“I moved my family into a caravan…”

Following your dreams can mean having to drag others with you, says gin maker Hamish Martin

An entrepreneur who operates on gut feel and the changing seasons, rather than balance sheets and business plans, 50-year old Hamish Martin runs the Secret Herb Garden, a specialist nursery on the outskirts of Edinburgh, and The Old Curiosity Distillery. He grows, picks, dries and infuses all the botanical ingredients in the colour changing gins he creates, together with the help of a team of “the right people who always seem to come along at the right time”.

I’d run a successful business before. I built up a Scottish independent wine merchant’s with my father and found it an interesting experience. When you’re building the business, it’s like pushing a snowball up a hill. As you push and push, the snowball gets bigger and it feels like a huge effort, but then you reach a tipping point and this huge thing you’ve created starts free-falling. It has a life of its own at this stage and you can’t control it. That’s when it’s not so much fun.

I wanted to enjoy life and not chase the dollar so much. Obviously, you need money to survive, but the mistake I made was doing it [running the wine business] for the sake of it and building it for the sake of building. I had taken the business as far as I could, so I made some changes in my life. I wanted to go back to my first love, which was plants and, specifically, herbs, so I retrained as a herbologist.

When I was out driving one day, I saw this glasshouse the size of football pitch. I stopped to investigate and found that it was derelict, but to me, it was beautiful. I had this dreamlike vision of what it could be when it was rebuilt, so I knocked on the door of the nearest house to see if it was for sale. Long story short: I bought it.

It was certainly not the easiest task having to break the news to my family that my pregnant wife and I were taking them to live in a static caravan for the foreseeable future. At the time, we had three (and a bit) kids and five dogs. That said, the idea of living in a caravan didn’t faze my wife at all – she can make a home out of a matchbox. Once the tears had passed, two of the children took the move relatively well. However, for the 13-year old boy, who was boarding at the time, it was as if his universe had collapsed…

To elevate the ‘mistake’, I had told everyone that it was only a short-term measure and not to worry, as we would be building a house on the site. As it turned out, the only problem was being declined planning permission – not once, but twice. My wife and I stayed positive, and we decided not to share this information. It took us two years of working tirelessly to completely regenerate the whole site and fulfil our dream of opening a beautiful café and herb nursery – and get that planning permission so we could build our home as well.

This makes it sound as if I had a plan – and I did, in a way – but it certainly wasn’t a business plan as such. I’ve never been one for spreadsheets – I go on gut feel – so how did I know customers were going to come? I had another of my dreams. It convinced me that they would and from the very first day we opened, they have.

I farm with nature. Sometimes, the right thing turns up at the right time. When we came here the first time and got the keys, there were what some might call weeds growing all over the place. I turned to my wife and said, “We need some pigs to clear this lot,” and – you’ll never believe this – but a couple of minutes later, a blue Transit van turned up with a chap asking if he could let his pigs roam on our land! They’re still here now, years later.

For me, the spring solstice is like a starting pistol. For the six months thereafter, I’ll get up very, very early for a swim. I find it an energising time of year.

We now employ up to 38 people at the height of summer. The distillery’s growing and now my eldest daughter works with me. I’ve never been one for managing staff in the formal sense. It’s a case of ‘come along and join the ride. I can’t tell you where we’re going, but I can guarantee it’ll be quite a journey.’ And it always has been.

This interview was carried out by SIM7’s Simeon de la Torre and first appeared in easyJet Traveller magazine. To read the latest issue (and the entire back catalogue of magazines), visit: https://ink-global.com/our-clients/portfolio/easyjet-traveller/