From bagpipes to barrels: My move from Red Hot Chilli Piper to whisky boss

I’m the general manager of The Macallan Estate, having worked my way up through the ranks of parent company Edrington over the last eight years.

But before that I created, was MD of and for years performed with, the famous bagpipe band the Red Hot Chilli Pipers (RHCP) – and there were so many incredible moments.

As part of the band I played T in the Park with The Darkness, toured the world, met musical legends, and one year we had the biggest-selling album in Scotland, for example.

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However, I eventually ended up having to step down from playing after developing a medical condition called task-specific focal dystonia, which is referred to as musicians’ cramp, and is essentially the same condition as “golfers yips” or “dart-itis”.

I'm very thankful that it’s worked out the way it has. Picture: contributed.

When I only wanted one finger to move, all the fingers would – so it was really affecting my ability to play. I started to suffer from it in 2008 – I consulted some of the most eminent specialists around the world, but I couldn’t get back to playing the way I could prior to developing the condition, and it was very, very frustrating.

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In August 2011, we were headlining at the Milwaukee Irish Fest, playing to a crowd of around 40,000. I was thinking about how I’d started the band in my bedroom, and now felt like a good time to stop.

I still remained in the RHCP business for while, but all of a sudden my life opened up with my diary no longer being full, and I didn’t know what to do with myself. I moved to New York when I was trying to find myself a little bit.

I created, was MD of, and for years performed with, the Red Hot Chilli Pipers. Picture: Lisa Ferguson.

I’d always seen the whisky industry as quite an interesting path, so I embarked on a mission to start a career in the sector.

And there were definitely some transferable skills from my time as a bagpiper. RHCP had grown to more than a £1 million turnover – it was a fairly big business. We were entertaining the world, showing people what the bagpipes could do, and had created a very clear brand.

Also, when you play in a group, you've got to be collaborative and creative, which are key skills in business. Furthermore, touring has given me good understanding and appreciation of different cultures.

Being a musician can also help you present to and influence people – I've got a very can-do, positive attitude, and I try to influence people in the right way to get the best result for the growth of The Macallan and the wider Edrington business.

Life-changing

My career change was helped by being accepted onto the Saltire Fellowship in 2012, which saw me spend eight months getting an “experiential” MBA from Babson College in Massachusetts. Looking back, it’s probably the most important thing I’ve ever done. The whole experience gave me the toolkit to move into a corporate life – including adopting a truly global mindset.

When I got back I secured a three-month placement with The Famous Grouse team – at Edrington – and I was literally the first in and the last to leave every day. Thankfully I was given an opportunity to stay, eventually being promoted to my current role in February 2019.

It lets me tap into my ability to hold a crowd – I can demonstrate my passion for The Macallan in what is quite a consumer-facing role. As general manager you are fairly visible to consumers and I welcome some of our highest-value clients from all over the world to The Macallan Estate, to give them an incredible experience.

For the broader team, we’ve got a real focus on storytelling and want to give a great experience, telling stories about the brand that really resonate with guests – so when we bring in new team members, we have casting sessions rather than conventional interviews. It’s about how they can perform.

We will reopen to the general public on May 29, and to elevate the experience here we're rebuilding the boutique within the distillery, plus we have a couple of other projects on the go. We're continually enhancing The Macallan Estate, it’s very dynamic, and the whole team is really excited to get going again.

I look back to that period after RHCP and didn't really know what I was going to do. My career as a musician had started early, and aged 12 I played for American tourists five days a week for seven months of the year, and for about six years. I was winning competitions, and in 2005 won the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician Of The Year award.

Before that I had founded the Scottish Bagpiper Co in 1997, when I was 18, with support from the Princes Scottish Youth Business Trust. I had contracts supplying pipers to, say, Cameron House Hotel, Gleneagles, and Stirling Castle.

Spotlight

My company actually led to RHCP hitting the spotlight. I got a phone call in 2004 from Dan Hawkins, guitarist in The Darkness, who were replacing David Bowie as headliners at T in the Park that year.

He asked if we could come on and play on one of their songs – and I said "absolutely”, and arranged what they needed, but we were already booked to play in Edinburgh that night, so as soon as we came off stage we headed up the motorway as fast as the speed limit would allow us. We went straight on stage at the main stage at T in the Park and it was incredible – it really boosted our profile.

Another turning point was when we uploaded a video onto YouTube of us performing at a festival – and it soon got a million views. All of a sudden we went from the band being a “hobby” to a full-time job and touring the world.

We soon had more than 20 people working for us. I don’t think I appreciated at the time how much managing all those people taught me, but I do now.

In 2007 we won the BBC talent show When Will I Be Famous? and we got gigs around the world – major Celtic rock festivals but also heavy metal ones like the Wacken Open Air festival in Germany where we were the support act to Iron Maiden. None of us could believe it when we came off stage the impact we had on that big crowd.

Fame

Sometimes we were asked for autographs as soon as we came off stage, and a lady said “I love you guys – I love that song Under The Bridge” – obviously confusing us with the Red Hot Chili Peppers rock band. They played T in the Park the year after us and when they were asked about us said they heard we’d been great.

Coldplay frontman Chris Martin said how much he enjoyed our version of the band’s song Clocks, while Sir Paul McCartney came up to us after a big gig in London and said it was incredible.

After I won the Young Traditional Musician Of The Year award, I was invited down to Buckingham Palace for a celebration of the British music industry – and literally the great and good of the scene were there including the Spice Girls to Sir George Martin. At one point I was talking to Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Brian May, but I was then told the Queen was coming over to speak to them so I retreated.

I also got Phil Collins to write the sleeve notes for my solo album Blown Away, and I played on the soundtrack of Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire, recording with Jarvis Cocker and Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood.

Before I moved into whisky there had always been a part of me that wondered what I’d have gone on to do if the focal dystonia hadn't happened to me, but these things happen, you’ve just got to try and deal with it the best you can.

But now, with the benefit of hindsight, I’ve got an incredible job as GM at The Macallan Estate. There’s so much opportunity around what we're doing, and once we come fully out of lockdown, the bar will be raised even higher.

I'm very thankful, actually, that it’s worked out the way it has. Overall, in my life my biggest passion has been promoting and marketing Scottish culture. I just happened to do that through the bagpipes before, and now it’s through whisky, so I feel I’m meeting my original mission and vision from a personal perspective.

As told to Emma Newlands.

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