A photographic interview with Stuart Usher

Stuart Usher, city guide and man of iron will

Stuart Usher, city guide and man of iron will

I first met Stuart Usher by chance when I was waiting by an Edinburgh car park for a friend who I was teaming up with to shoot street photography.

Stuart, being Stuart, just started talking to me. He was an interesting guy and within thirty seconds of him talking to me, I had decided to ask if I could take his photo. I wouldn’t do this for another fifteen minutes though because Stuart had me gripped. He was a fascinating guy, very well spoken, obviously from a well to do background, viciously upright and polite, but with a little edge, a little rough coat that I couldn’t work out.

He told me he was a city guide and that his family had donated a few buildings to the town and he toured groups around both them and other tourist spots the city has to offer.

It wasn’t until I had asked him for his photograph and he had handed me a leaflet so I could email him the result that I put two and two together. His name was Stuart Usher and I deduced that one of the buildings his family donated was the Usher Hall, one of the finest concert halls in the world to this day.

Stuart outside the Usher Hall

Stuart outside the Usher Hall

I got home that evening and couldn’t get this accidental meeting out of my head, especially as he had photographed so well, and I decided to email him his photo and ask if I could hire him for a day, not for a tour but for an interview and photo essay. He agreed.

Two weeks later, on a bitterly cold Edinburgh morning, I met Stuart outside the front entrance of the Usher Hall, walked twenty yards down the road, went into a little coffee house and got to know one of the most interesting and entertaining gentlemen I have ever had the luck to meet. He is also amongst the most outraged and determined men I have ever met, but before I write about that, it’s important that you understand where the man comes from and what has driven him to being who he is today.

Stuart dumfounded by the price of Leica glass

Stuart dumfounded by the price of Leica glass

Year Event
1300 An Usher family was a favourite of King David II
1400 An Usher was Provost of Peebles
1782 Andrew Usher I born on April Fools day
1813 Andrew Usher I founds Andrew Usher & Co
1831 Andrew Usher I sets up Usher’s Brewery for his two eldest sons
1840 Andrew Usher I takes his two youngest sons, Andrew and John, into the whisky business
1853 Andrew Usher I experiments with blending malt whiskies and develops the first retail blended whisky
1853.-.1859 Andrew Usher II hones the method of blending whisky and starts the blended whisky export trade and is acclaimed as “The Father of the Scottish Whisky Industry”
1855 Andrew Usher I dies and leaves business to Andrew Usher II and John Usher
1860 The Usher family owns the Edinburgh Distillery and build the largest whisky maturing warehouses in the world at St Leonards, Edinburgh
1886 Andrew Usher II along with John Crabbie and Sanderson of later Vat 69 fame, build the North British Distillery in Gorgie, Edinburgh and produce grain spirit for blending
1890 Andrew Usher & Co hold 2 million gallons of whisky in bond
1896 Andrew II donates £100,000 to Edinburgh City to build a concert hall which would eventually be named TheUsher Hall
1898 Andrew Usher II dies leaving only daughters
1898 John Usher endows and donates the Usher Health Institute, the most advanced health institution in the UK when it was opened in 1901
1899 John Usher is created a Baronet – Sir John Usher of Norton and Wells
1904 Sir Robert Usher, son of Sir John Usher succeeds his father in the whisky business
1904 Sir Robert has a son, William Dove Usher, Stuart Usher’s father.
1911 King George V and Queen Mary lay the foundation stones of the Usher Hall
1912 The business is awarded the Royal Warrant
1914 Usher Hall completed
1918 Sir Robert Usher sells the business to The Distillers Company Limited
1933  Sir Robert dies and his title is passed to his eldest son, John Usher
1941 William Usher has two sons, William John Usher and Stuart Alexander Usher, on his Tea Estates in Tanzania, East Africa
1947 William returns to Scotland with the family and John and Stuart are brought up on Bedrule Farm in Bedrule Parish in the Scottish Borders, part of the Usher Estates
1953 Stuart attends Warriston School in Moffat, Scotland
1955 Stuart attends Uppingham School in Rutland, England
1961 Stuart attends the Royal Agricultural College but is expelled for not conforming
1968 William moves the family to Natal, South Africa, due to unfortunate events within the Usher family and Estates and plans for his sons to make their fortune in South Africa
1969 William Dove Usher dies in South Africa and is buried in Bedrule Church yard
1968.-.1994 Stuart starts a construction company and grows it to 50 staff
1981 Stuart marries Gillian in South Africa
1983 Stuart and Gillian have a daughter
1986 Stuart and Gillian have a son
1994 Stuart’s brother inherits the family title and becomes Sir John Usher of Norton and Wells, but does not inherit the family Estates as envisaged in the Usher Trust
1994 Stuart returns to Scotland to save what he can for the Usher family of Norton and Wells whose considerable assets were now set to be divided up amongst six other non Usher familiesBrother John remains in South Africa pending solution to problem of Estates passing to outsiders
1996 Sir John and Stuart mount fight back to reclaim Estates which should have gone to his brother Sir John
1997  By this time Stuart’s immediate family has fallen on hard times and Stuart works in bars, burger vans and drives taxis to make ends meet
1998 Stuart’s brother, Sir John Usher of Norton and Wells, dies unexpectedly in South Africa
An inscription on the Usher Health Institute

