Scotland's larder Dr Robert Graham of Graham's The Family Dairy

Dr Robert Graham of Graham's The Family Dairy takes us on a trip down memory lane to talk about the changes in farming, his dancing days and his beloved Jersey girls.

Published 27th Apr 2021
Updated 27 th Apr 2021

Dr Robert Graham turns eighty later this year but doesn't show any signs of slowing down.

His pride and joy are his family, and his 400 strong Jersey milking herd which he admitted: "I'm very fond of."

He had kept black and white Holsteins, but in 1988 he decided to buy his first Jersey cows to be a bit different from everyone else.

He said: "to be honest it has been a resounding success with our range of Jersey Gold products."

The first twenty cows came from the Queen's Windsor herd, so they are not just commercial cattle, they have a right Royal Pedigree.

They are pasture fed and graze outside during the summer and are kept inside on straw beds in the winter time, he said "it costs a bit more to keep them that way, but it keeps the cows nice and clean."

He explained: "Jersey milk is a premium product, 25% higher in protein and 30% higher in calcium than normal cows milk.

"It is especially good for coffee and on your cereal in the morning."

Dr Graham
Dr Graham recreates a family photograph of him, as a 10 year old

Down memory lane

Robert explained his family history in farming, saying: "my father started out with only 12 cows so we have moved a long way.

"We'd milk the cows in the morning, bottle it, then deliver the milk in glass bottles to households nearby."

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He comes from a long line of farmers all with the same name, but as an only child, he said, "I had all the work to do."

In more recent times, he said due to the lockdowns, they had to adapt the business dramatically.

Graham's Family Dairy
The return of doorstep deliveries

He admitted: "the first couple of months were really tough, but we got round it. As I say, just keep going, never look back and rectify any mistakes as you go on."

The result was that the business returned to the company roots, setting up their glass bottle doorstep deliveries again, he said "luckily we still had a bottling plant."

Although the shops were closed, the milk continued to be produced and had to be processed, so instead they made tonnes of butter.

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Fortunately the pandemic saw an increase in home baking, he said, "that happened just when we were thinking 'what the hell are we going to do with this stuff'".

He recalls his mother churning butter by hand, and wrapping it in 1/4 pound blocks with a thistle stamp to sell from the milk van.

Graham's Family Dairy
Graham's Family Dairy a family run business; left to right: Robert snr, Robert, Carol and Jean

Now the company has a huge mechanical churn, which holds two tonnes of cream, which is turned into one tonne of butter and a machine packs the butter.

Initially it was just him and his mother and father, until he married Jean and she joined the family team.

He described the pasteurisation of milk as a game changer, saying: "it opened a lot of doors for us. With raw milk you could only sell it directly to customers."

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With a pasteurising plant we could sell to other shops and he said, "we got busier and busier and it went on from there."

I did it my way

He explained it has always been hard work, "I worked for 35 years milking at 2.30 am in morning, seven days a week.

"I didn't get an awful lot of time off. The milk went out that same day because that's the way we had always done it.

"The funny bit was, I thought that was the only way to do it."

When Dr Graham's son, also Robert joined the family firm he questioned his father's thinking by asking: 'Why do we need to do this so early in the morning? Is there not another way by using the previous day's milk?'

Dr Graham thought that wouldn't work, but he said, "of course it did, and we have never looked back.

"Young folk do know a few things. You just have to listen sometimes."

Now the cows get milked later at 4am and 3pm.

Dr Graham was awarded an honorary doctorate by Heriot-Watt University for outstanding contribution to Scotland’s dairy industry
Dr Graham was awarded an honorary doctorate by Heriot-Watt University for his outstanding contribution to Scotland’s dairy industry.

Although he no longer milks the cows himself, he ensures that he visits the farm at some point every day.

He also visits the production plant at Bridge of Allan, he said, "I get on my white coat and I have a walk round and speak to people."

He believes that is an important thing to do, "so people can see that there is somebody there who cares."

That is also something he has instilled in his children, Robert and Carol, who also run the business.

He never imagined for a second that they would become the number one, 'most chosen brand' in Scotland last year.

They have also benefited greatly from diversifying into healthy products, like Skyr, Kefir and Quark.

Shop floor

When he and Jean were in their 20's they took a chance and bought a small dairy shop in Bridge of Allan.

Jean went to the Cash & Carry in Stirling and bought £40 pounds of goods for the shelves, he said, "you will laugh, but that was a lot of money."

When people came to pay for their milk, they started to buy groceries and then scones and cakes.

