Obituary: Janet Roberts, Scotland’s oldest woman and matriarch of the Grant-Gordon whisky dynasty

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Born: 13 August, 1901, in Cabrach, Moray. Died: 6 April, 2012, in Dufftown.

Janet Roberts was Scotland’s oldest person and the last surviving granddaughter of whisky entrepreneur William Grant.

Born in an era before the Wright Brothers had taken flight and when the country was still mourning Queen Victoria, she witnessed incredible change not only in society but in the family business which founded the world-famous Glenfiddich brand.

She became a lawyer in the 1920s, having been the only woman in her class, and for almost 80 years lived in the dower house of Kininvie Castle in the heart of whisky country, where she died, the matriarch of the Grant-Gordon family.

She was born in the School House at the remote Cabrach. Her parents were Charles Gordon, the local schoolmaster, and his wife Isabella, youngest daughter of William Grant, founder of William Grant & Sons.

She was just two years old when the family moved to Glasgow when the firm bought its first premises in the city and her father joined the company, becoming its third director.

Although the family later moved back to the north of Scotland, it was at Glasgow University that the young Janet first studied for a Bachelor’s degree before moving to Edinburgh University, where she gained a law degree.

An accomplished sportswoman, she played for Edinburgh University’s Women’s 1st hockey team and at one point, in a mixed match, found herself marking Eric Liddell, whose Olympic success was immortalised in the film Chariots of Fire.

She practised law for a number of years at McGrigor Donald, where her duties included administering the trust of another famous Scots family, the Cargills, and it was while working for the law firm that she met her future husband Eric Roberts, whom she married in 1938 at Glasgow University Memorial Chapel.

Although she was never directly involved in the running of the William Grant & Sons, during her lifetime she gave a century of loyal support to close family members who ushered the business to worldwide success and quietly contributed to the firm’s development.

“Wee Janie”, as she was known to the family, was granddaughter, daughter, sister, wife, aunt and great aunt to successive chairmen and managing directors of the business for more than 100 years.

In her youth she and her family helped to support her grandfather, the founder, and her father, who expanded Grant’s into the English market and beyond.

Her brother William Grant Gordon steered it through the difficult years of the Second World War and during her marriage, once her husband joined the company, she travelled the globe with him, attending functions and award ceremonies.

He took it from strength to strength, introduced the triangular bottle and saw the firm honoured with the Queen’s Award to Industry for Export Achievement in 1974. Her oldest nephew, Charles Grant Gordon, is currently life president and her great nephew, Peter Grant Gordon, is chairman.

Through the years she became the pivotal figure in the family, caring for both her elderly mother and sister, and was always involved in commemorating significant events in the company’s history.

In 1990, in recognition of her close links with the business, she was awarded the honour of opening the Kininvie Distillery in Dufftown, close to her home, Hazelwood House, at Kininvie Castle.

Last year, to mark her 110th birthday, Glenfiddich released the Glenfiddich Janet Sheed Roberts Reserve, with 11 bottles to mark the 11 decades of her life. Each of the bottles of 55-year-old whisky is being auctioned worldwide for charity and so far approximately £185,000 has been raised for charities in the UK, United States and India.

Mrs Roberts – who reportedly had a fondness for Ferragamo shoes, though she made a favourite pair last for 50 years – was known as The Hardy Annual because she attended so many festive company get-togethers, and put the secret of her longevity “hard work and moderation”.

“We have lost an incredible woman,” said her great nephew Peter. “My aunt’s contributions to the business, and support for the family members who did so much to make the company the success it is today, were immeasurable.”

Determined to remain in her own home in her final years, she fulfilled that wish, thanks to a dedicated team of carers. Next week she will be returned to the Cabrach, where her extraordinary life began, when she is laid to rest in the local churchyard.

ALISON SHAW