The crazy world of James Grant
With Glen Grant up for sale it's timely to look at the man behind the distillery. Iain Russell reports
Major James Grant was the archetypal Victorian laird. Short in stature and stocky of build, he dressed for most occasions in his Grant tartan kilt and Glengarry bonnet.
He spent long hours fishing on the River Spey or bagging grouse on a Highland moor, and he travelled half way round the world to hunt big game in India and Africa. He loved dancing and female company, and survived three marriages and one very public divorce.
And when he wasn’t seriously busy at play, the Major kept himself occupied running one of the most famous distilleries in Speyside.
Grant was born in 1847. His lawyer father and his whisky-smuggling uncle had founded Glen Grant Distillery in Rothes seven years earlier, and young James inherited the business in 1872.
He became an officer in the local Rifle Volunteers, the Territorial Army of its day, and rose swiftly to the rank of Major – largely due to his status as one of Rothes’ largest employers, and his generous contributions towards the costs of providing the part-time soldiers with their uniforms and drams.
The Major was a great fan of the latest technology. The journalist Alfred Barnard reckoned that Glen Grant became the first distillery in Scotland to be lit by electricity, when a generator was installed there in 1883, and it was one of the first to be equipped with drum maltings and a patented draff-drying machine.
He was also intrigued by that new-fangled invention, the motor car, and he hurtled along the narrow Speyside roads in a variety of vehicles, ending up in a ditch on more than one occasion.
His love of technology included railways, and as a leading shareholder in the company which built the line through Strathspey, he had his very own ‘train set’. Sometimes, when the Major got bored of an evening, he would stroll down to the signal box at Rothes Station, where he was allowed to while away an hour or two, pulling the signal levers and watching the trains go by.
Each winter, the Major would lead the local curling team against all comers. Their keenest rivalry was with the team from The Glenlivet Distillery, and their meetings were notable for the quality and the quantity of drams consumed to keep out the chill.
In 1896 he sailed to India to hunt tigers, and was photographed on one expedition riding proudly on an elephant. A few years later he travelled to southern Africa to hunt big game.
This first African trip came close to disaster. Journeying far into the bush, the party ran short of water on several occasions.
Their horses and mules ate poisonous grass and died, leaving only a few donkeys and the oxen to draw their two wagons.
Nevertheless, he was happy to bag large numbers of antelope, springbok and other animals, as well as a 12-feet long python.
He made light of the dangers they faced at water holes along the way, telling a newspaperman that, “when we came to a hole where there were crocodiles, we used to put in three or four dynamite cartridges and blow them up. This rather astonished them!”.
When the hunting party returned to Bulawayo he was accompanied by a young companion. The Europeans had found two small boys abandoned as they passed through famine-ravaged countryside, and feared for their safety. The Major decided to take one of them back to live with him in Rothes.
Biawa Makalaga became the Major’s page boy and later his butler. Biawa continued to live in a flat at Glen Grant House long after the Major died in 1931, until his own death in 1972.
The Major had seven children by his first wife, Robina. She passed away in 1888 and eyebrows were raised when, the following year, the widower married Fanny, his childrens’ young governess.
Fanny travelled with her husband to India and to Africa, but the marriage was not a happy one. He suspected that she had an affair with a ship’s officer on the voyage home from India, while she complained of her husband’s “cruel and insulting behaviour” towards her.
In 1900 she ran off with the Major’s young nephew, William Menzies Grant Calder, known to his friends as Bunny.
The couple moved to the south of England, but the Major sent a private detective to track them down. He gathered evidence for the sensational divorce case the Major brought against Fanny in 1902.
Domestic servants were called to confirm to the court that Bunny and Fanny had been living in sin, and intimate details of nocturnal goings-on and ‘indecent familiarities’ were divulged before incredulous court reporters.
For her part, Fanny complained that the Major had been cheating on her; telling her he was going off fishing, when he was actually sneaking off to see a local woman known only as ‘M’. The Major denied the claim. However, no sooner had he won his divorce action, than he promptly married a local woman called Mary.
The Major continued to live the high life after his divorce. He entertained lavishly at Glen Grant House, which was decorated in his own inimitable style.
The walls were lined with trophies © ZEFA including assegais, animal skins and the mounted heads of beasts the Major had shot on his travels. Guests were welcomed in the hallway by a large stuffed crocodile, mounted upright on its back legs and bearing a drinks tray.
Those who were taken on a tour of the splendid gardens invariably ended up at the ‘whisky safe’ the Major had built into the rock above a waterfall, and from which he would produce a bottle of Glen Grant and glasses. The large drams he poured were ‘qualified’ with fresh water drawn from the Glen Grant burn below.
Throughout his life, Major Grant encouraged his customers to bottle Glen Grant as a single malt, and the whisky was exported in large quantities to North America, southern Africa and Australia.
Drinkers in the Rothes area preferred Glen Grant when it was bottled young and clear, from a ‘plain’ cask, and the Major made sure that supplies were always made available to local publicans, grocers and spirits merchants to meet this demand.
This so-called ‘white’ whisky was the model for the light-coloured Glen Grant 5 year old which became so popular in Italy after its introduction in 1962, and Italian sales helped the brand become the world’s second-best selling single malt. It’s an unusual, eccentric whisky by modern standards. A fitting memorial to the Major.