Bruichladdich General Manager Duncan McGillivray retires on Friday 27th June 2014 following a career that spans more than 40 years in the distillery.
Duncan's part in the successful renaissance of Bruichladdich since it was purchased in a moribund state by a private consortium in 2000 and re-opened in 2001 has been absolutely fundamental. Everyone involved at the distillery is very aware of just how crucial his contribution has been and his selfless dedication to work, involving often extremely long hours in very difficult conditions, is legendary. His will be an impossible act to follow.
Duncan left school when still fourteen years old, starting work at Rockside Farm as an apprentice mechanic. Two and a half years later he moved to Aoradh at Gruinart in the north of Islay where he served his time with engineer Bob Erlie. The varied work at Aoradh fixing and maintaining everything from tractors through trucks and fishing boats was to serve him in good stead for the years to come.
On the 20th May 1974 Duncan came to Bruichladdich as a trainee stillman under Gilbert Carmichael. His engineering aptitude was soon being put to good use and he looks back with mixed feelings at the variety and scope of the tasks he had to perform. One of these was driving and maintaining the sixteen ton tipper truck, which he says was notoriously unreliable. It would carry the draff from two seven ton mashes to feed cattle on farms on the Rhinns of Islay, but the tipper part often did not work, requiring the load to be moved by hand with a shovel. Duncan even remembers the make and type of that truck (it was a Guy "Big J" 4T with a Leyland engine) and its number plate – UMS 616J...
Attitudes to work and health and safety were very different back then – and Duncan recalls the daily dram was still being dispensed at the distillery to all those who would take it. The jug that was used to hold the whisky is now on display in the still house – and the little copper cup from which the men drank is a poignant reminder of days gone by. It is inscribed "IMK 1971" which would have been the date that chief engineer Iain McKinnon originally made it...
Back in the 1970s the Customs and Excise had both an excise man and a "watcher" in the distillery full time, it being their job to monitor the output and to try to control the pilfering which was endemic. Duncan tells how the men would try ever more ingenious ways of syphoning off some of the precious spirit, and his stories from those days are eye-popping. Not that our future General Manager was ever involved in that sort of thing – but he does recall just how dramatically things changed once the system became one of self-regulation. The amount of spirit being 'lost' dropped dramatically.
Duncan can also recall the barley for the distillery being delivered in puffers, the little steam ships which moved the majority of cargo around the Western isles of Scotland prior to the arrival of the ro-ro ferries. Bags of Barley would be lifted off the puffers by crane and loaded onto the truck before being taken to the distillery and poured into an auger which lifted the grain up into the storage bins. The malted barley would come down through the Caledonian Canal from the maltings at Inverness – the same maltings we still use today.
Promoted to "Head Brewer" in 1978, Duncan is pleased that attitudes to distillery work have changed dramatically during his career. When he started, the jobs offered were not seen in a very positive light whereas now things are much better with the skills offered by the trade considered very desirable. This is due in major part to the massive increase in interest from whisky enthusiasts around the world – a development that Duncan has greatly enjoyed and has done much to promote.
Many things, some good, some bad, happened to Bruichladdich during the past 40 years, and this remarkable man has borne witness to most of them. Despite the setbacks, his optimism seems to know no bounds and he now looks back on even the dark days of closure from 1994 in a positive light. "Everything happens for a reason" he told me this morning – "and without that closure this great distillery would never have been purchased by Mark Reynier, Simon Coughlin and their partners." Without the challenge that the closure represented Jim McEwan would never have been tempted to cross the loch and weave his spiritual spells among the casks slumbering in the warehouses. Duncan is well aware of the part played by fate. The old machinery would most likely have been scrapped in the name of 'modernisation' or 'efficiency' and one of the greatest distillery stories of modern times would never have seen the light of day.
The new regime was a breath of fresh air and brought hitherto undreamed of freedom of expression and opportunity to those who joined it. Making it happen was a struggle however. Many people are probably not aware of just how tiny the budget Duncan had to work with was - or the extent to which he was forced to improvise. Everything had to be done on a shoestring with mostly second hand equipment, and we must never forget the extraordinary dedication of the man whose engineering brilliance coaxed this ancient institution back into life.
Everyone wishes Duncan all the very best for a long and happy retirement, although some of us are hopeful that he will continue to help us with the distillery academy and other projects. We trust that he will be able to spare us a little bit of time in between entertaining his grandchildren - and restoring a growing fleet of vintage trucks and tractors....
Paying tribute to his friend and colleague, Bruichladdich CEO Simon Coughlin said: "Duncan's experience and quiet determination have been a central pillar in the renaissance of Bruichladdich. His ability to innovate and improvise in the face of seemingly impossible engineering challenges, combined with an extraordinary work ethic, have been an inspiration to us all from the beginning. We could not have done it without him.
"While we wish Duncan a long and happy retirement at home in Port Charlotte we trust that he will not mind if we continue to tap his extraordinary knowledge and call on his skills as a great ambassador and Laddie icon."