Glen Mhor Distillery Staff 1939


This photograph taken of the distillery staff provides a glimpse into the past era of the scotch whisky industry. It is with great pleasure that such an image of Glen Mhor has been found, thanks to the Inverness Here & Now Facebook page. These types of images were a widespread practice across the industry, so my hopes were always high we'd find one, especially given Mackinlay & Birnie's fondness of photographing their distillery over the decades. It seems reasonable to believe they'd forever capture the team who made the whole enterprise run efficiently.

I'm able to share this photograph of the Glen Mhor team from 1939. It is worth noting that this image bears a resemblance to several official images that were to be found at the distillery office i.e. professionally taken and the same type of print. It is likely this once resided on the walls of the office or nearby.

There is no whisky cask present, which was often wheeled out in such gatherings to provide a focal point and date. It seems that the date can be inferred from the handwriting on the reverse side, as we've seen on other finds that are related to the distillery and its office. Regarding the time period, the clothing and other elements seem to be fitting.

In the background, it is possible to see one of the original warehouses and the upper ramp. The warehouse in question is most probably either number 3 or 4. It is located in the far corner of the distillery site, directly opposite the production buildings. This is the most sheltered and secluded area of the distillery site. 

The year 1939 holds significance, particularly in light of the information gleaned from the distillery logbook. Production at the distillery was discontinued on 26th March 1943 due to war restrictions, placing it among the final distilleries to cease operations, so Glen Mhor was still in production at this time. Individuals of various ages can be observed in the image. It is worth noting that the UK declared war on 3rd September 1939. As a result, it is possible that this image was taken earlier in the year by chance, or as a fitting final group photograph, given the uncertainty that lay ahead for many.

Who are the individuals that helped shape and create the Glen Mhor legacy today? One person in the group is John Mackenzie of Carse farm, located in the first row, second from the right, picked out by his grand daughter 80+ years later. This is backed up by the Burgh Records for 1939, which shows John at Glenalbyn Road, just off Telford Street and his role as mashman. Additionally, there was discussion about the young man in the suit on the left of the only female in the image. This young man was recognised James Ritchie, also known as Val Ritchie. Let's zoom in on this trio as they are significant...

The two men who are part of a family line around Glen Mhor can be identified, with a family resemblance. Unfortunately, the woman in the picture remains unidentified. On the right, I believe we have James Ritchie, also known as Val Ritchie Snr, was a former manager of Glen Mhor. His son, Val Ritchie Jnr, also became manager of Glen Mhor and passed away in 2017 at the age of 86. A distillery manager would likely be centre stage for such an image and dressed appropriately for such an event. 

James Ritchie Snr was appointed to succeed Robert Robertson, who passed away at Glen Albyn house on 12th October 1937. Ritchie had previously worked as a brewer at Glen Mhor as early as 1935, according to the Inverness directory records. Further information on both Ritchie's careers are currently unknown, but it may be worth exploring.

So, an exciting possibility, although I note from Val Ritchie's obituary in 2017, he was noted to be 86 years of age, which means in 1939, he would have been 8 years old if the dates are correct. 

The Inverness Directory was used to potentially name some of the individuals in the image, including Kenneth Mackenzie (mashman), Thomas Perrie (joiner), and Duncan Cameron (maltman). It is unclear whether the aforementioned Mackenzie was related to the others, as the surname was quite common. However, it is possible that Kenneth Mackenzie followed in the footsteps of his father, William Mackenzie, who was a brewer at Glen Mhor or Glen Albyn from the early 1900s until around 1937. We can see Kenneth retiring (from role as head warehouseman) in this newspaper article from 1980, including maltmen William Jack and William Simpson, either of whom may feature in this 1939 photograph, having totted up 76 years as a trio. Their careers and others underline how employment at a distillery was often a life-long position. 

Other distillery type roles in the area, noted in the 1938/39 Burgh Directory include John Macdonald (maltman) of GlenAlbyn Road, William Geddes (distiller) Abban Place - funnily enough, a next door neighbour to another John Macdonald (carter), of the firm who did various work for Glen Mhor over the decades. So, we're building up a picture of the Telford area being a hotbed of distillery roles and related businesses. The directory from 1939/40 reinforces these themes and the aforementioned individuals being settled.

From my experience, it is important to note that the accuracy of these directories and records, rely heavily on consistent disclosure and the person recording the information. For example, the nearby streets were well populated by labourers who may have worked at either distillery. It is also worth noting that some individuals may have been at Glen Albyn. There was a healthy rivalry between the two distillery teams, which originated when the young upstart Glen Mhor arrived on the scene in the 1890s, featuring a former Glen Albyn manager at the helm. This rivalry continued throughout the life of both distilleries, to the extent that it is likely Glen Albyn workers would not be invited to appear in such a photograph

Rodney Burtt, who had the honour of learning the ropes at both distilleries, recalled at first hand the situation in Gavin D. Smith's excellent Stillroom Stories and Tunroom Tales:

'During the first week of March 1970, Rodney moved on to the mash house as a trainee under the care of Glen Mhor brewer Sandy Campbell. His opposite number across the road at Glen Albyn was Ian McDonald. As Rodney says, 'If Scots bear grudges this is an understatement, for the Massacre of Glencoe still incites as much feeling today as it did in 1692! The two brewers never met unless accidentally, and items of communication were conveyed by other people with the strict instructions, such as "Give this note to him, laddie" or "Tell him not to be so churlish!".'

