October 2017 – and it’s farewell to Islay

Twenty seven years, almost a third of our lives was spent in the Hebrides. The tiny island of Colonsay was our first Hebridean home and the larger island of Islay our last. From those bases we had holidays on almost every inhabited Hebridean island and we have memories and photographs aplenty. The islands inspired my three children’s novels as well as the poems in my two poetry collections. And, through Richard’s botanical knowledge, it brought us work with Bruichladdich Distillery in the development and production of The Botanist Islay Dry Gin.

Our last visit to the distillery was full of surprises as we were presented with a special bottling of The Botanist, and a Quaich engraved with – In gratitude of everything you have done for The Botanist and Bruichladdich Distillery.

Colleagues gathered to wish us well in our new venture and to share the most delicious cake decorated with a life-size bottle of The Botanist.

And an article about our involvement appeared on The Botanist website along with several photographs.

https://www.thebotanist.com/articles/richard-and-mavis-retire

We enjoyed a very splendid cake last week, beautifully baked by Katie to mark the retirement of our botanical scientists Dr Richard and Mavis Gulliver. Richard and Mavis have been an integral part of The Botanist story since the inception and creation of our first, and still only, Islay Dry Gin. They started working with Jim McEwan over a decade ago, when the husband and wife team introduced our then master distiller to a range of local botanicals which they had hand-picked from the woods, marshes, hills and hedgerows of our remote Hebridean island home. Jim was then able to systematically assess them for flavour and aroma before selecting the iconic 22 which would go on to provide the floral ‘top notes’, the island melody that overlays The Botanist’s rhythm section of nine core berries, barks, seeds and peels.

Their involvement did not stop there of course. Richard and Mavis then went on to shoulder the very considerable responsibility of ensuring that we had the botanicals available for ongoing distillations. This required enormous dedication coupled with a high level of organisation and local knowledge, because suitable quantities of the 22 need to be collected over an entire growing season. This can start in late March/April if gorse flowers earlier than May/ June when it is more usually at its spectacular best. Honeyed heather and aromatic bog myrtle complete the picking process in August and September.

Picking the botanicals is only part of the story however, because the whole process is both involved and time consuming. Following their collection, in the correct proportions and with due regard to obtaining them in optimum condition, the delicate plants have to be carefully dried, or tinctured in some cases, to preserve their individual characters.

Richard and Mavis have a profound love of the countryside and the diverse community of wild plants that form such an integral part of it. Conservation and the principles of sustainability are central to everything they do – and this is of course reflected in their responsible foraging of our botanicals. They ensured that none of the 22 we use are threatened in any way, with most being positively abundant here on Islay. The one exception is Islay juniper, a small, prostrate shrub which is quite rare. Only symbolic amounts of this are used in The Botanist and, instigated by Richard and Mavis, a re-introduction scheme has been under way which has seen planting of young junipers in suitable locations on Islay. This will continue into the future as we are preparing to introduce juniper plants grown from cuttings, propagated by the botanists, into what we hope will prove to be suitable locations on distillery ground.

Richard and Mavis were also directors and guiding lights of The Botanist Foundation, the Community Interest Company set up to ensure that the harvest of Islay botanicals continues in a sustainable way – and also that the wider community should be able to benefit from it. The Foundation supports a number of conservation organisations including the local Islay Natural History Trust with its biological records database, and the national charity Plantlife. It is also supporting a survey of insect pollinators on Islay which we hope will one day help with the reintroduction of native wild Black Bees to the island. The Foundation is also particularly pleased to be able to provide a bursary to assist young people who wish to pursue further education on the mainland. Richard and Mavis’ guidance and practical assistance with this work will be sorely missed.

The couple moved permanently to Islay 23 years ago, after having spent a number of years living on Colonsay, an Inner Hebridean island that is even more remote and difficult to access than our own. Richard was conducting his environmental consultancy work from there while Mavis was teaching at the tiny local school. One legacy of their time on Colonsay was an important long-term study of a rare wild orchid, the beautiful Irish Lady’s-tresses, which occurs sporadically in the west of Scotland, often in short-lived populations.

On Islay, and when not out picking botanicals, Mavis was able to devote a little more time to her writing and poetry. You can find out more here or follow her blog chronicling their move and changes in the natural history of her surroundings. Their new home will be in Shropshire in an idyllic rural location with the Reabrook meandering through the garden which contrasts markedly with their seaside location on Islay. Gardening is a big part of Richard and Mavis’ life, and the space they leave behind on Islay is a wonder to behold, with over 200 species of plant making it their home. Their new garden in Shropshire will be a softer, but no less interesting environment and Mavis freely admits that she will not miss the endless battles with wind driven salt spray that can be heart breaking for Hebridean horticulturists.

Our new botanist here at the distillery is James Donaldson who joined us in the spring and has been working with Richard and Mavis for a whole foraging season. Originally from Muirdrum in Angus, James has a degree in botany and a lively interest in all things botanical. He really appreciates Richard and Mavis’ “Generous and gracious provision of time and knowledge” while they have been working together. This has made the transition as smooth as possible.

May we add our own sincere thanks and very best wishes for a long and fulfilling ‘retirement’ if that be the right word in these circumstances. It is hard to think of Richard and Mavis slowing down much, let alone stopping. In any event, we hope they will now find more time to spend with family and grandchildren, and we feel sure that their new location will be both inspirational and rewarding. Slainte!

It was with mixed feelings that we boarded the ferry for the last time.  Eight trips with the car loaded to the roof meant that the final move was less onerous than it could have been. Bringing Leo, our cat, on the final 14-hour journey was a concern but he behaved perfectly and has adapted to his new home with surprising speed. He spends more time out of doors, climbs trees and sits on the terrace apparently engrossed in the view of our sloping garden.

So, we are settling into a new life and making the most of all the opportunities that present themselves. We’ve already been to Theatre Severn and to the local Drama Group productions and Mavis has joined the WI, U3A and Shropshire Poets. We’ve both joined the Shropshire Badger Group and have plans to join the Mary Webb Society.

The garden outbuildings need replacing but the surrounding trees and large variety of shrubs are a delight. We brought lots of plants with us and are hoping that snowdrops brought from Carraig Mhor will soon make an appearance. Grey squirrels occasionally venture into the garden but we’ve installed several squirrel-proof bird feeders in addition to one which they can access. Already we are having regular visits from nuthatches as well as blue and coal tits. The brook at the bottom of the garden is a constant source of delight. The oak trees are laden with acorns and  and the hedgerows are bright with the berries of Black Bryony.