SHIRLEY Spear sits by the fire in the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Leith, and holds up a dram. In most years, she only drinks a whisky on two occasions, Hogmanay and Burns Night. But this year has brought a couple of exceptions, and here, on a mellow December day, as we come together to talk about endings and beginnings, she sips on a Caol Ila. “Normally it’s Talisker, of course,” says the food writer and restaurateur, ever faithful to the produce of Skye, the island she made her home over three decades ago. “But a mature Talisker, because the more mature they are the softer they are on the palate. That's something I learned only a few years ago and it surprised me because you think something that ancient would be as tough as old boots. But it’s almost like swallowing butterscotch.”

This year also brought a fourth dram for Spear, during the World Porridge championships in Carrbridge, which she was lured to judge after writing a column on making perfect porridge. Offered the choice of Irn Bru or whisky early in the morning during the event, she took the latter. “I think some of the other judges were shocked,” she says. “But I said, ‘There’s no way I’m having Irn Bru’.”

Spear's current dram is in keeping with the mood of the moment. We are here to talk about her two years as Sunday Herald chef columnist, why she’s moving on, her hopes for 2018. The spirit of Hogmanay is with us, as we look back and forward.

Spear began her column on March 6, 2016, kicking things off with her legendary Hot Marmalade Pudding, originally created for the Three Chimneys restaurant she set up on Skye 33 years ago. She has since given us instructions on how to make oatcakes, toad-in-the-hole, Scots rabbit curry, iced gingerbread, leek and potato soup and other Scottish dishes. She ends today, with a howtowdie chicken, a traditional oat-stuffed dish to bring in the New Year. But the big Hogmanay dish of her childhood was the butcher’s steak pie. “That was the tradition on Hogmanay. And Peebles, where I grew up, still has an amazing butcher. In a lot of our small towns one of the things that have survived is the local butcher shop. And they still do make great pies.”

This Hogmanay is likely to be a quiet one for Spear, spent with her husband, Eddie, at home in North Berwick. Her three children, Sarah, Lindsay and Stephen, will be working or scattered in different places. Her grandchildren will be in Spain, celebrating the Three Kings festival, with their mother’s family. “So I think we’ll be having quite a quiet time – on the phone to lots of people all over the place.”

Even a quiet New Year is special. “I always look forward to a new year beginning. I think – thank goodness that’s over. Let’s start again. I like to do things like open the front door and the back door to let the Old Year out and the New Year in.”

She recalls Hogmanays in the Borders, where she grew up in Peebles. “Mum and Dad always had amazing Hogmanay parties. And my father was always drunk. People in those days walked between each other's houses much more than they do now. Now your friends could live miles apart in different parts of the town or even the country.”

The thought of going to a huge party of the sort that happens in Edinburgh’s Princes Street or Glasgow's George Square scares her. “Even the Christmas market in Princes Street Gardens, I recoil from a bit. All you can smell is onions and hot dogs. I think – what has that got to do with Scotland at Christmas? Why can’t we have a Scottish Christmas market?” She acknowledges she is in danger of sounding old-fashioned, but adds: “I think it’s now about making money and not about celebrating life and family and friends, which is what I think is important.”

The Hogmanays she recalls most fondly, belong to Skye. Back when the couple first moved there, they would host a huge New Year party each year, to which all generations came, from babies and teenagers through to grandparents. “We would use the restaurant, clear the floor, pack all the tables and chairs away.”

Spear’s stories often involve a kind of nostalgia, as she searches for ways to restore a lost sense of community by healing the rift between ourselves and the cooking of our forebears. Conversation with her conjures up the comforts of simple homemade food, of family gatherings, local producers, small towns, rural communities and warm kitchens.

The year 2018 is going to be about “finding more time for me”. “My New Year resolution for most of my life has been to lose weight,” she adds, with her characteristic flurry of laughter, “and most of my adult life it has been not to drink so much. I last about two days generally. This year I am going to resolve to make a bit more time for myself, my family and my own home and garden. Because I’ve neglected all of that the last few years.”

Above all, she wants to spend more time looking after her grandchildren. “I was 65 in November, and I’ve got an eight-year-old and a five-year-old grandchild in Edinburgh. Their mum has tried to get back to work in recent years and I would love to be around much more to help them,” she says.

The last few years have, after all, been a frenzy of activity, in which Spear has not only continued to be involved with The Three Chimneys – now under head chef Scott Davies – but also won an OBE, and extended her influence outside her restaurant. Until last year she chaired the Scottish Food Commission, and she's been a key figure developing Skye Connect, the destination management organisation linking tourism to government funding for the island she loves.

