Obituary: Ian Urquhart CBE, former head of Gordon & MacPhail

Ian Urquhart died peacefully on Friday 15th March, aged 76, after an illness, with his family by his side. The Moray based businessman was a proud Elgin loon who was always passionate about the place he called home.

Born on 27th August 1947 as the first son of George and Peggy Urquhart, his older sister Rosemary recalls him as a cute little boy with a mop of blond curly hair. He started his education at Springfield Primary and it was here he first met Heather Harrison who would many years later become his wife and mother to their two children Jenny and Neil.

After secondary schooling at Gordonstoun, Ian headed to the bright lights of London where he undertook the prestigious two year Harrods apprenticeship. This would provide the perfect grounding for his later career where product quality and excellence in customer service were fundamental.

A stint in a winery in Bordeaux ignited his life-long love of fine wine, a skill which would also prove beneficial in his working life.

Ian had enjoyed his travels but the lure of Elgin proved too strong and he returned to join his father and uncle in the family firm of Gordon & MacPhail in 1967. Being joined by his sister Rosemary and brothers David and Michael in following years, he extended the breadth and depth of the company’s whisky portfolio, ultimately becoming Managing Director until 2007.

As Ewen Mackintosh, current Managing Director of Gordon & MacPhail, highlighted: “From when he first joined the business in the late 1960s, he built an unparalleled knowledge for maturing Scotch whisky, which he subsequently passed onto the next generation working for the company.

“He was also a driving force behind the company’s decision to purchase and re-equip Benromach Distillery in 1993 and played the lead role in creating the whisky style and the principles for maturation at Benromach.”

HRH Prince Charles signing the first cask at Benromach, watched by Ian Urquhart.

More recently Ian had the chance to watch the first spirit being produced at the company’s second distillery, The Cairn, at Grantown-on-Spey.

The return to Elgin allowed Ian to indulge his love of sports – he must surely be the only person to have played for both Moray and Harrods Rugby Clubs! It also brought him back into the sphere of his primary school classmate Heather. They married in 1972 and enjoyed many happy years together.

Daughter Jenny recalls: “As children we were very lucky to have loving and caring parents and a great circle of family friends. Many happy times were had playing in the woods, building dens or taking a dinghy up the River Lossie.” Family holidays were always active whether sailing at Findhorn or cycling in Germany.

Ian loved sport and over the years enjoyed sailing, horse riding and pistol shooting. But his greatest love was undoubtedly skiing. And it was to skiing Ian turned when Heather passed away, not long after he retired from Gordon & MacPhail, when he signed up for a ski instructor course in France.

Ian would find happiness a second time when he met Nichola at a Food and Drink Fair in Elgin. They married on a snowy day in December 2017. They had many shared interests including textiles and Masters Degrees in Business and enjoyed many adventures together, including regular trips to Austria, and a week-long Pluscarden Pilgrimage in a tent across rural France.

Yet they were equally happy enjoying time together at the caravan in Findhorn. It was Nichola who took on much of the caring responsibilities as Ian’s health deteriorated in recent years and the family are grateful for everything she did for him.

It was his first marriage to Heather Harrison which led to Ian’s involvement in another iconic family owned business, Johnstons of Elgin. Initially joining the Board as a Non-Executive Director in 1981, he became Chairman of the luxury cashmere and fine fibres brand in 2001. “He took immense pride in seeing products made in Elgin or Hawick appear on global cat walks and in luxury retail shops” according to daughter Jenny who followed her father as Chairman.

Johnstons of Elgin Managing Director Chris Gaffney also paid tribute to the man who contributed so much to the success of the business saying: “Ian made an immense contribution to our company in the last 43 years. He always ensured we were thinking about, and investing for, the future.

“It is thanks to this long-term planning that, whilst the textiles industry in the UK was going through a period of decline, our business has grown from £4m sales when he joined the board to £100m today, with a staff of more than 1200.”

Ian’s contribution to these business sectors and the wider community , was recognised in the 2022 Queen’s Platinum Jubilee honours list with a CBE, together with his brother Michael.

Ian Urquhart was a man with an international outlook but one rooted in the place he called home. Lord Lieutenant of Moray Seymour Monro said: “He was a wise and proactive Deputy Lieutenant for Moray. Ian was also a generous benefactor including being a strong supporter of the Moray Emergency Relief Fund during the Pandemic.

“Many people in Elgin and Moray – and indeed internationally – have much to thank Ian for. He was a wonderful and lovely gentleman who will be sorely missed by his family and many friends”.

Ian Urquhart was a hugely successful businessman who collected many honours and accolades. A Keeper of the Quaich, a Life Time Achievement award from the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival and the recipient of an Honorary Doctorate from Glasgow Caledonian University. Yet he was a quiet, unassuming man who never sought the limelight and didn’t like a fuss.

It was his family role which meant more to him than anything. Above all else he will be remembered for his love, warmth and wise counsel as a father, grandfather, brother, uncle, husband, colleague or friend.

Ian is survived by his second wife Nichola, son Neil and daughter Jenny, sister Rosemary and brother Michael and grandchildren Iona, Emma, Eilidh, Eddie, Kirsty and Chloe.