Mary’s Field

13th September 2021 / by Jane Carswell

Many of you who have visited the Laddie Shop or bought your whisky over the phone will have encountered the asset that is Mary McGregor. She has been with Bruichladdich since 2003, having grown up in the distillery’s shadow, but this year there’s a new angle to the connection. She is looking to become one of our newest barley suppliers. Here’s a quick Q and A about her experiences. Thanks for sharing, Mary!

Tell us how you got your field?

I remembered years ago; Mark Reynier had wanted our farm to grow barley for Bruichladdich, and ever since then, I have been trying to persuade my brother to grow a field of barley. Then, on my special big birthday last November, he surprised me with the beautiful gift of a field so that I could grow barley for Bruichladdich myself!

I was and am beyond excited and thoroughly enjoying the experience. The field is just by our little local church on the road down to Port Charlotte.

What did you have to do in preparation for planting?

Of course, not having grown anything in the field for more years than I can remember, we had to do it from scratch!

The first job was drainage, so we dug a great big ditch and filled it with shells.

With such a long, harsh winter this year, we were last in line to get it ploughed and prepared for drilling. We ended up getting it all done in the snow –  more than a month after the first farmer had sowed his – but in the growing seasons, it has caught up fine!

What have you learnt about seeds and malting barley, specifically?

We had to do a lot of research on which barley type would suit the field we are using. First, we got the soil analysed as to which barley would suit the ground best. I ended up choosing the variety called Sassy, a relatively new strain of barley and of course, I love the name!

Unbeknown to me at the time, there were a few different procedures for this type of barley, but as you can see, it is growing well.

It is pretty amazing watching it come on, especially with the hard start in life it had to endure weather-wise. But, when I walk through the crop, I feel it is like another family member and feel so proud of it.

Has anything affected the crop so far?

I have to say; I barely had a more challenging time growing here on Islay than I had imagined. I have mentioned the weather seemed to be against us for the first couple of months. The dry, warm summer we have had has been a bonus; I feel you can almost watch it grow! However, we have had lots of negative factors to endure…

First off, the migratory geese had a go at it before they flew out for the summer; I guess we will get them towards the tail-end coming back as well.

Lots of crows and other birds, in fact so much so, I can honestly say I have never seen (or fed) so many different varieties of birds! We made three scarecrows to try to chase them, but quite a few folks have admired my scarecrows and have told me they are not scary enough to chase the birds away!

Then once dusk starts to fall, the wild red deer come in and get a belly full as well. So you can see the strip they eat each night which now reaches almost a quarter of the way into the field, so just the stalks left with no barley left on the stalks.

So it’s a struggle! Good, but a battle.

What's it like with the other farmers?

I feel like we’ve had island-wide help. The other farmers are giving me so much encouragement and constructive advice, which is so kind that I take every word on board. When I am up in the field, I often see a car stop with someone coming out to have a look and quite often, it is a local farmer or two.

I’m growing my barley field for Bruichladdich in memory of Ian McKerrell, who we sadly lost last year before starting my barley adventure. He enjoyed growing barley for Bruichladdich and treated me almost like another daughter; he would have been so proud that I was growing barley too. I was always teasing him but had the utmost respect and affection for this remarkable man, so this crop is for him.

How did the harvest go?

We harvested yesterday. It was great, considering it was my first year! Of course, it’s only 10 acres, but it’s a start.

We don’t have our combine harvester or seed drill, so Fraser Woodrow did our contracting. He has his fields too, by Bowmore. Scott Woodrow is a brilliant help all around; he is a relation of our tanker driver Stewart at the distillery and an in-law of Budgie the Stillman’s. And the combined driver Willie Angus, is the partner of Chrissie, who has worked at Bruichladdich ever since it reopened.

My brother Donald was overseeing things too for me, so a real team effort! We were baling straw until midnight – I loved every second of it.

Bruichladdich Distillery
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