News

Pioneer Photos

By Rob Allanson
She blazed a trail that many women in whisky have followed, but a chance discovery has shed more light on a woman who is still a legend in the whisky world.These previously unseen photographs offer a unique window in to the life and times of one of the first ladies of Scotland’s whisky industry - Bessie Williamson of Laphroaig.The images were unearthed among the many photographs, recipes, brewing books, bottles and cans held by the Scottish Brewing Archive at Glasgow University.“It was a twist of fate, that these photographs ended up in our collection,” explained Iain Russell, archivist of the Scottish Brewing Archive and an expert in the history Scottish drinks industry, “but when I found them, I realised that I was looking at images of the most famous woman in the whisky business, a female distiller who is still revered today.“Women have recently taken many senior positions in distillery management in Scotland, but rather than forging new paths they are following in the steps of this redoubtable pioneer.” The photographs found in the Archive capture many aspects of everyday life at the distillery and on Islay from the 1920s until the 1960s – from making and shipping out the whisky to picnics and ceilidhs in the local hall.“Many of the people in the photographs are unknown to us, but the images of Bessie stand out,” commented Iain.“She is mentioned on many whisky websites but often with contradictory information about her life. So we are trying to establish the known facts of her life and career.” Help was on hand for Iain when he discovered that she was a graduate from the University of Glasgow and his colleagues in Glasgow University Archive Services were able to provide details of her early life.Bessie was born around 1910, the daughter of a clerk, and in 1927 she went to the University of Glasgow to study Languages.She graduated in 1932 with a MA degree, intending to become a teacher.However, Bessie and a friend visited Islay after her graduation, saw an advert for a secretary to the distillery owner Ian Hunter, and stayed on for the rest of her life.She learnt the art of making whisky from Mr Hunter and within six years she was appointed distillery manager.When Hunter died in 1954, she inherited the business lock, stock and barrels.Bessie remained single until, in her early 1950s, she fell for the charms of a Canadian singer, Wishart Campbell (1905-1983), five years her senior. Campbell had been born in Islay but his family emigrated when he was a boy.He made a name for himself as a singer and radio personality, styling himself ‘The Golden Voice of the Air.’ They were married in 1961 and made their home on Islay.“Scotch whisky in general and Islays in particular have an undeservedly masculine image,” says Iain.“These images of Bessie serve as a useful reminder of the feminine side of the industry.” The Scottish Brewing Archive is keen to have the photographs as fully identified as possible and is seeking assistance from anyone who can help in this matter.“There must be a number of people who can remember Bessie Williamson and the Laphroaig workforce from 60-70 years ago”, commented Iain, “ I do hope that they will hear of our work and get in touch.” If you can help with the work of the archive please contact I.Russell@archives.gla.ac.uk.