Gordon is one of six kids. He grew up on Esknish, a dairy farm, that lies near Ballygrant on the north of the island. He now lives in Keills with long-suffering wife, Sam. He talks about their brief romance before she moved away to study at university on the mainland.
“We were childhood sweethearts and then she moved away to study. She came back and hunted me down, couldn’t live without me… I didn’t want to move away from Islay but I knew if I didn’t get a decent job, we’d have to move away. Then I got the job at Brucihladdich so we stayed.
“Sam works at the leisure centre as the finance manager. She studied finance, investment and risk… the risk was clearly me. She took a risk and it paid off. She had an honours degree in the husband that she picked.”
Esknish was one of the longest running dairy farms on the island before it closed a few years back. The industry-crippling price of supermarket bought milk put an end to the dairy part of the business, that totalled 80 heads. Gordon mentions that when the creamery shut back in 2000, most of the island’s farmers diversified further into rearing cattle.
“It was hard-work growing up on the farm. We were doing the milk runs as soon as we were able to but we were so free, more so being on the farm, we’d run about the fields crazy, not a care in the world. It’s the same now on a night out in Port Ellen, reliving my youth.
“It was good having a big family, having older brothers and sisters, I was the youngest and then my sister came along and she ruined it. My older brothers made me who I am today, they would always play football with me, you would try and be as good as them.”
On the MacDougall accidental nature
Having run a successful dairy for many years, the MacDougall’s became familiar faces the island over. Their notoriety in dairy farming was almost certainly overtaken by tales of harmless disaster.
“There were a lot of us in the back of the pickup. Dad was in the field, chasing the cows in. I thought I’ll go and help, so I jumped out the back and fell, landed under the wheel and (not-naming-names) someone drove over me. My sister Rhona was shouting ‘hang on’ and in mass-confusion, the driver put it in reverse and went back over me. Not a word of a lie.
“Another time, we were doing the milk run out the back of the van down Caol Ila way. So I’m in the back and Neil goes round the corner quickly and I fall out the back. So I’m lying in the whin bushes with milk bottles around me and he doesn’t even notice I’m there, carries on down to Caol Ila. By the time he gets down there, I’ve walked down to the next house at the top because I had cut my hand. By the time he gets round, I’m already in the house and he thinks I’ve disappeared off the face of the earth. So he drives home to my mum, panicking ‘I’ve lost Gordon on the milk run’.”
Those were the good old days when the milk bottles were glass with the cream on top. Locals left money in jars outside their house for the boys to collect. The modern-day equivalent of this honesty system still works around the island with fresh farm eggs and the occasional cake box.
“I started off mashing for 2 years, moved to stills for three, then this job came up last year, I applied for it and got it… and today is today. I actually applied here a year before I started working here and didn’t get it. Allan then came and asked me if I would join because we’d increased production once Remy took over. They needed two more shiftmen and I was one of them. So I started at the same time as Graham Kirk who was working in the bottling hall.
“When I first started, Duncan (McGillivray, then distillery manager/engineer) found out I needed a car through Hoppy, who was mashing at the time. He was selling his van, an old beat up thing. He told me to make an offer, and I just said ‘no, how much do you want for it’ and he said £50. So I drove that van for a whole year, before it failed its MOT.” Best. Bargain. Ever.
“I don’t think I’d work for anyone else on the island. There are other good distilleries here but I feel well looked after. You’re not just a number down here, I feel a bit more appreciated.”
On his new management role
“Weirdly enough, it’s easier than I thought it would be. Working with the boys, I know them well and there’s only six of us, so it’s a small team and they’re really decent with me. I wouldn’t say they’ve made my job easy (laughs) but they’ve not made it hard either.
(At 32) “I’m younger than the men I manage, but I don’t look at myself as a manager, they’re not MY workers, it’s just a title at the end of the day. I’ve just got a job to do, it’s not about being on a high-horse about it.”
On Islay and the golden fields of Bruichladdich
“I think it’s the best place in the world to live, I LOVE it here. It’s going to get busier, you can see it now. You used to get that wee change from Feis week to summer but it’s been mayhem, right through.
“There will be more which is good for the island and there will be more golden fields of Bruichladdich. You hardly saw a barley field growing up on Islay, unless it was for feed barley, but it you stand now and look across Loch Indaal, come August time, there will be golden fields everywhere. It changes the colour of the place, do you not think?
“I’m still at my dad to get onto it, but he’s stubborn and stuck in his old ways.”