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Williamson [married name Campbell], Elizabeth Leitch [Bessie] (1910–1982), whisky distiller, was born in High Street, Glasgow, on 22 August 1910, the daughter of John Williamson, a mercantile clerk who died in 1918 while serving as a gunner in France with the Royal Garrison Artillery, and his wife, Agnes Whyte, née Paton, who brought up Bessie, her older sister, and younger brother. She matriculated at the University of Glasgow in 1927, intending to graduate with an ordinary MA, a general arts degree that usually entailed three years of study, in order to become a teacher. However, she had to resit a number of exams and did not graduate until 1932. While waiting to enrol at Jordanhill College of Education she worked as an office assistant with her uncle William Paton, an accountant working for the restaurateurs and purveyors Smith (Glasgow) Ltd, and combined this with attendance at night classes at the Glasgow and West of Scotland Commercial College.

In the summer of 1934, while on holiday at Islay, Williamson learned of a temporary vacancy for a shorthand typist at the Laphroaig distillery and successfully applied for the job. Laphroaig belonged to D. Johnston & Co., a company wholly owned by Ian Hunter. Hunter had a reputation for irascibility, but Williamson seems to have fitted in well in the distillery office and gained his trust. She was asked to stay on and became the office manager. During a business trip to the Caribbean and North America in the late 1930s Hunter was struck down by an illness and Williamson is believed to have taken his place for important business meetings aimed at securing valuable contacts in post-prohibition America. At some time in the 1940s she became manager of the distillery. When in 1950 Hunter floated the business as a limited company, D. Johnston & Co. Ltd, Williamson was appointed company secretary with a small stake in the firm (of which Hunter remained the majority shareholder).

On Hunter's death in 1954 Williamson inherited the controlling interest in the Laphroaig distillery on Islay, as well as his house, Ardenistiel, and the small island of Texa. She became the only woman to own and manage a Scotch whisky distillery in the twentieth century. Former workers believe that she was responsible for the practice of running foreshots for much longer than was standard in other distilleries, followed by a relatively short spirit run and a long feints run. The procedure was believed to be responsible for Laphroaig's distinctive peaty, phenolic character, but it is unclear whether this was an innovation on her part or simply a continuation of a tradition at the distillery.

On behalf of the Scotch Whisky Association and other organizations Williamson delivered lectures and talks on the whisky industry to various audiences. While visiting the USA on one such ‘ambassadorial’ trip she met Wishart Neil Munro Campbell (1901–1983), the son of an Islay minister, who had emigrated as a young boy to Canada and had become a well-known singer and disc jockey there. They were married in Glasgow Cathedral on 15 August 1961 and settled at Ardenistiel House, where her husband started a small business as a market gardener and she held popular fêtes in aid of local charities.

Williamson was aware that the distillery was greatly in need of investment to modernize plant and production processes, and that D. Johnston & Co. did not have the financial resources to pay for the necessary improvements. In 1962 she sold a third of her share in the company to the spirits group Seager Evans. She handed full control to the London-based firm in two more share transfers, in 1967 and 1972, although she continued to sit on the board of the subsidiary that managed the group's distilleries, Long John Distillers (subsequently Long John International). She died at Gartnavel General Hospital in Glasgow on 26 May 1982. Her husband died in November the following year.

Iain F. Russell

Sources  

A. Jefford, Peat smoke and spirit (2004) · N. Wilson, Scotch and water (1985) · student records, U. Glas. · H. C. Craig, The Scotch whisky industry record (1994) · The Times (23 Aug 1967) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.

Archives  

U. Glas., Archives and Business Records Centre, D. Johnston & Co. records, GB 0248 UGD 306


Likenesses  

photographs, 1930–69, Scottish Brewing Archive, Laphroaig collection · photograph, Laphroaig distillery, Islay