
It seems there is no end to the ideas and this year, the creation of Wee Limits has opened up their customer base to a whole new generation. Inspired by his two youngest boys who are ten and six, the Wee Limits camps came about after the boys started telling their pals what they’d been up to at the weekend!
“I’ve got two older kids who are 25 and 23 and the two wee ones. All four of them have been skiing since they could stand and rafting and canyoning from a young age. I started chatting to parents at the school gates and they were asking me when we were planning to do some proper kids activities.
We spoke to the kids to see what they wanted and so we’ve had groups out swimming in the river, building fires, tying knots and cooking outside. My eldest son works in the business and he’s developed this whole thing to suit his wee brothers.
He was a skier, it’s in the blood, and did three seasons in Austria. This year he’s heading out to Australia to live and work with a raft guide that used to work with us. He’ll get a bit of experience, new ideas and then come back and apply it here. It’ll give us another new lease of life.”
Among all of this, John has held a rafting franchise in Spain and was part of the original team who set up the Highland Fling bungee in Killiecrankie. (Having got permits and licenses moving on Scotland’s first purpose built bungee jump, he sold his share to concentrate on Nae Limits.)
Over the years he has built a solid reputation in the local and national arena of Adventure Sports and yet he tells me the only really clever thing he’s done is to surround himself with people who are better at the business stuff than he is.
“That way, I can let them get on with that side and I can get out on a raft”.
You get the feeling this is a business without hierarchy; there are no egos are stake here, no need for John to be top dog. He just wants to carry on doing what he loves; rafting on his days off and eventually skiing 365 days of the year if he can!
“It is an ache, an addiction. That natural high you get when you challenge yourself on a river or a mountain, it’s hard not to chase that. Even now, my enthusiasm is the same as it always was. My only concern is that my body might give up on me at some point!”
Looking for a perfect adventure style gift? Visit the Nae Limits listing in the Small City Directory Here.