The first item in a new mini series on notable characters in the Scotch whisky history starts with Bessie Williamson who was the first female owner of a scottish distillery and the last independent owner of Laphroaig.
Bessie was born in 1910 in Glasgow and in 1927 went to Glasgow University to study General Arts which she graduated from in 1933. Bessie ended up on Islay and working in the Laphroaig distillery after applying for a temporary position as a short-hand typist after being told about the position by a friend who holidayed on the island.
Between 1933 and 1938 when the owner Ian Hunter had a stroke Bessie would take on more and more of the management responsibility of the distillery. It is not known why Bessie was given these promotions and entrusted with the distillery but it is widely accepted Bessie was a clever woman with natural leadership abilities.
During World War II Laphroiag like most distilleries was closed due to the war effort and in fact the distillery was used as a ammo store and barracks for troops but by the end of the war Bessie would be in complete day to day control of the facility. She got complete ownership in Ian Hunter’s will in 1954 when he sadly died.
Bessie ran Laphroaig well for many years and developed into a celebrity within the industry and on the island. She spent a lot of time travelling the word and doing some radio and TV work. There is still a few films in existence which she appeared in.
In the below film Bessie is discussing the whisky industry and states that Islay is most suitable for blending and few people enjoy the taste of Islay whisky purely on its own. She also mentions that the demand for her companies product is very high and lastly that bottling on the island would be too expensive and uneconomical. How times have changed!
In the film she is referred to as Mrs Campbell as she was by this time married to Wishart Campbell who she met while on a trip to Canada with work. Wishart was originally from Islay and the two married and lived on the island together. While Wishart appears not to have been trusted by the locals on the island they did have a long and apparently happy marriage together for the rest of her life.
In 1968 for the Jubilee of the Scottish Women’s Rural Institutes there was a competition in local history and a number of essays were written about the Isle of Islay. Bessie under the name Mrs Wishart Campbell wrote a lengthy and interesting essay on the Kildalton region of the islay where the Laphroaig distillery is and where she lived. The complete essay is available to read on the IslayInfo website here.
By this point the distillery business had been completely sold off to Long John Distilleries after Bessie knew she could not afford to finance the investment required in the business. Bessie continued on as managing director of the distillery and had a place on the board of the parent company. Eventually in 1972 Bessie would retire and live in a house above the distillery until her death in 1982.
Laphroaig distillery is now owned by Beam Suntory and continues to show a lot of growth and cult following internationally which is a trait started by Bessie over 50 years ago.