Shirley Spears entered the world of food and drink with 15 years in advertising and PR in central London behind her – and no formal catering training.
“We [she and business partner and husband Eddie] wanted to move back to Scotland with our two young children and bring them up here,” she says. “We realised we had no transferable skills, so we decided to move to Skye and set up a restaurant.”
A keen amateur cook, Peebles-born Spears had scouted Scotland for a location to launch the new business venture – and months later, in 1984, snapped up a remote former croft on the isle of Skye, where she ran the kitchen herself until 2005.
Now, 22 years later, The Three Chimneys at Colbost, on the shore of Loch Dunvegan, has been named one of the world’s top restaurants, earning a Michelin Star and it is a regular haunt of foodies travelling in the Scottish Islands.
Spears herself has now been awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list, for services to food and drink in Scotland.
In addition to remaining hands-on at her own business, she is a tireless ambassador for tourism on Skye and chairs the Scottish Government’s Food Commission, which will advise the creation of the Food Bill.
In addition, Spears works closely with Education Scotland and the Scottish Tourism Alliance and received a Lifetime Achievement award from Catering Scotland and a Spirit of Scotland award for her cooking in 2002.
Spears is passionate about promoting healthy – but enjoyable – eating and believes the community needs to work together to promote the healthy eating message across Scotland.
“We need to think more about what we eat and what we choose to eat – and get back to basics with homecooking and family,” she says.
“We need to all be active in making a change. It is not just the responsibility of individual organisations or the government – it is everyone’s responsibility to do their bit.”
Spears admits she almost missed the letter from the Cabinet Office informing her of the award after it was packed in with a pile of business letters and sent down to the family’s North Berwick home, where they spend around half of their time.
“My daughter, Sarah, who runs the accommodation side of the business at the Three Chimneys, had bundled the mail together and sent it to me in one envelope so we would get it before we went away on holiday,” she says. “But she hadn’t put the right stamps on the envelope, so we got a notification that we had to pick it up at the Post Office.”
Unable to do so before her trip, the first Spears heard of the award was when the Cabinet Office phoned to ask why she had not returned her form.
“I asked, what form?” she says. “When he told me, I couldn’t believe it. It was such a surprise.”