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‘Ever a proud Elgin loon’: Tributes to Ian Urquhart of whisky giants Gordon and MacPhail

The Moray businessman who was made CBE was former chairman of Johnstons of Elgin.

Former managing director of Gordon and MacPhail, Ian Urquhart.
Former managing director of Gordon and MacPhail, Ian Urquhart.

From Elgin to Harrods and back again, Moray loon Ian Urquhart trained with the best in the world and in turn helped turn his family business – Gordon and McPhail – into globally renowned whisky experts.

Much like the company itself, birthed from humble origins and a pride in where it came from, Ian never lost his passion for Scottish produce. A trait that saw him also take a leading role in luxury cashmere company Johnstons of Elgin.

Later made CBE, Ian passed away after illness aged 76.

Home, to Harrods

Born on August 27 1947, Ian was the first of George and Peggy Urquhart’s four children.  “A cute little boy with a mop of blond curly hair,” he was educated at Springfield Primary then Gordonstoun.

On leaving school Ian began a prestigious two-year apprenticeship with Harrods in London. Fostering a love for product quality and customer service excellence, a stint in a Bordeaux winery completed what proved to be the perfect skill set for his future career.

Ian Urquhart watching as King Charles, then the Prince of Wales, signed the first cask at Benromach.

Although he loved his travels the lure of home proved too much and Ian returned to Elgin in 1967 where he joined his father and uncle in the family firm, Gordon and MacPhail.

Whisky expert

Later joined by his siblings, he extended the breadth and depth of the company’s whisky portfolio, becoming managing director until 2007.

Ewen Mackintosh, recently retired managing director of Gordon and MacPhail, paid tribute to Ian’s expertise.

He said: “From first joining the business in the late 1960s, Ian built an unparalleled knowledge for maturing Scotch whisky which he passed on to the next generation.

Ian Urquhart with the private whisky collection of Gordon and MacPhail.

“He was also a driving force behind the company’s decision to purchase and re-equip Benromach Distillery in 1993 and played the lead role in creating the whisky style, and the principles for maturation, at Benromach.”

In recent times Ian had the pleasure of watching the first spirit go in to production at the company’s second distillery, The Cairn, at Grantown on Spey.

Love and marriage

A return to Elgin as a young man allowed Ian to restoke his passion for sports. Perhaps one of the few Scots to ever have played rugby for both Moray and Harrods, his homecoming also made way for falling in love, with former primary classmate, Heather Harrison.

The pair married in 1972 and had two children, Neil and Jenny.

“As children we were very lucky to have loving and caring parents and a great circle of family friends,” said Jenny.  “We had many happy times playing in the woods, building dens, or taking a dinghy up the River Lossie.”

Proud champion of Moray, Ian Urquhart.

Urquhart family holidays were always active. Whether sailing at Findhorn or cycling in Germany, Ian loved sport. A fan of sailing, horse riding, and pistol shooting, his greatest love was undoubtedly skiing.

In retirement, and following his wife’s death, Ian turned to the slopes for comfort, signing up for a ski instructor course in France.

Johnstons of Elgin

Through Heather, Ian also became involved with another family-owned business, Johnstons of Elgin. A proud chairman of the company from 2001, he was succeeded by his daughter Jenny though Ian initially joined Johnstons as a non-executive director in 1981.

Jenny added: “He took immense pride in seeing products made in Elgin or Hawick appear on global catwalks and in luxury retail shops.”

Lord Lieutenant of Moray, Air Vice Marshal George Chesworth, centre, hands an award to Johnstons of Elgin managing director, James Sugden and director, Ian Urquhart, right.

Chris Gaffney, Johnstons of Elgin managing director,  paid tribute to Ian.

Describing him as a man who contributed much to the business’ success, he said: “Ian made an immense contribution to our company in the last 43 years.  He always ensured we were thinking about, and investing for, the future.

“It’s thanks to this long-term planning that while the textiles industry in the UK was declining our business grew from £4m sales when he joined the board, to £100m today, with a staff of more than 1200.”

Royal honours

Ian’s contributions to business and his community, were recognised in the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee honours list, 2022. Both he and his brother Michael were both made CBE. However, this was not his only accolade.

Brothers Michael and Ian Urquhart.

A former deputy lieutenant for Moray, he was also Keeper of the Quaich and a recipient of the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival’s lifetime achievement award. An honorary doctorate from Glasgow Caledonian University was bestowed upon him yet Ian remained a quiet, unassuming man who never sought the limelight.

Proud of his family

Above all else, Ian was a proud family man and Elgin loon.

He found happiness for a second time with Nichola Smith. Meeting at a food and drink fair in Elgin, they shared interests in business and textiles, and later married in December 2017.

In latter years Nichola and Ian enjoyed “adventuring” together.  Trips included regular visits to Austria and a week-long pilgrimage to Pluscarden, but they were just as happy caravaning in Findhorn.

When Ian’s health began to deteriorate Nichola took on much of the caring responsibilities for which his family were very grateful.

Deeply missed

In a statement released on behalf of the Urquhart family, it was said Ian will be remembered for his love, warmth and wise counsel as a father, grandfather, brother, uncle, husband, colleague and friend.

Following a period of illness, Ian passed away peacefully, aged 76, with his family by his side.

Ian is survived by his second wife Nichola, his son Neil and daughter Jenny. He also leaves behind his siblings Rosemary and Michael, and grandchildren Iona, Emma, Eilidh, Eddie, Kirsty and Chloe.


A Moray man ’til the end, Seymour Monro, Lord Lieutenant of Moray added his words of tribute.

Captured an RAF Kinloss reception, Wing Commander ‘Teds’ Edward and Ian Urquhart, right. <br />Picture by Gordon Lennox.

He said: “He was a wise and proactive Deputy Lieutenant for Moray. Ian was also a generous benefactor and strong supporter of Moray Emergency Relief Fund during the Pandemic.

“Many people in Elgin and Moray – and indeed internationally – have much to thank Ian for. He was a wonderful and lovely gentleman who will be sorely missed by his family and many friends.”