In his first-ever interview, the Earl of Dalkeith tells Simon Mowbray why his family decided to leap into the cutthroat world of food and drink

It’s fair to say that the Douglases have never been known to shirk a battle. Their founding father, Sir James Douglas, was right-hand man to Robert Bruce, King of Scotland, and bearer of the royal heart after his death. He is even credited with spawning the Braveheart legend when, while fighting the Moors in Spain, he fell mortally wounded and hurled the silver casket containing the heart before him, crying “Forward, brave heart”.

Almost seven centuries later, a move into the world of food and drink may not seem a big deal for a family steeped in that sort of history. But, as the Earl of Dalkeith admits, he hardly expects it to be a breeze either.

Sitting in his study at the ancestral Drumlanrig Castle and dressed in corduroy trousers, a smart pale blue shirt and tweed jacket, the earl is every bit your archetypal country squire.

It is a role he and his family take very seriously - so seriously, in fact, that his father, the current Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry, is on record describing himself as “simply the manager of a piece of countryside in which the most essential ingredient is the people who live in it”.

“A piece of countryside” hardly does credit to the size of the three Scottish estates owned by his family, covering 400 square miles of Dumfries & Galloway and the Scottish Borders (a fourth estate, Boughton, lies in the Northamptonshire countryside).

Yet the sentiment is one that very much inspired the creation of Buccleuch Heritage Foods in the first place.

Suppliers to the brand - currently rolling out as a range of premium offerings, from biscuits to beer, to multiples north of the border - are all based on or very near to the duke’s estates. The idea is to build up a portfolio that will not only enhance reputations and businesses, but also form an effective way of sustaining the estates.

Going into organics, like Prince Charles’ Duchy Originals, is not currently on the agenda (although all products are free of additives). And funding, in one form or another, is being made available to manufacturers who want to expand and who are showing commitment to the Buccleuch brand.

The earl says it has been a steep learning curve, although one he was prepared for following the creation of the Buccleuch beef business, mainly for the upmarketfoodservice arena, including top London restaurants, some eight years ago. “We have very much had to learn as we go along, but we understood the intense competitiveness of the food industry right from the off.

We were perhaps a little innocent in thinking the quality of our products alone would be enough to sell them. We have found that we will have to continue innovating if we are to keep the momentum going. Another thing we have realised is that for the multiple grocers it’s not good enough to have just a few really good products - you have to offer a whole range, and one that offers a point of difference.”

With this in mind, the earl presides over regular ‘Buccleuch Kitchen Clan’ gatherings in the 17th-century kitchen at Drumlanrig Castle, where existing ranges are refined and new ones created.

He is aware of his own limitations, enlisting the help of others for tasting, since by his own admission, he is “unimaginative and unadventurous with food”. “I don’t even like onions, so I’m no help when we’re testing some of the relishes,” he adds.

Such self-critical analysis has also spurred the earl to enlist help from senior figures who have already made their mark in food and drink.The key signing has been former Castle McLellan supremo Colin Warden, Buccleuch’s director of marketing.

Warden, who thought he was coasting towards semi-retirement two years ago having built up the award-winning pâté specialist, was asked to come up with a business plan and jumped at the task. He is impressed by the effort and backing the earl and his family have put into the Buccleuch brand and claims their biggest strength is a willingness to listen to advice.

Such advice has meant that not just anyone can join the exclusive club. Says the earl: “All producers must meet a minimum quality standard and we have already rejected some because of quality issues.”

In the meantime, he hopes the creation of a £1m brand is not too far away and that significant funds can be ploughed into the upkeep of the estates in three or four years.

“We have a huge heritage responsibility and the traditional rural business of farming does not support those costs any more, so we have a real interest in seeing this brand become profitable. We will definitely not be using any Buccleuch profits to put yachts in the Mediterranean.”

Seeking a wider audience
>>premium heather honey joins expanding buccleuch range
Currently rolling out to multiples north of the border, the Buccleuch range already boasts more than two dozen products, all based on traditional and contemporary Scottish recipes. The company has appointed retail specialist Product Chain to help it roll out further afield.

Covering a host of categories from pickles to cheeses and beers, one of the latest additions is two premium honey offerings supplied by John Mellis and his partner Joan.

The couple keep some 150 hives on the Drumlanrig estate with the aim of harvesting a pure heather honey that commands a price premium.

Mellis, who already supplies locally under his own brand, is among a growing number of producers hopeful that tying up with Buccleuch will help to expand their businesses.

“It gives us a chance to get out to a wider audience. The potential for our business could be phenomenal.”