I'm also reminded that in 1939, or to be more precise, 14th April, was the date of a remarkable entry in the Distillery Logbook which involved a brewing accident, requiring a huge clean up and the stillman (likely in this image) being disciplined. Regarding the logbook, is it possible for Gilbert W. Peterkin, the Customs & Exciseman whom we have been following throughout its pages, to be present here? He was still working with the team at Glen Mhor and may have been asked to attend given his importance and professionalism. The role of the Exciseman was central to the daily operations at any distillery, in the photograph, there is only one possible candidate:

We know that Gilbert would retire after the Second World War, thereby ending the chain of fixed excise representatives attached to the distillery. He is appropriately dressed and presented. Based on his physique, it appears he is not in a manual labour role. A couple of promising family tree results for Gilbert online, all put him in his late 50s, so the individual also fits. The burgh directory also confirms that he was resident at 54 Kenneth Street, Inverness, which isn't too far from Glen Mhor in 1938/39. The faithful dog, remains a mystery and while I'd love to say this is absolutely Gilbert himself, I have to show some restraint.

Neil M. Gunn, himself a former Exciseman at Glen Mhor (Gilbert's predecessor) once wrote of the role:

‘Long experience has created an almost perfect system of supervision, interfering so little with practical operations and supplying such figures of liability or accountancy as distillers unhesitatingly accepted, that normally the relations between the Excise official are pleasant and charged with mutual respect.’

There are 27 people in this image. According to an unreleased interview given by William Birnie in 1953, there were a total of 26 employees across both sites. This presents an intriguing proposition. However, it is important to note that the interview took place after the maltings had been converted into Saladin Boxes at Glen Mhor, which was the most labour-intensive aspect of production. Additionally, there are conflicting dates for the Glen Albyn boxes, which may have been after this interview. The issue of labour was detailed in documentation that I have previously noted:

'Had a new additional Malting Building been erected, nine maltmen (including night shifts) would have been required for eight of nine months of the year - with the Saladin System only two or three maltmen will now be required, including night shifts, and as it does not entail a New Building, the Saladin Plant makes its own climate. During the hottest days of summer or the coldest days of winter the temperature and humidity in the hermetically sealed Saladin Room can be regulated as desired.

It is not the intention of the Company to dispense with any of its permanent labour, but in future, casual labour, so generally necessary at a Distillery, can be entirely dispensed with.'

Distilleries in 1939 were reliant on labour and physical effort. The introduction of Saladin boxes would have resulted in a significant reduction in headcount. It is unclear how many people were employed at Glen Mhor at that time, but it is reasonable to assume that the individuals here are specific to the distillery. A combination of both distilleries is unlikely, in terms of numbers and the omission of a member of the co-owning Birnie family reinforces this fact. 

Alan Winchester also shared my excitement regarding this photograph and suggested a potential reason for it as well:

'That's a great find and addition to your collection. I always like these; I expect that's Mr Peterkin in the Glen Mhor? Always allows to guess the workforce, so there may be some visitors.

I am puzzled that a woman is in the picture, if she worked at the office, many of the clerk roles were male until the war. Its not a wedding presentation to the young couple? Counting the collar and ties, interested in the chap with breeches sitting on the right.'

Given the information around dates regarding Val Ritchie Jnr., his wedding in 1939 would have been impossible at 8 years of age. Which raises the question is this really Val Jnr., or has the date on the image been mislabelled? The mystery continues, as does the gent with breeches that Alan highlighted. 

At the end of all of this, I'm just delighted to be able to present this image and hope to share more in the future. This project on Glen Mhor has been surprising in how certain individuals have become relevant and interesting. It has put a human face on the distillery. I continue to honour their efforts and the legacy of the distillery through all the work here. 

Update 24th April 2024

My thanks to Gladys Macdonald, for providing more names of the workers in this photograph. Her father was a foreman at Glen Mhor for 30 years:

‘In those days it was all manual work, which made it like a big large family. Tom Peiry, Jock Dodd and Dick Tracy are in the photo. I am trying to remember the rest of their names.

Mr MacDermid with his hands folded is at the end, right hand side, lived at Glen Albyn Cottage, Carse Road. He was always working in his garden when he finished work. He was a lovely neighbour. 

I knew Willy Simson, but the men called him Wee Willy Simson, he was full of fun and kept the men going. 

The rest of the men I’ll try to remember from the 50s, 60s and 70s. I shall look out my photos and try to remember their names.’