Robertson Trust aims to help students reach potential

Scotland’s largest independent grant-giver is working to secure internship placements across the country and charge lives in the process – but it’s not just a matter of handouts

Kenneth Ferguson above with colleagues and schoolchildren. Picture: Alan Richardson
Kenneth Ferguson above with colleagues and schoolchildren. Picture: Alan Richardson

Paul Burns was working full-time behind the chill counter of a Glasgow supermarket when he received the news he had been offered an internship at a prestigious firm of actuaries.

The 23-year-old was a recent graduate and, like many young Scots, had struggled to find an entry-level position upon leaving university.

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Now, 18 months on from his placement, he has secured a permanent position as a trainee actuary and left the world of retail far behind.

The internship was arranged by the Robertson Trust, Scotland’s largest independent grant-giver. It paid Paul’s travel and personal expenses, allowing him the freedom to leave his full-time supermarket job.

“The trust has benefited me greatly,” said Paul.

“I started on an internship which was originally for three months. It was while there that I was invited to apply for the full-time position.

“It was the trust’s help which has got me to where I am today.” The Robertson Trust spends 10 per cent of its annual budget of around £20 million on supporting young people in further education, offering grants to students who may otherwise have been unable to afford university.

The Glasgow-based charity, which owns the Edrington Group of spirit makers, was until 25 years ago a well-kept secret and did not reveal its identity to grant recipients.

In his first media interview, trust director Kenneth Ferguson said: “We are very keen to hear from big professional firms – like lawyers, accountants, actuaries – to help us by offering internships.

“We have to work very hard to find our many young people placements. Even by offering one placement, businesses will be making a huge difference.”

Colin McCrann is living proof of the impact that the Robertson Trust’s support can make.

The 23-year-old, from Drumchapel, was the first member of his family to attend university.

Like all students the trust supports, he was first nominated as a candidate by his school and sat an interview before being accepted on the programme. After completing a degree in physics at the University of Strathclyde, Colin was unsure of his next move.

“The trust provided a lot of support and knowledge that my family couldn’t provide – if you’re in a difficult situation at university, I couldn’t ask them how they would navigate it,” he said.

“The trust was always there. It was much more than a financial reward. When I graduated this year, they helped me find an internship and I’m now a trainee accountant. I can safely say that if it was not for the support of the trust throughout my degree, and their help in finding me an internship, I definitely would not have the job I have now, and I may not have a job at all.”

The trust first began to offer financial support to an initial group of six students in 1995. It now budgets to take on 180 each year, with a total of 700 receiving support by the end of 2018.

But the trustees quickly realised that earning a degree was no longer a guaranteed entry into the professions.

“Young people need more than just money to succeed,” said Ferguson. “So we developed a programme called Journey to Success, and part of that is getting people work experience. More affluent students can afford to work for nothing. So what we do is try to level the playing field.”

The Robertson Trust was founded in 1961 by three sisters – Elspeth, Agnes and Ethel Robertson – who donated their shares in the family blending and distilling business, which was founded by their grandfather William Robertson in Glasgow in the 1850s.

The firm, now known as Edrington, owns a variety of well-known brands including The Famous Grouse, Highland Park and The Macallan.The dividends paid by Edrington to the trust allow it support a wide range of institutions and individuals. To date, it has given more than £150m to a variety of charities.

The trust is a leading supporter of the University of Glasgow and its endowment led to the creation of the Robertson Chair of Biotechnology in 1988. It also made a significant donation to fund the creation of the Glasgow Biomedical Research Centre in 2006. The most visible connection between the university and the family is the six-storey Robertson Building, formerly known as the Robertson Institute of Biotechnology.

The building, which sits on the corner of University Avenue in the city’s West End, was paid for by a £4m donation.