The following article was published in the November 2019 Spotlight Magazine – Inverness and District; Nairn and District; Forres and District; Buckie, Keith and District; Turriff, Huntly and District; and Strathspey and District editions.
Having spent a lot of this summer on the road with guests, I thought I would write a short piece on the vehicle I do the majority of my touring in: The Land Rover Defender.
But this short history is not really about its development and manufacture by the Rover Car Company, Leyland Motor Corporation, British Leyland, Land Rover Ltd., BMW, Ford Motors, or any of those companies’ trials and tribulations. Instead, we’re looking at the firm origins of the Land Rover in the Gàidhealtachd.
The island of Islay is where the Land Rover name originated and, despite that being irrefutable, the story is rarely told. Land Rover did comment on it in a 2015 article and other commentary on the origins has followed, but rarely do they talk about the individual responsible for the name.
Unfortunately for him, the recognition did not include the financial rewards one might have expected for naming the brand which, for 68 years between 1948 and 2016, continually produced the Series and Defender models which were developed on Islay.
In 1930, Spencer Wilks’ enthusiasm for car design was matched by his younger brother Maurice and they were both appointed to the board of the developing Rover Car Company. Spencer then purchased the Laggan Estate on Islay after becoming a Managing Director of Rover in 1933. After the end of World War II, Spencer began working with Rover car parts, taking inspiration from American and British military overland vehicles.
As a result of this creative work, Spencer and Maurice led the company towards the aim of producing a commercial vehicle that could be used for agricultural purposes as well as military purposes on all terrains. In 1947, Spencer took several prototype vehicles to Islay to put them through rigorous testing, helped by his gamekeeper.
Spencer’s witty gamekeeper was named Ian Fraser and during the prototype testing, he would watch the Laird driving his vehicles on the hills and in the bogs whilst he attempted to do his work on the island and lead shooting parties. He was known to make remarks such as; “there’s the Laird in his land-Rover” as Spencer passed, more than likely spoiling the likelihood of a successful stalk. As the Wilks brothers’ company was already named Rover, this quip was clearly a comment on the vehicle’s intended use on rough land rather than road and the name caught favour with Spencer.
In 1948 the first Series model Land Rovers were produced (the forerunner of the Defender). Since then, many pre-production models were handed over to Ian Fraser and his son Duncan on Islay for rough-testing until Wilks’ death in 1971!
Many Defender models are still on the roads throughout Scotland and my guests and I regularly acknowledge them with a raised hand, as is the custom for Defender drivers; but if you see the Highland Historian Land Rover, feel free to give me a wave in a salute to Ian Fraser, the Islay gamekeeper.
If you have a topic you’d like to find out more about, or have local traditions and stories to share, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and visit highlandhistorian.com to book your bespoke guided tour!
Andrew Grant McKenzie MA (Hons) FSA Scot
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