Scents & Sensibility

THE road to Mellon Charles hugs the coast, rising through hills then dipping into rumps of brown moorland; winding past rushing, bubbling falls and streams and rippled lochs; the scents of wet bracken and storm-tossed seaweed carries lightly on the wind. It narrows finally into a single track, leading past a handful of scattered houses, and then, perched right on the tip of the west coast, as though it might fall off the edge and into Loch Ewe, is Scotland's only working perfumery.

The irony is obvious. Perfume is luxurious and indulgent, a symbol of sophisticated city chic, the product of a modern 15 billion global industry. Perfume design studios are more likely to be found in London, Paris or New York than in the firmly ungilded lily of the Scottish Highlands. So why Mellon Charles? "Why not Mellon Charles?" asks perfumer Dr George Dodd.

On a clear day the view from here is expansive, encompassing the Outer Hebrides and out to limitless horizons. Dodd's ambition is on a similar scale. He is not quite as ruthless as Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the perfume-maker who kills to capture the perfect scent in Patrick Sskind's novel Perfume, now a major Hollywood film starring Dustin Hoffman and Alan Rickman, but Dodd is formidable nonetheless. The former university researcher and biochemist with Unilever specialises in 'firsts' and 'onlys': Scotland's only perfumery; the world's first medicinal perfume (Scentuelle, which uses a molecule found in vanilla to boost the libido); the world's first whisky perfume; the world's first chocolate perfume.

Dodd also wants to create the world's first programme of perfume therapy, for use in the treatment of people with schizophrenia and other mental-health problems. And this year he hopes to begin a process that will really put remote Mellon Charles on the world perfume map: the pursuit of Scotland's first international scent, a homegrown fragrance to rival those from Chanel or Dior.

Here in his studio, which is crammed with small brown bottles of oils and aluminium perfume containers, Dodd has already created some candidate fragrances. He has also drawn up a hit list of top Scottish business people to approach for financial backing. The stakes are high: perfumes smell good, but the profits smell better - analysts say margins are around 25% for the biggest fragrance houses. The market leader, with 6% of total sales, is Chanel No 5, which was launched in the 1920s and was the first perfume to harness a designer's name. A bottle of it is sold somewhere in the world every 56 seconds. But how much would the actual ingredients in any average bottle of perfume cost? "If you pay 150 for a bottle," says Dodd, "the actual juice in that could cost around 50 pence." The real cost to the manufacturer is not just in packaging, but in advertising and promotion to make a mark in an already crowded market. Up to 300 perfumes a year are launched and some, estimates Dodd, will have cost 100 million to establish. He reckons he can have a shot at launching a Scottish international perfume on a budget of 5 million.

Dodd says he needs a team behind him for any launch because he's a designer, not a salesman. But that is not strictly true: Dodd sells ideas. He wraps them up in the shiny paper of enthusiasm, and they seem real, like a gift.

The ideas may be quirky, but then so is he: pony-tailed beard to match his long, pony-tailed hair; quiet humour encased in a soft Dublin accent. He was the son of a plumber and didn't have the childhood advantages of many in his profession. "Many of the French perfumers grew up with a father or grandfather who was a perfumer, so they grew up in the perfume studio smelling things." Instead, Dodd was born within sniffing distance of the Guinness brewery. But he knew early on he had a discerning sense of smell - aged five, he could detect milk on the turn days before it actually went off. And he still hates UHT milk because he can smell the chemicals it contains.

He left Ireland in the 1960s, and after completing a PhD in biochemistry at Oxford spent most of his working life in England, first at Unilever, then with a long spell at Warwick University, where he set up the country's first smell research group.

Dodd has never been comfortable with labels. Scientist. Artist. Businessman. The divisions are artificial, he says. "Because I am a hard-nosed molecular scientist and academic, people expect me to be very scientific. In fact, I am incredibly artistic in my perfumery. I am feelings-led, inspiration-led. But I can take my feelings and drill them right down to the molecules as well. I don't recognise artificial boundaries."

As a student, he went on holiday to the north of Scotland and "just lost my heart to this part of the world". He eventually moved north, working in research at Craig Dunain psychiatric hospital, in Inverness, and then 12 years ago he bought a house in Mellon Charles. His new purpose-built studio, which opened in May, has a shop selling his products and a caf selling locally sourced and prepared fresh food, both of which he runs with his partner Liz. The door between studio and shop is open, allowing visitors access to his workspace.

His surroundings couldn't fail to influence some of his products, in particular a range of Highland scents: Gael Song, based on the scent of wild orchid meadows; Wind Song, which captures the fruity scents carried on the wind from Inverewe Gardens, across the loch; and Wood Song, which smells like a Scottish deciduous wood on an intensely hot day.

But the speciality here is the creation of personal perfumes. Dodd creates a perfume especially for customers, based on their favourites from a range of scents. But what makes one person attracted to the same smell another hates? "Part of that is very clear: your genes determine your smell preferences, there is no doubt about that - 5% of our DNA is reserved for our sense of smell," he says. "I could name 20 smells that you will like or dislike depending on your genes. Smells like roasting kidneys, pigs, gents toilets..." But surely nobody is going to like the smell of toilets? "Oh yes," insists Dodd, "it's a very attractive smell to some women. That smell at a low level in a perfume is a very powerful aphrodisiac."

Perfume has long been linked with seduction. Cleopatra enticed her lovers with perfumes. The ancient Egyptians used honey and cinnamon as natural perfumes, burned incense at burials and used oils during embalming. Later came the more sophisticated process of distilling flowers of the white Madonna lily to capture the scent.