“Since I started with the food commission at the end of 2014,” she says, “I've had hardly any time for myself. I thought I’d reached this glorious stage of being able to retire and do gardening and I just haven’t stopped. And I took on a lot of extra things with the commission in order to learn as much as I could and equip myself with as much knowledge as I could. It was exhausting. I enjoyed it though. And I hope I made a difference.”

One of the reasons Spear stood back from the Scottish Food Commission was because she thought it didn’t suit her personality and skills. “It starts to get quite technical and civil-servanty and that’s not what I’m about. I still support the ethos of what they’re trying to do but I don’t think we’ve succeeded in reaching out to the ordinary person. I think it’s become too bogged down in technicalities.”

Spear's Sunday Herald column has been a passionate setting-out of her beliefs about food’s place in our lives. In a time of fancy ingredients, glamorous cookery programmes and must-have gadgets, she has shown that it’s possible to make simple, delicious dishes the traditional way, using local ingredients. “I was determined when I first started writing it not be chefy about it, to bring in a dimension of our heritage and to keep it simple, to show that you can do a lot with a wooden spoon, a fork and a couple of saucepans. You don’t actually need to have the most gorgeous kitchen geared up.”

Family and community are at the heart of Spear's philosophy of food and life – a fact that makes it all the more remarkable that she created a restaurant that was awarded something so elite as the Michelin star it received in 2014.

Spear was in her 30s and living in London with two young children when she decided to move to Skye and buy the restaurant. At the heart of that decision were her ideas about community, food, and a desire to return to Scotland to raise her family. When she saw the business for sale, back in 1984, one of her first questions was what kind of school her children would go to. She and her husband Eddie, had been living in London for some time, him working as a driving instructor, Shirley at first in PR and running her own catering business out of the back of her car. They knew they didn’t want to move to a community that was only full of old people. “It was wonderful to discover that there was a super local school, Borrodale Primary School, and a thriving young community. When Lindsay and Stephen were at the primary school they had the greatest number of children that had been there for years: 37 in total.”

The community revolved around the school, but the restaurant too became a centre. “There were lots of couples our own age and quite a number of children who grew up with us, worked with us in the restaurant. Lots of the mums and dads worked in the restaurant as well. We had really intense long-term relationships with these people because where would we be without them?”

Many of those children are now grown up, and only a few have stayed on or returned to the island. That primary school is now closed. The “vibe” of the island is different. “A lot of the people who have moved there since have come to retire and have bought or built a brand new quite luxurious property, or are letting via Airbnb. So the dynamic has changed. People are doing more of their own thing rather than being all involved together in making things happen. There are good pockets of togetherness happening, but there’s an awful lot of 'shut the door'.”

How Skye continues to develop is an issue close to her heart. The island both struggles with, and revels in, the huge numbers of visitors, at a time when heated debates are taking place around the world about how we handle the levels of tourism we are cultivating. “In the last three or four years,” says Spear, “there’s been an exponential rise in the numbers of visitors coming to Scotland and every rural area has suffered a great deal from an excess in numbers, and a huge increase in the amount of cars on the road. The question is how we deal with all that? Edinburgh’s world heritage status has even been questioned because there are too many people tramping the streets.” She sighs, exasperated. “I think, 'Come on'.”

Spear observes that some of the issues around Skye tourism have been over-sensationalised. “Because Skye is such a well-known brand it has been picked on by the press as the place to question. 'Skye’s overrun', is the story. 'There’s nowhere to stay.' But it doesn’t feel at all like that. I mean, yes, there are pinch points around some incredibly attractive beauty spots.”

The problem, she says, is under-investment in infrastructure. “Nobody is putting money into looking after these places. I’ve been in Skye for 33 years and all these pinch spots are the same as they were 33 years ago. They're still at the end of a single track road with passing places, and the vehicles now are just huge.”

This under-investment concerns her, not just in Skye, but across all rural areas. “Businesses have improved the product for tourists no end. But we can’t do things like change the roads, or roll out broadband, or build public toilets … That’s my one disappointment in the last few years. We haven’t evolved as much as we need to have done since devolution. People thought – 'Fantastic it’s all going to happen. We can get on with the job ourselves. We’re in charge.' But it hasn’t been that easy.”

It's at this point that her focus slips towards the future. For Spear isn’t all nostalgia. She looks to the new as well as the old, and right now she seems keen to hand the baton over to the youth. “2018 is the year of young people,” she says, “and there couldn’t be anything better than us investing in our young people. I frequently say to people, "Look I’m the granny now. I can’t keep doing this forever. We need people in their 30s to take over doing this. Because it’s your future, your children’s future. We need to step aside'.”

Look out for a new series of food columnists in next weekend's Sunday Herald