Hands tightly gripping the wheel of her Opel Kadet, Scotland’s queen of speed careered around tight corners, bounced over bumps and raced to become a champion, with one thing at that back of her mind.

Louise Aitken-Walker was at the top of her game, but she also knew she wanted to be a mum.

And motherhood plus rally driving at top level were not, she knew, particularly conducive to raising children.

The best woman rally driver in the world, she was in her early 30s and could have dominated the sport for years to come.

Instead, she walked away, leaving behind the adrenalin kick of high-speed motorsport for life in the sedate countryside of the Borders.

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She was crowned FIA Ladies World Rally Champion in 1991 – a career high that she’s now reflecting on after choosing to mark her victory with the release of her very own limited-edition whisky.

It’s been developed with Edinburgh-based whisky curators Turas Dana who connect individuals with world-renowned former master distiller for The Macallan brand, David Robertson. Together they have access to hundreds of exclusive and rare spirits to create a unique single grain Scotch.

The process of working closely with a team again has brought memories flooding back.

“It has been exciting,” says Louise, “and also very emotional.

“The effort that’s gone into it has brought to mind how hard we worked to go from me being a 17-year-old up and coming driver to being World Champion.

“I look back now and realise that was no mean feat.”

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Selecting the whisky from five casks set down at Invergordon Distillery in 1990 – the season of her historic win - sent her on a journey back to heady days when she was the toast of the rally world, and a woman very much in a man’s world.

Its timing could not be more poignant: motorsport has been under the spotlight, after F1 team Red Bull’s embattled principal Christian Horner faced allegations of ‘inappropriate behaviour’ directed at him from a female colleague. He was cleared following an investigation.

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While women’s participation in motorsports has also been highlighted as “depressingly low” in recent research by More Than Equal, an organisation co-founded by ex-Formula 1 driver David Coulthard.

It found female participation across all forms of motorsport hovers in the region of 10%, with female drivers representing just 4% of the top ranking drivers.

Barriers to women’s participation spanned a range of issues, including stereotyping and negative perceptions about women’s ability to drive fast in competitive arenas.

Women and girls faced and “unwelcoming or inappropriate” culture, with many still experiencing sexist and misogynistic comments.

Given Louise, a Duns country girl who learned to drive on farm tracks when she still at primary school, was competing in the less enlightened days of the 1980s, it’s no shock she came up against obstacles, making her achievements all the more remarkable.

“I was having to battle against everything,” she says. “Getting the skills, getting over bad accidents.

“Sometimes there were people who didn’t want to help you.

“Sometimes it could even be your teammate who didn’t want to tell you too much because they didn’t want you to beat them.

“You were a threat, and it was all a constant battle.

“All my competitors were men, and there was always going to be a little bit of friction,” she adds.

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“Men don’t like getting beaten by women. But that to me was the cream on the cake.

“It was the best feeling ever to win your class or win a rally. The respect that you got then from fellow competitors was lovely.”

There were battles on and off the track, but her driving skill earned her respect. Eventually she was no longer ‘the girl driver’ and instead, another competitor.

“You were not ‘a female’, you were more seen as a competitor, and it was it was nice to get to that standard.

“As individual in your career you just want to the best. It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female.

“They accepted me as a fierce competitor as opposed to being a girl and it was nice to be a competitor and not ‘just’ a female.”

More than Equal intends to identify emerging female drivers and help them with commercial opportunities and a support programme to progress through the motorsport categories towards F1.

With women in rallying racing against men, one route might be more opportunities to race each other.

“Having a women-only rally championship would provide an incentive for more women to take up the sport,” says Louise. “As in the case with junior championships which has attracted more new entrants into rally driving.


The Herald: Louise Aitken-Walker MBE and Tina Thorner will be at Knockhill for the McRae Rally Challenge. Photo supplied by Knockhill Racing Circuit.

“There would need to be parity with the men in relation to the cars driven; so the same engine, model and engine size but these details could be worked through.”

Either way, she adds: “If you are going into this world as a competitor, female or male, you have got to earn your own respect.”

She got her break by chance through a Ford competition to ‘Find A Lady Rally Driver” spotted in the Radio Times by her brothers.

It took her on a whirlwind journey that would see her selected for the Faberge Fiesta Challenge in 1979, a race and rally competition for women. Her first serious outing, she emerged in fourth place and won two of the events.

With a lethal combination of daring and skill, she racked up one achievement after the next behind the wheel of cars regarded as hothatch classics –  she drove a Ford Escort RS2000 in her first RAC Rally, and an Alfa Romeo Alfasud TI in Monte Carlo, beating a group of eight female teams and winning the coveted Coupe des Dames.

There were successful outings in Ford Escort XR3s, RS1600i and Peugeot 205 GTis – cars coveted by collectors who crave their performance and speed. Certain Peugeot 205 GTis hit 60mph in just six seconds.

At the wheel of the Peugeot, she excelled, earning number one driver for status in 1988, picking up a host of driving awards that saw her become a household name and familiar face on television.

But there were bumps in the road ahead. In February 1990, aged 30, she stood proudly on the bonnet of her Astra GTE 16v as reigning European Ladies’ Rally Champion and having stunned male opposition to take 11th place overall in the 2000 miles Monte Carlo Rally.

The Herald: Louise Aitken-Walker's limited edition whiskyLouise Aitken-Walker's limited edition whisky (Image: Contributed)

But within a few weeks she’s escaped with her life after a terrifying accident during the Portuguese Rally when her Opel Kadett plunged 50 yards down a rain lashed rocky slope, flipped several times and landed in a lake.

With the car filling with water in the 20ft deep lake, Louise and co-driver Christina Thorner battled to get out of the car and swim to the surface.

She carried on competing to lift the new FIA Ladies’ World Rally Championship trophy in 1991 – the first World Rally title for any British driver.

Having been awarded the MBE in 1992 and still just 32, she announced she was quitting.

According to the More than Equal report, the obstacles confronting female drivers lead to them quitting the sport much earlier than males, with women’s careers lasting on average between one and five years, with men more likely to last more than ten years.

Louise had achieved 14 years.

“I thought then that it was time to give up, settle down and bring up kids.

“There is more pressure on women,” she adds. “We have a window to have children, and if you want a family you can’t go on rallying forever, you have to stop.

“You have to give them the best life and not put your own life at risk.

“Men can bash on, but it’s impossible to rally when you’re pregnant.

“That is the deal. It is like that for any sport.”

Now, she’s ready to raise a glass to the good times.

Just 490 bottles have been produced - available from Turas Dana - with the ‘liquid gold’ inside evoking special memories for the rally legend.

“It’s very expensive to go rallying now, you have to have a pocket of gold, the cars cost a fortune, they’re more complicated,” she says.

“It was more relaxed in those days, the cars were more tactile, there were more of them at top level, competition was good.

“Looking back, we had some of the best times,” she adds.