News. Meet the Estate's events team

16th of April, 2017

Although Louis MacCallum grew up 50 miles and a stretch of water away from Dumfries House, he’s always had a connection to it. “I was born and raised on the Isle of Bute, where the Bute dynasty have their main residence, Mount Stuart,” he explains. “So I knew the family. I actually served as an altar boy in their chapel every Sunday.” Moving to the mainland as a young man, he pursued a career in hotel management before becoming Dumfries House’s Head Of Hospitality. “To end up at another of the Bute family’s places was extraordinary,” he says.

By contrast, his colleague Sheila Gregory was raised in Prestwick, but travelled the world before finding her way to the House: “I trained as a food scientist, which meant going off to approve a corned-beef factory in Uruguay or a Parmesan cheese factory in Italy. Then I came back to work at the agricultural college in Ayr, and when they closed my department I applied to be a guide here. The house was a mystery to me – I lived five minutes away, but all I’d ever seen of it was the chimneys when the trees were bare.” Before long, though, she found herself an integral part of Dumfries House. She was asked to help out at events and now works hand in glove with Louis MacCallum as Events Manager.

Their partnership was cemented one busy evening, when the pair were enlisted to serve dinner during a royal visit, shortly after The Duke of Rothesay had saved the House. “In those days it was freezing cold in the Great Steward’s Dining Room,” remembers Sheila. “I was still a guide and I’d never served at a dinner in my life.”

“I wasn’t even employed here,” says Louis. “I was managing a hotel nearby and His Royal Highness’s Private Secretary asked me to do the dinner with my staff. I said, ‘Of course’, and that’s when I met Sheila.”

“I’ll never forget it,” says Sheila. “Louis and I were serving on one side of the table, with Kenneth Dunsmuir [now the House’s Deputy Executive Director] and one of Louis’ colleagues on the other. It was a wonderful evening.”

Eight years on, Louis and Sheila might be mistaken for a married couple: the respect and affection between them is palpable. At the same time, they’re a formidable and hard-headed pair who have expanded the events at the House enormously. These now range from weddings, Valentine’s Day dinners and tea dances to concerts, whisky tastings and firework displays. Louis is officially in charge of weddings, the Lodge, the Woodlands Restaurant and the café, while Sheila looks after conferences, private dinners and so on. But neither believes in strict demarcation.

“It takes different personalities to make a team, and we run our department together,” says Louis. “Sheila’s very cautious – I try to get her to be a wee bit naughty, but she won’t.”

“I’m the nitty-gritty, paperwork person,” agrees Sheila. “Louis is the flamboyant one who makes things happen. But we all have to be prepared to muck in and do anything, from washing wellies to blowing up balloons.”

They count among their finest hours: a weekend for car enthusiasts, when Bugattis and Ferraris were flown in from all over the world; a wedding involving 10 bridesmaids and a pipe band; and a royal dinner on a summer’s evening, which was moved at short notice from the dining-room to the front steps (“The food had to be handed to the butlers through the window,” Sheila remembers). But they take pride in less extravagant occasions too, and in the young members of staff they’ve brought on. “Some of them arrive a bit rough at the edges,” says Sheila. “But you put them in a butler’s suit and all of a sudden their shoulders go back and you think, ‘Wow!’ ”

Many of their protégés have come through the Prince’s Trust Get Into Hospitality course at Dumfries House, which Louis runs. The first graduate was Lauren Dalziel: “At 17 I was unemployed and living by myself,” she says. “So I was in desperate need of a job. I was so proud and overwhelmed when I was offered a full-time position – I couldn’t wait to be part of such an amazing project.” Her fellow House Steward, Laura Buchanan, bears testimony to Dumfries House’s role in encouraging young people to stay in the area: “I was previously working in Glasgow, so applying here was a way of getting a job more local to home.”

Stuart Banks was 23 and had only ever had part-time jobs on zero-hour contracts when he took the Prince’s Trust course. Within a month of joining the events department, he was serving at The Duke of Rothesay’s birthday dinner at Buckingham Palace, and he now acts as butler to the Duke whenever he visits Dumfries House. “You still pinch yourself,” he says, “but working here changes your mindset. You’re given so much help, and Louis and Sheila are always pushing you forward.”

Stuart is not alone in mentioning royal events as the most exciting part of the job. His fellow House Butler, Michael Nowack, and Assistant Hospitality Manager Evan Samson single out the Queen’s 90th birthday celebrations at Windsor as a highlight. “It was an honour to represent Dumfries House, working alongside teams from Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle,” says Evan. “To see the full event come together was fantastic.”

Not that the work at Dumfries House itself is ever undemanding. As another House Butler, Daniel Cairns, explains, it involves everything from deciding on the best venue for an event to stocking the fridges with champagne. The smallest detail is important: “We want all our guests to feel that they have had a wonderful and unique experience.” For new recruits to the team such as Michael Russell and Lewis MacKenzie, all this can initially seem daunting. “Everyone was carrying three plates, and it was nerve-racking,” says Lewis of his first event. “But the more experienced staff helped me and now I’m used to it.”

“Everyone gets on so well – it really is like a family,” says Lauren Dalziel. She should know. She and husband John met at Dumfries House and, in their eyes at least, there’s no doubt which is the most important of all its recent events: celebrating their marriage at the House and setting up home on the estate with their son, Elliott, aged two.

Words Anthony Gardner

Photography Sophie Gerrard & Lisa Boyd