He explained:, "we were getting so busy, I bought a bigger shop, which we turned it into a self service supermarket, R&J Graham."

The first R. Graham & Son glass milk bottle and Jersey Milk Gold top today
The first R. Graham & Son glass milk bottle and Jersey Milk Gold top today

He said, "when I look back, it was the only supermarket in the Stirling area, there was no Tesco's, no Sainsbury's.

"That is the story of how we got into retail."

Eventually they sold up the five stores they ended up with, to concentrate on expanding their core dairy business.

On the farm

Initially they were were based at Airthrey Kerse, but because the herd had expanded, the family bought another farm called Boquhan.

He laughed at the memory of his father saying: "no complaining just get on with it."

His mother was a farmer's daughter from Caithness, and he reminisces about visiting relatives during the summer holidays.

He said, "my mother would put me on the train at Stirling with a label on my neck aged 10 years.

"I would meet my aunt at Inverness, she had a bowl of soup and sandwich for me and would then put me on the next steam train to Wick, it stopped in a little siding and I met my uncle there."

His mother worked with the Department of Agriculture, as an advisor.

She met her future husband when she came to Stirling.

Robert Graham and his wife Isabella in 1939.
Robert Graham and his wife Isabella in 1939. 

Dr Graham said, "My father was always working, that is how it was".

He described him as a workaholic, a trait that he has inherited.

He said, "I don't like to ask people to do things I can't do myself, so I can still to this day, use the filling machines and process the milk myself."

He fondly remembered a rare Sunday family day-trip to get an ice-cream in Portobello.

Name Game

He stuck with family tradition and named his son Robert, and his daughter is called Carol.

However Robert broke with tradition and named his children, Holly, Douglas and Charlie.

Looking to the next generation of the family, currently Holly (14) Douglas (13) both spent their Saturdays working at the farm shop and the Easter holidays working in the dairy.

With a new pair of wellies each, courtesy of their grandparents "nae these fancy wellies either," Dr Graham said.

He has always advised his own children, "When you are in business just be yourself, don't try to be someone else or you will get found out.

"The business is a big now, but we are all down to earth and we treat everybody the same."

He explained that they now have "100 farming partners that we collect milk from across Scotland daily."

Dr Graham
Dr Graham keeps an eye on all aspects of the business.

Waltz, Quickstep, Foxtrot or Twist

Dr Graham met his wife Jean out dancing at The Golden Lion Hotel in Stirling, he said, "that was the place for dancing on a Saturday night."

Back in the day they'd dance to tunes like Craig Douglas-Only Sixteen and Chubby Checker-The Twist.

He said, "we were pretty good, we went on holiday one time and won a dancing competition. There were a lot of good dancer in those days."

One Saturday night, he said, "this couple came in, I recognised his photograph from the papers, he was a British champion boxer, Chic Calderwood.

"They were amazing to watch, that was just about the end of my dancing days."

Family values

Although Jean is not from a farming background, she has a natural retail instinct, because her father owned the shoe store, Bishop’s of Falkirk.

Dr Graham said, "I made a good choice, she is super clever. I couldn't have managed the business without her."

The couple have two talented children; Carol who played tennis and hockey at a high level, going to Loughborough University where she made British university teams.

She was an English teacher before working for the Sports Council before her brother persuaded her to come back to the family enterprise.

She was responsible for changing the branding, to Graham's The Family Dairy and ever since sales have risen dramatically.

Graham's The Family Dairy
L to R: Robert, Carol, Jean and Dr Graham

Dr Graham said "that is why it is so important for firms to get their branding right."

Growing up Robert played tennis with Judy Murray as his coach. Dr Graham said, "he was pretty good."

Initially Dr Graham didn't think his son would ever join the family firm.

He said, "Robert is like his mother, he is clever. He studied Accountancy, but one night he said I want to come back to the business."

During a recent external company audit Dr Graham was almost moved to tears, when they said, 'you and your wife and your family must be so proud of this business, it is immaculate."

Dr Graham said, "folks don't say that and it was so nice. I hadn't heard that word for years. Everything about the company represents us as a family."

Graham's The Family Dairy

Airthrey Kerse Farm,
Bridge of Allan

01786 833206

• READ MORE: Scotland’s larder: Jack Cuthbert, Ardoch Hebridean sheep farmer from Fossoway

Catriona is a freelance writer based in the Scottish Borders, and a nominee for Food and Drink writer at this year's Scottish Press Awards.
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