Nowadays, perfumes contain 'animal notes' at a low level to make them deliberately more erotic. The scents may in themselves be unpalatable in large doses, and can have rather unpleasant sources - for example, castorium is from the perianal glands of the beaver and musk is from the genitalia of male musk deer - but in small doses animal notes add essential warmth to perfumes. "Perfume is an aid to your erotic potential," explains Dodd. And the beauty of personal perfumes is that you can boost your body's own natural scent, your pheromones.

Dodd believes the term 'pheromones' has been debased and is trademarking new terms. "If you go on the web you will see people flogging bottles claiming, 'Rub this on and every woman within 200 yards will come flocking to you and be your sex slave forever.' It has ruined a really good term. What a pheromone profile will do - and it has to be your profile, incidentally - is enhance your chances; it will make you slightly nicer. When people are wearing pheromones and are interrogated by other people, they are described as warmer and more smiley. Nobody describes them as sex gods. In fact, it's actually soft and romantic, which pleases me very much."

That's why he stresses the concept of personal perfumes. "It is expressing you, the individual. I just love that romantic aspect of it." But there is a scientific aspect to the mating game too. Tests have shown mice can 'sniff out' their ideal genetic partners, and humans have some of that ability - though how much is unclear. "You are looking for a partner with an immune system that is complementary to yours, so that any offspring has a chance of bits of your good immune system and bits of your partner's good immune system. So you can see there's a very powerful biological logic to it," says Dodd. It's likely that scent plays as important a part in human mating as it does in animal mating. It's just that we're too polite to sniff openly.

Dodd claims he is 1,000 times more sensitive to certain pheromones than other people, but insists most of us could refine and develop our sense of smell. He says we can even smell emotions. "When you get angry or emotionally aroused, it affects your pheromone system. Have you ever wandered into a committee room where there are fierce rows in a business meeting, where people are really angry? Next time you do that, go in using your nose. You'll be astonished - you can smell the aggression in the air."

There is no doubt Dodd has a good eye for a business idea. He is currently devising aroma training kits for the whisky industry, has created a whisky perfume to order, and is devising a chocolate perfume. But why would anyone want to smell of chocolate? Dodd smiles. "I don't ask questions like that. I just design."

French designer Thierry Mugler's perfume Angel, which has captured 3% of the perfume market, was the first to introduce sweet, chocolatey, caramel notes. But Dodd's chocolate-maker client doesn't want a sweet perfume and rejected his first attempts. "I couldn't believe they wanted in-your-face chocolate, so I mixed it with spicy, woody notes," says Dodd, opening a bottle containing his latest attempt. The client came back insisting they wanted a pure, dark-chocolate scent. "They told me they wanted it like roasted beans from one particular corner of a plantation in Madagascar. It was as specific as that."

Dodd's ambition extends to running international training courses for perfumers who will go back and adapt their knowledge for their local markets. Different cultures are drawn to different types of scent, says Dodd. The Germans, for example, tend to like clean, citrus smells. The Japanese go for earthy smells, and although they buy western perfumes, our scents are quite alien to them and they will leave them on the bathroom shelf.

But as well as the many commercial enterprises he has on the go, Dodd is keen to develop the medical side of his business. At the moment he is working with dermatologists at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee to develop advanced skin creams. He also wants to set up an aroma foundation that will use perfumery to help people with mental illness. Having worked in the past with schizophrenic patients, he is convinced that perfumery is a valuable therapy. "I used to sit down with a group of schizophrenics every Tuesday afternoon, and I taught them a whole perfume course. They came purely as volunteers, and at the end of that two years it was the highlight of their week. About 1% of the British population alone is schizophrenic - that's an enormous number of people. In all psychiatric hospitals, various therapies are key; painting classes, music therapy, dance therapy, sculpture therapy - everything but the sense of smell."

The bottles in Dodd's studio have different-coloured tops so that the hugely expensive natural oils will never get mixed up with the synthetic chemicals. It's not, he says, that he never uses artificial ingredients - which, incidentally, are very good - it's just that he's honest about what he uses. In general, the perfume industry could do with more accountability. In fact, that's another world first he would like to achieve: to be the world's first perfume critic. There are wine critics, he says, so why not scent critics?

The truth is that most international perfumes are based mainly on artificial ingredients. In fact, when Coco Chanel created No 5 she insisted an artificial fragrance was exactly what she wanted. "Yes, I really do mean artificial, like a dress, something that has been made," she said. "I don't want any rose or lily of the valley. I want a perfume that is a composition."

Behind Christian Dior's J'adore is the chemical company Quest International. Behind Yves Saint Laurent's Opium is the industrial group Givaudan. The big companies do use natural ingredients, but usually only small quantities - because of the cost. Dodd himself has toured the rose and jasmine fields of a major perfume company in the south of France. "If you calculate how much rose and jasmine they produce, you can see that it is largely symbolic. They can genuinely say they produce very fine rose and jasmine oil and that they use natural oils in their perfumes, but it might be 0.1% natural and 99.9% synthetic."

His vision of a Scottish international perfume is of a purely natural fragrance. It's the future of the industry, he says. "Synthetic chemicals have only been used since the 20th century, particularly after the Second World War, and they come from petroleum. Petroleum is running out. In 50 years' time, all perfumes are going to be natural again. Here in Mellon Charles, we are actually pioneering what has to be the next world of perfumery."

Dodd loves the idea of world firsts in Mellon Charles. "I am very boastful," he says, "and this sounds terribly grandiose, but it could happen: I want a legacy from Mellon Charles in Scotland to the rest of the world."

• See for more information about George Dodd's perfume studio at Mellon Charles.

• Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is in cinemas now