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24-year-old Ciara’s new Highland distillery inspired by ancestor’s illicit still

Ciara Bow hopes to honour her great great granny's spirit in more ways than one.

Ciara Bow and her current still. Image: Gledfield Distillery
Ciara Bow and her current still. Image: Gledfield Distillery

When Marjorie MacBeath heard the excisemen were on their way to her croft in Ardgay, she had to think fast to hide her illicit still.

Naturally, she chose somewhere they daren’t look.

“The inspiration behind me starting Gledfield Distillery is my great great granny,” said Ciara Bow, Marjorie’s great great granddaughter.

“She was born in the 1800s and I believe she came from Caithness but she moved to live in Ardgay. Marjorie was an illicit distiller, so what she was doing wasn’t legal.

“When the excisemen came up from Beauly – all the way on horse and cart – she took her pot still and hid it under her petticoats.”

Two centuries later, Ciara Bow is following in Marjorie’s footsteps – albeit in a legal fashion.

Gledfield Distillery

Ciara founded Gledfield Distillery from her kitchen table, determined to harness the distiller’s blood that runs through her veins.

“I just think that’s a brilliant story and everything that I am doing is inspired by Marjorie,” said Ciara.

Ciara’s great great granny Marjorie MacBeath. Image: Gledfield Distillery

“My logo is Marjorie in her petticoats; she was a rebel, a character. I think her story is an important one to celebrate because we don’t celebrate women in distilling as much as we should. Even today, we are underrepresented in the industry.”

Though her distilling methods may be different, Ciara is trying to harness the same ingredients and flavours her ancestor would have while making her own line of spirits.

“Marjorie had a pot still that she used to distil her concoctions of spirits,” she said.

“Nowadays we would call them botanical spirits; she basically just used what she had and anything she could find.

“Most of the time she used oats, so my idea for Gledfield Distillery is to resurrect Marjorie’s recipe. Some might call it the original whisky.”

She added: “I am developing three botanical spirit recipes with Scotland’s Rural College.

“They are oat-based alcoholic spirits inspired by Marjorie’s recipes and the Scottish landscape, so using things like heather and Scots Pine.”

First steps in the industry

Ciara was only 23 years old when Gledfield Distillery was founded, but she took her first steps in the industry a number of years before.

“I left school at 17, then when I turned 18 I got a job working in Clynelish Distillery in Brora,” said Ciara.

“At the time I thought it was just going to be a summer job, but I instantly fell in love.

“I loved everything about it, the history, the culture, the technology, and I loved that it gave me the opportunity to meet and speak to people who had travelled across the globe just to come to Scotland and visit distilleries.”

Gledfield Distillery pays homage to Ciara’s family history. Image: Gledfield Distillery

Five years later, she had more training under her belt and was working as Brora Distillery’s first female senior distiller.

Seeing her strengths, Ciara decided it was time to take a leap of faith: “I worked at Brora Distillery for about two years and saw the reconstruction come to fruition, then I decided I could do it myself. I decided to leave and start up my own distillery.

“Gledfield Distillery was founded on February 14 last year, a lovely date for an anniversary.

“I was absolutely terrified, I didn’t know anything about starting a business, but I decided to try and see what happened.”

‘I am especially passionate about encouraging young women’

Reassurance that her idea was a strong one came as she won Best Presentation and Top Prize at UHI’s Create Highland Business Competition.

One of the reasons the judges chose Ciara – aside from the fact they had fallen in love with Marjorie’s memory – was her determination to ensure her business gives back to the community she loves so much.

Ciara at UHI’s business awards. Image: Gledfield Distillery

“There is a lack of well-paid, skilled, long-term jobs here in Ardgay and Bonar Bridge and I am passionate about creating those opportunities,” she said.

“The majority of young people like me go off to Aberdeen, Glasgow, Edinburgh to university then they don’t come back.

“I’m going to be launching an apprenticeship scheme and I am especially passionate about encouraging young women to get involved in the industry.

“For every bottle I sell I also want to donate £1 to a local charity. I am not just about making a profit, I am about having a social purpose and being good for the community.”

Next big step

Ciara has big plans for Gledfield Distillery, ones that cannot be achieved from her current workspace on her kitchen table – where she works as a one-woman show with her tiny still.

Using £10,000 she recently won in the Young EDGE Awards, she has successfully secured her first premises.

“I am happy to announce that I have found a suitable premises and I am hoping to launch the business there by the end of the year,” she said.

Ciara in her new premises. Image: Gledfield Distillery

“I am keeping the location a secret just now, so you’ll have to follow me on social media for an announcement coming soon.”

The businesswoman is currently working on making Gledfield Distillery zero waste and developing her website, as her botanical spirits will initially be launched online.

Family legacy

On top of all that, Ciara will soon start going into schools with Developing the Young Workforce to help make sure senior pupils know that their futures don’t have to involve university.

Though her great great granny Marjorie can only guide her on her way to launching Gledfield Distillery in memory, Ciara’s mum is right by her side.

“My mum is actually a retired distillery manager, so she has been like my mentor through this crazy journey,” she said.

“I feel very privileged that I have this legacy and history within my family. I feel proud carrying that forward into the future.”