We’re not going to give away Mary’s age, but it’s her birthday today. Suffice to say that she deserves a big round medal, having worked in the public eye in Islay for over 40 years.
Bruichladdich wouldn’t be the same place without her genuine friendliness and care for everyone, as regular customers will testify. This isn’t pure bias; even Whisky Magazine recognised her as an “Icon of Scotland Whisky” in 2014.
She started in the shop in 2003, under Ella Edgar – mega administrator of those early days, and mistress of the island’s Highland Dancing. Mary had to take round the tours. On her first tour she had three visitors, and on her second she had 17; some of them apparently still come back to Islay to this day. “Do you know anything about whisky?” she started, “Thank Goodness! Neither do I…” She says she said that on every tour for the first three months.
Before coming to Bruichladdich, Mary had worked in the museum – she has an interest in history and a great memory, and at the mini market in Bruichladdich, where the crowd she calls “the old worthies” would come in and tell stories that were so funny she had tears rolling down her face. Immediately after leaving school in 1978, three days after, she had started at the shop counter of the Creamery at Port Charlotte, selling its famous island cheese.
Shortly after joining Bruichladdich, with one of our first “Academy” groups, master distiller Jim mcEwan, and a rather young Adam Hannett
She describes herself as “ordinary clever” at school. Further education involved leaving Islay; she didn’t want to go away to break up the family group. Her dad and brother were the big figures when she was growing up, in the farmhouse on the ridge above Bruichladdich where her family had been since 1830. “All we did on the farm was work, work, work!” she says, but she has captured those times beautifully in some of the stories for young readers she has published. [see Amazon >] She attended Gorton Primary, now converted to a private house, a couple of miles from Bruichladdich before the turn off to the west coast. “Dad refused to let me walk to school – it had to be the school bus.” The bus was operated by the father of Douglas Clyne, who’s now also working at the distillery as our senior engineer. There was a sentry box at the end of the long farm track where they’d wait to be collected from, and “always a north wind when we were children.”
Her father Donald was a piper. He’d piped 160 dignitaries into lunch for the distillery’s centenary celebrations in 1981 when it was in the ownership of Invergordon Distillers. Donald and the farm’s horses – Darling, the most photogenic yet lazy one, Katie Beag “wee Katie”, and Lucy – were regular sights around the distillery until 1964 when malting on site stopped. They’d take the barley up from the puffers with the horse and cart to a block and tackle opposite the mash-house, for storing in one of the distillery’s two original barley lofts, which was known then as “Donald McGregor’s loft”. The kilns were still in the courtyard at that time. So when it came to malting, the men would walk up a gangway with the bags of steeped barley on their backs. “That’s why all the men were bandy!” says Mary. Her favourite ever dram is a 40 year old Bruichladdich from that era.
Bringing barley a-shore at Bruichladdich
Mary well remembers the grim situation locally at the end of the 1990s. Bruichladdich had been mothballed, the local shop, MacLeods at the end of the village which had sold everything from food to screwdrivers to a football, had been shut for 7 years. The creamery had been a big local employer, as well as centre of gravity for the island’s farming community; it closed in 2000. Budgie our stillman had worked there in the 1980s, many of our staff had passed through its ranks. Tina who heads up our gin bottling line had been there at the end. Arlene from the whisky bottling line recalls the cattle sale with the farmers weeping as they sold their dairy herds. Then, in 2001,“Thank Goodness, Bruichladdich re-opened.”
Since then, the distillery has been going from strength to strength, the staff numbers have more than doubled in the last decade to reach triple figures. And Mary, Budgie, Chrissie, Allan, Jonathan, are still here, keeping us right, telling us how it was when they hadn’t two pence to rub together for fixing the place. Our new generation of “worthies”.
Mary’s early-series “valinch”
From a seat at the front of the family farm, apparently you can look out and see the whole island. Mary says it’s her favourite spot, for its sense of peace. “The world problems could be solved in that seat, eventually. It’s a cracker.” Bring on the next decade. Slaìnte Mary.