NOT many of us will have long and equally satisfactory careers in two of Scotland’s most important sectors.

But that was the case for Alistair Ross, who recently retired after a business life which began in the whisky industry on Speyside and ended after several decades’ involvement in the ferries on the west coast of Scotland.

Mr Ross, who is originally from Elgin and now resides on Islay, admitted to feelings of sadness when his departure as chairman of Western Ferries – the firm which runs the Gourock to Dunoon car and foot passenger service - marked his official retirement earlier this summer.

“I’m a bit sad, actually, because I have thoroughly enjoyed it,” he said. “I was thinking an oxymoron would be celebrating retirement, because I’ve loved being the chairman of Western Ferries. I’ve been very proud, in fact, to have been involved in Western Ferries. But I am 80 years old next year and I think it is about time I moved on.”

READ MORE: Outgoing ferry boss says it's time to break up islands network

Mr Ross, whose son Gordon is the managing director of Western, entered the whisky industry with Scottish Malt Distillers, which later became DCL, in 1958, aged 18. Seven years later he made the move to Inver House Distillers, after being headhunted to run its vast malt distilling operation in Airdrie (then used primarily in blended Scotch whisky).

His long association with Islay commenced in 1968 when he joined Bowmore as distillery manager.

And it was through working at Bowmore’s warehousing and bottling subsidiaries in Glasgow several years later, in 1974, when he first came into contact with Western, where he was appointed to the board to represent the interests of the whisky sector.

Back then fortunes of the whisky trade were very different. While annual exports are now worth around £4 billion, and showing no signs of slowing down, there was nothing like the same global demand for Scotch throughout the 1970s.

 The freight requirements from distillers were such that they did not support two ferry operators serving the island. So much so that, in 1981, the decision was taken by the privately-owned Western to withdraw from the route in the face of fierce competition of the publicly-subsidised CalMac.

READ MORE: Islay whisky supply under threat from ferry crisis

“Places like Bruichladdich were shut, Ardbeg was shut,” Mr Ross said.

“Port Ellen was closed in ’68, so the whisky industry on Islay in fact was struggling.

“[When] I went there in ’68 (at the age of 28) I took a risk, because the distilleries were on their knees at that time.

“It took me five years to get the distillery sorted out, then they took me to Glasgow after that.”

Mr Ross eventually exited the whisky trade in 1992, after seeing out a three-year contract signed after Morrison Bowmore was acquired by Suntory in 1989. “I felt if I stayed on much longer it would have been too late to do something different,” he said. “I had 35 years of making whisky, and that is long enough.”

In the immediate years thereafter, Mr Ross and his wife spent time travelling and fell in love with New Zealand, where they bought a farm which is now home to their daughter and son-in-law.

“For many years I used to go out for three months at lambing time and get stuck in over there. I really enjoyed it actually,” Mr Ross said.

READ MORE: Ferry firm reveals bid to return to Islay route

But soon his involvement with Western stepped up, and in 1999 he was part of the four-strong team which bought out the company, having opposed an alternative takeover bid. He became chairman of Western in 2002 and held the role until June this year. He has since been replaced by long-standing board member Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, former NATO Secretary General and Defence Secretary in Tony Blair’s Government.

It has, of course, been a tumultuous few months for Scotland’s ferries. There has been heated public debate over how to improve the reliability of the service, while the company which won an order to build two new vessels for the Clyde and Hebrides network, Ferguson Marine, was nationalised on Friday following a protracted dispute with CMAL (Caledonian Maritime Assets).

Given his long association with the sector, it is not surprising that Mr Ross has strong views on how the network could be improved.

He feels strongly, for example, that the network should be broken to boost competition by allowing more operators to enter the market.

“Just split the bundle up and allow companies in with the opportunity to get their own boats,” he said, “because at the moment, when the contracts go out, it’s the same old MacBraynes boats, it’s the same crewing level, it’s the same timetables.”

READ MORE: CalMac skipper departs with stinging attack on ferry service

He also believes that scrapping the tradition of crews living on board would boost employment on remote communities.

“How many people on Islay do you think work on the Islay ferry?” Mr Ross asked. “None. Not one resident on Islay works on the Islay ferries, and that must be about 150 people.

“I have to say there is full employment on Islay just now, but these are opportunities for young people to stay on the island. They are good jobs – engineers, pursers.

“[At] Western Ferries, some of the people who are up on the bridge now started marshalling on the yard. We train them if we see they have got the ability to do it, so there is an opportunity to improve as well."

Not that he is expecting the strain on the route connecting the mainland with Islay to be alleviated any time soon. In recent years the expansion of the whisky industry on Islay has put enormous pressure on the route, which is currently served by two boats. One of those, the MV Hebridean Isles, is nearing the end of its working life, having entered service in 1985.

Western is currently exploring whether it could return to Islay with the introduction of a freight-only service. That work is ongoing, and equally it looks like it will take some time before CMAL is able to procure any further vessels to support the island.

Transport Scotland recommended in its 2016 Vessel Replacement and Deployment Plan that the next ferry to be procured by CMAL would be allocated to Islay to replace the Hebridean Isles.

But the problems at Ferguson, which became embroiled in a bitter dispute with CMAL  and Scottish ministers over escalating costs on the construction of two dual-fuel ferries, is almost certain to have put further vessel procurement for the Scottish fleet on the back burner.

“With the Ferguson thing now, the boats are overdue [and] the Islay boat that has been promised has been put back,” Mr Ross said. “It will be five or six years before Islay gets a boat.”

Meanwhile, Mr Ross continues to keep a close eye on the whisky trade. Asked for his views on how Brexit could affect the industry, he said withdrawing from the European Union will make it more difficult  for the UK to secure more favourable trading terms with its most promising markets.

“I think the big potential market for Scotch is actually India,” he said. “The trouble is, the trade barriers they have had in India are quite severe, because the market is huge. As a result, the only way you can break the barrier is within Europe... as a bloc, as happened in Japan.

“At one time Suntory had the biggest blend in the world, Suntory Royal. When the British negotiated the removal of the tariffs in Japan, the whisky industry in Japan just disappeared, because people bought Scotch.”

For now, Mr Ross will be getting on with his retirement, fishing, playing golf and tending to his garden. Who knows, he might even be back out in New Zealand in time for the next lambing season.

Six Questions:

Q What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?

A Uruguay, a wonderful small country with some many of the same great qualities as Scotland. Friendly people and a great free education system. I enjoy visiting for holidays too as the beaches are fantastic.

Q When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?

A I spent most of childhood wanting to be a professional football player as I loved sport. I got to 18 years old and realised I was never going to be good enough to make the big time, so I concentrated on my studies and joined the whisky industry.

Q What was your biggest break in business

A Being appointed distillery manager at Bowmore when I was only 28 years old.

Q What was your worst moment in business?

A Retiring from the whisky industry, that was such a hard decision as I knew I would miss the comradery of working in that trade, and all those great people.

Q Who do you most admire and why?

A I have just finished a book about Winston Churchill, and it confirmed what I had always thought. He was a great man, and he saw us through some of the worst years in British history. Without him things could have been very different.

Q What book are you reading and what music are you listening to?

A Max Hasting’s book about Vietnam.  Music – always Sinatra!