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Desk Research

Stories from the 'Lagavulin Desk'

It’s only a little plaque. Yet it tells such a long story. It’s the story of a dynasty, and its role in the growth of Lagavulin. It sits on a Georgian desk, more handsome than elegant, and it records the names of the partners who sat at it, for over a hundred years.

Today, this imposing desk can be found, much loved and cared for, in the Diageo Archives at Menstrie. A picture of one of its illustrious former owners is propped up on one corner, as if to remind us of its provenance.

On the desk itself lies a sheaf of papers headed “The Cooper”. There it sits, ready for work, as though it was expecting someone to come and sit at it still. It’s not unloved. It’s still cherished. It’s just that, well, a desk needs an occupant.

“Once”, it seems to say, “I knew better times. Powerful men would sit before me, open my writing slope, and compose a letter. Long before this computer age, that was. When the written word still meant something.”

And what men they were.

William Graham is the first recorded, in 1801. The desk sat in his family’s Glasgow offices. The Graham family were whisky brokers with strong links to Islay, who probably acted as agents for most or even all of the island’s malt whisky, so when Lagavulin was founded in 1816 it was to them that John Johnston first came to sell his whisky.

As the desk solemnly records, Alexander Graham succeeded William in 1830 and by this time Lagavulin was already a success. Fifteen years later, the desk records its third occupant. In 1845, the Grahams went into partnership with James Logan Mackie, a young man of 22 freshly arrived from Edinburgh, to run the agencies for both Lagavulin and its neighbour Laphroaig, as well as a Campbeltown concern, Beith, Ross & Co.

Desk plaque

We don’t know why the young Mackie moved to Glasgow to work in this trade, but he did have family connections. His younger brother Nathaniel became a wine and spirit merchant with his own business while his father John had inherited a property in Cannongate, Edinburgh, probably next to what would become the famous White Horse Inn, of which the desk will have more to say.

So in 1845 we find J Logan Mackie sitting here, his name the third to be engraved, and soon the name of the business would become James L. Mackie and Company; the surviving Graham, one Captain Graham, managing affairs on Islay while Mackie controlled business in Glasgow. It seems likely that the Grahams had the money and Mackie, the business acumen, and that it was a happy marriage of skills, for their partnership endured happily right through the nineteenth century.

Events went their way and John Johnston found himself obliged to sell to his agents. By 1852 the lease to both Lagavulin farm and the distillery were in Graham hands and the firm was called James L. Mackie & Company. Lagavulin now had the owners who would make it famous.

For thirty-three years James Logan Mackie sat at his desk, this desk, in Glasgow, growing older and managing an increasingly successful business. By this time Lagavulin was probably the largest of the Islay distilleries; most likely it still comprised two distilleries on a single site, as sources refer to ‘Lagavulin No 1 and No 2’ in the mid 1870s. By 1878 he was 55, and looking for a successor.

Once again, the desk tells the story. “Peter Jeffrey Mackie”, the engraving runs. “1878”. Peter was James’ great nephew, the grandson of his elder brother, Peter. And like James before him, he was a young man – just a year older than James had been on his arrival in Glasgow.

Peter was sent to Lagavulin to learn the secrets of distilling. The trip marked the start of a love affair with the island that endured throughout his life. On returning to Glasgow he set to work, with his great-uncle James, to market Lagavulin more widely as a single malt, and to develop their blended whisky trade.

His is a story told elsewhere, and he only stayed at ‘our’ desk a mere eleven years; a deskbound life was not for ‘Restless Peter’. By 1889 it had a new occupant, A.H. Holm, while Mackie was about to rename the firm Mackie and Company, which he did the following year.

In 1895, James retired, and Mackie & Company became a limited company, still with Mr. Holm at the desk as Managing Director. He clearly enjoyed flying the flag for the firm too – in June 1903 we find him on a visit to New Zealand, staying at the Royal Oak Hotel, Wellington while in 1908 he writes to his agents there to inform them of the granting of a Royal Warrant by King Edward VIIth, for White Horse Whisky “supplied to the Royal Household during the past 25 years”). One A.H. (Andrew) Holm played full back for Queens Park in 1882-3 – could it be him?

Our desk’s next occupant is the newly appointed Sales Director, Geoffrey Hope Johnstone, appointed in 1896. And there is no mystery about his successor, who has a very familiar name. James Logan Mackie arrives in 1914 and he, of course, is the 21 year old eldest child and only son of Sir Peter Mackie.

Sadly, his time is brief. He is killed on active service in Palestine, and Sir Peter suffers a blow from which he never recovers. He retakes control, then the desk passes to his son-in-law, G.O.L Campbell, who takes office in 1921. It is he who sees the firm renamed White Horse Distillers in 1924, just after Sir Peter’s death.

The desk enjoyed another life, beyond this time. It was removed from Lagavulin distillery when the first visitor centre was built in the former Manager’s Office. For its first 125 years, it remained on the mainland. But for its next 75, it served Lagavulin managers well.

A desk with a story, indeed.