It’s probably just as well that Friar John Claw and Vesper don’t know that they’re famous, or they might demand additional kibble and chin scratches. As it stands, the Lindores Abbey Distillery cats are oblivious to their stardom.
Along with their humans, distillery founders, Helen and Drew McKenzie Smith, they appear in the current Netflix documentary, Inside the Mind of a Cat. In the single 67 minute programme, which features scientists, historians and other experts discussing the nature of the human/cat relationship, the Fife-based duo get more than just a quick cameo.
They’re filmed on their crepuscular patrols, during which the tortoiseshell female, Vesper, will dispatch the mice who would otherwise be busy chomping on the grain they use to make their Single Malt Scotch Whisky MCDXCIV. She’s doing well, but still has to catch up with the most famous distillery cat of all time, Towser, who is estimated to have caught around 28,000 mice in her 24 years at Glenturret.
The show reveals that Friar John Claw is more of a front-of-house guy, who likes to hang out in the visitor centre and dodge the hard graft.
Since it aired, the distillery team has noticed a growing fan club and following on their Instagram account @friarandvesper.
We spoke to Gee McKenzie Smith, merchandise creator and chief cat wrangler.
What has the reaction been to the cats’ appearance?
It has been staggering. We didn't know how many people would watch what is quite a niche documentary, but people all over the world appear to really love cats. We have had several visitors now who have come to the distillery just to meet the cats, and it is our job to go and hunt them down and bring them to reception to meet their adoring fans. We had a lady from Australia the other day who waited ages for us to track FJC (Friar John Claw) down because she said that her daughter wouldn't let her leave without taking a picture of him.
Have they enjoyed the attention?
FJC has, but he is by far the more sociable of the pair. He is now quite regularly found lounging about on the reception desk, preening on a cask, or sometimes joining groups on tours. Vesper is more shy, so she tends to keep 'back of house' doing the hard work of catching the mice.
What was the filming like? Were they difficult to capture, while performing their night time duties?
It was quite a long process over a couple of days, and the cats were amazingly patient. The crew were incredible - they had come all the way over from the USA to film the cats and had all sorts of tricks to keep them engaged and get the right shots. The most interesting bit was the tracking collars which showed us where the cats go at night. They are very busy beasts. We had to do a lot of bribery with Dreamies to keep the cats interested, but by far the trickiest bit was when we had to use a live mouse for an action shot while ensuring that it didn't get hurt. We can confirm that no animals were harmed in the making of the documentary, but the cats did end up getting a bit cross. Both of them are unbelievably gentle animals, but FJC did growl at us at one point, so we let him take a well-earned break.
How is the cat-related merch selling, and which cat is coming out on top?
It is doing so well! I design and paint it all and am now the chief Instagram curator for the cats. Vesper is outselling both of her brothers, FJC and our dog Wallace, which seems fair as she does the lion's share of the mousing. Poor Wallace is lagging behind a bit, so I've boosted his sales by giving all of my friends jigsaws of his face (whether they like it or not!).
Are the cats okay with your lab, Wallace?
FJC and Wally are quite good pals now and will curl up at opposite ends of the sofa, but Vesper keeps her distance. Wally is desperate to be friends with everyone and everything, so he gets a bit upset when she runs off. He is pretty huge though, so I can't blame her.
How old are the cats, and where did they come from?
They are five now, which seems mad as they are very much 'the kittens' to us. They are from the bright lights of Cardenden near Lochgelly originally, so they are Fifers through and through. My mum and sister went to get them, and apparently Vesper had been named Princess Peach by the little girl whose cat had had the kittens. We think it quite suited her.
How quickly did you build followers on Instagram?
I started the Instagram when we first got the cats back in 2017. We started it for a bit of fun, and we amassed a few hundred followers, mainly our friends and family. Then, after the documentary came out, it jumped to 10k almost overnight, and now we are at over 53k! I works very hard to keep our followers entertained. Luckily the cats are both very photogenic, as are the distillery and abbey ruins, so taking good pictures of them is quite easy. The Ask me Anything sessions are always popular, and we did a giveaway for merch which was good fun too. Perhaps we should start getting them to do paid meet and greets?