Malcolm Allan - it must be me

BORN: 25 February, 1919, in Camelon, Falkirk.
Died: 12 March, 2015, in Bo’ness, aged 96.

Malcolm Allan was a young airman who narrowly avoided one of the Second World War’s greatest maritime disasters and went on to establish a family business that became Scotland’s top food brand.

His eponymous meat products, sold initially from his shops and now stocked in supermarkets across the country, have soared in popularity over recent years with a new processing plant, built to cope with increased demand, opening on the same day that he celebrated his 95th birthday – a feat almost unimaginable nearly 75 years earlier as he raced to escape the enemy troops encroaching on Dunkirk.

Allan, the middle child of three boys and four girls, was the son of a foundry grinder and had left Camelon High School at 14 to become an apprentice butcher in his uncle’s local business,
F & J McRae.

He was doing his military training, the predecessor of national service, when Britain declared war on Germany in 1939 and was conscripted into the RAF as a leading aircraftman.

By the early summer of 1940 he was at Dunkirk and should have been on board the Lancastria, the requisitioned Cunard cruise liner evacuating Allied troops from the area in the wake of the German invasion of the Low Countries and northern France.

It has never been clear exactly how many thousands were on board the vessel when it was targeted by a German dive bomber on the afternoon of 17 June, 1940. Some estimate as many as 9,000, of whom fewer than 2,500 survived the sinking.

It was Britain’s biggest maritime disaster but an episode replete with bravery – the ship going down to the sound of thousands of voices singing Roll Out The Barrel and There’ll Always Be An England as she sank beneath the waves within 20 minutes.

Allan, who had been detailed to leave on the vessel but did not end up getting on board, instead set off on foot to avoid the advancing German soldiers and eventually made it safely back to Britain in a small boat.

He was later posted with the RAF to Egypt where he was a dispatch driver and then a convoy driver and was mentioned in despatches in June 1942.

He subsequently had the chance to come home before his unit moved to Italy but he swapped places with an airman who had a wife and children at home. Determined to protect his wider circle from worrying about him, and reluctant to receive letters while he was away serving his country, he had already cut ties with everyone apart from family.

After surviving the entire duration of the war, he was finally demobbed in February 1946 at RAF Lossiemouth. There he met his future wife Nancy McMurchie, a servicewoman from Islay who was also the Naafi piano player. They married in January 1948 in Camelon.

He had long dreamed of having his own shop and, although after the war he went back to work for his uncle, his vision finally came true in 1954 when he had the chance to open his own premises in Bonnybridge. He started with a horse and cart but the horse soon had to go, as it had a penchant for devouring his customers’ hedges, and he moved on to a van, designing his own travelling shop, made by local coachbuilders.

As he built up his business and reputation he also retained a loyal staff – his first employee stayed with him for the rest of his working life, as did many subsequent workers.

He and Nancy, who suffered the great sadness of a stillborn daughter, also had two sons, James and Gordon, who followed their father into the business and the enterprise expanded until they had 20 retail outlets and were supplying hotels from Inverness to Durham.

Then, seeing a new opportunity, they dismantled the retail business and began concentrating on supplying the supermarket sector, a major transition for the family and staff.

However, Allan’s commercial acumen and gregarious personality ensured the new strategy was also a success.

In 2013 the firm was recognised as Scotland’s top food brand, ahead of global names including Baxters, and Allan, who was immensely proud of the accolade, was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award. Last year Malcolm Allan Ltd celebrated its 60th anniversary, launching a new production site just two miles from the original shop he opened in 1950s.

Sharp as a tack until he died, he had a natural flair for engaging with people and could always recall a name, whether it was a government minister or a local shopping centre security guard. Like his parents he was a keen supporter of Falkirk FC and a club director for seven years, a role where his people skills also came into play. As a mark of respect the team wore black armbands and the crowd gave him a minute’s applause at the home game following his death.

But his greatest achievement was caring for his wife, whom he looked after at home for several years after she developed Alzheimer’s Disease.

Fortunate to have enjoyed a great life, he continued to live it to the full, a pursuit perfectly illustrated when, during a social work assessment, he was asked what he had done that weekend. His reply: a Chinese meal accompanied by Sauvignon Blanc; football; Cristal champagne and Andrew Wishart’s tasting menu at Gleneagles. He was 94 at the time.

Predeceased by Nancy, he is survived by their sons James and Gordon, grandsons Ross and Stewart, who are also involved in the family business, granddaughter Laura and two great-grandchildren.