Obituary: Ken McLean, Scotch whisky stock manager

Ken McLean
Ken McLean
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Born: 22 May, 1935, in Glasgow. Died: 19 July, 2013, in Clydebank, aged 78

Ken McLean, who travelled around Scotland’s distilleries keeping a gimlet eye on the stocks of whisky laid down in them, ensuring that only the angels took their share of the maturing spirits, has died after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease.

He started out in the whisky industry at 21 with the Canadian firm Hiram Walker at its landmark Dumbarton distillery, which was the largest in Scotland and produced some of the world’s best known brands, including Ballantine’s.

The company famously guarded its Dumbuck warehouses with a flock of geese dubbed the Scotch Watch.

His daughter, Pauline, who is now arts correspondent at BBC Scotland, said her father began his career as a stock clerk but joined Whyte and Mackay in 1976 as a stock manager.

Part of his job involved visiting various distilleries around the country. He was particularly fond of the one in Invergordon and he was most interested when her television producer husband Craig Williams recently made a documentary about the whisky business and recorded on film many of the distilleries he knew.

Ken was an enormously practical and capable man, the youngest of seven brothers born to the McLean family in Riddrie, Glasgow, in 1935. As a boy, he faced the effects of the Second World War.

He recalled air-raid warnings, and sheltering with his family in a Nissen hut in the garden of their home on Cumbernauld Road.

As an evacuee, the young Ken was packed off with his suitcase and gas mask to the relative safety of Lanarkshire and Ayrshire.

The family moved around a lot during this period, finally settling for 18 months in Largs, which became a life-long favourite place to visit.

One remarkable memory was the day he walked to the top of a hill with his father and by chance witnessed a German U-boat surfacing in the Clyde. He remembered working in the garden with his father, William, one day in 1945, when his mother Agnes broke the news – hot from the family wireless – that the war was over.

Ken was a clever boy, who went to St Mungo’s Academy in Townhead and was attracted to a career in law, but events intervened.

In 1953, he lost both parents within a matter of months. Then there was National Service, which he served with the RAF in Northern Ireland from 1954 to 1956. On weekends off, he would travel back to Glasgow to join his football-mad brothers at Celtic Park.

But he wasn’t just football-mad. He had a keen sense of humour and during a recent conversation about an Egyptian statue mysteriously turning around in Manchester Museum, he recalled a similar case of a bottle of malt whisky in the Whyte and MacKay storeroom which kept turning around to the bemusement of staff.

The cause, he said, was probably vibrations from people walking around the place or perhaps “it’s just the spirits”.

He married Irene in St Thomas’s Church in Riddrie in 1959 and two years later they moved to Dumbarton and threw themselves wholeheartedly into the community. Ken supported Irene in her work with the Children’s Panel and the RSPCC.

They were stalwarts of St Patrick’s Church where Ken was active for more than 40 years as a reader and minister of welcome and a member of the Society of St Vincent de Paul, offering practical help to under-privileged families and visiting the sick in hospital.

He not only embraced Dumbarton, but also its football club Dumbarton FC.

He was one of the few who could claim to follow them through thick and thin – from third division to premier league and back down again. And he was delighted to have seen his brother Des play in goal for “the Sons”.

Another passion was classical music, a love he shared with all of his family, at concerts in Glasgow and Edinburgh, with his children and grandchildren.

Ken loved his garden, to which he was able to devote more time once he retired from Whyte and MacKay in 1994, and he loved to walk in the hills and to cycle.

He was a keen hillwalker and enjoyed exploring the hills around Loch Lomond. He enjoyed travel, from daytrips to Largs to more exotic holidays to Malta, Madeira and Canada.

His family nickname was The Quiet Man, but he was far from quiet. He loved nothing better than a good discussion, whether on television in the early 1980s when he was a regular panellist on a religious affairs programme on STV or just at family gatherings.

And he was an enormously sociable man who loved a party and he was at the centre of many, most memorably his golden wedding celebrations in 2009.

Ken’s diagnosis with Parkinson’s was a cruel blow to someone so clever and so practical. Although he didn’t go to university, he developed his own quiet intellect.

He was a voracious reader and consumer of current affairs and he was much admired in the whisky industry throughout which he was well known and respected.

He is survived by his wife Irene, children Michael, Pauline, Claire and Kenneth, and grandchildren Andrew, David, Hannah, John and Ben.