An inscription on the Usher Health Institute

The Usher Coat of Arms delineated on the Usher Health Institute

The Usher Coat of Arms delineated on the Usher Health Institute

I found Stuart, as I hinted at earlier, a mix of emotions, a thick blend of outrage, blind determination, love, patriotism and fun. It’s hard to imagine you could experience all those feelings from one person in just a few hours but they were all there in spades and I suppose the reason I saw them all was down to the openness of the man.

Stuart Usher has nothing to hide. Nothing. He lays his whole life bare; his mistakes, his triumphs, his likes and dislikes, his loves and his hates, and through it all you can see the man.

You can see the pride in his background, you can see the loathing of the people he blames for ripping it from his brother and him, you can see the utter devotion to his wife and children and you can see his determination to reinstate his birthright and the Usher family on its Estates.

Stuart leans against the Usher Hall foundation stone laid by King George V and his Queen

Stuart leans against the Usher Hall foundation stone laid by King George V and his Queen

A lot of people just won’t and don’t care about people like Stuart Usher. It’s easy to look at the aristocracy and claim that they have no place in a modern world. It’s easy to lay the blame for the current state of politics and economics at their door.

The House of Usher was one of the richest families in the UK. It would sit at the top of the UK rich list at the turn of the 20th century. The £100,000 the family donated to build the Usher Hall in 1896 would be worth well over £10 billion today. (Source: http://www.measuringworth.com). The Usher Hall was just one of the many buildings, harbours and medical centres the Ushers gave to the UK. There were many similar donations abroad as well. The global employee count of the company in it’s heyday is incalculable and without the Ushers, the Scottish whisky industry would be much smaller and contribute much less to society today.

Stuart in a gentle mood over a coffee

Stuart in a gentle mood over a coffee

I believe the world needs families like the Ushers. I believe the world needs a form of leadership that is capable of creating wealth of this magnitude and distributing it responsibly through the world.

I also empathise with people like Stuart and greatly respect him for the fight he has and is putting into getting back what he believes to still belong to the Usher family.

Stuart Usher leaning on the concert hall named after his great grandfather

Stuart Usher leaning on the concert hall named after his great grandfather

Many people know the story of the House of Usher, it has been well documented on Wikipedia and by Channel 4’s Cutting Edge and most will judge Stuart by these pieces.

I don’t. I take him as I found him one bitterly cold Edinburgh morning… a gentleman. A gentleman who may be fighting a losing battle. A gentleman that may be slightly misguided but who would also admit it through a wry little smile. A gentleman with a lost past. A gentleman with a worrying future. But a gentleman nonetheless.

Stuart with one of his cheeky smiles posing for a shot after sneaking into the Usher Health Institute to show me around with out permission

Stuart with one of his cheeky smiles posing for a shot after sneaking into the Usher Health Institute to show me around with out permission

Nonconformist to the bitter end, Stuart smokes openly and proudly

Nonconformist to the bitter end, Stuart smokes openly and proudly

All photos shot with a Leica M240, 50mm Summilux and 35mm Summilux.