The woman behind Kingdom Scotland, the first ever Scottish fragrance house, tells us how her love of the natural world is at the heart of her perfumes
Photography Susie Lowe
Words and art direction Gillian Welsh
Perfume is a world apart. It has its own vocabulary (did you know that ‘sillage’ describes the degree to which a fragrance lingers in the air, or that ‘vellichor’ is the term for the evocative and comforting scent of old books?). Those who concoct scents are modern-day alchemists, creating multi-faceted 3D (even 4D) fragrances that are much more than the sum of their parts.
Imogen Russon-Taylor was working in whisky for luxury goods group LVMH when she first thought seriously about scent. “My remit was Glenmorangie and Ardbeg but I also had access to some of the most incredible maisons – the likes of Guerlain, Hennessy Cognac, Veuve Clicquot, Dior and Fendi. I instantly saw the parallels between fine wine, spirits and perfume.”
She racked her brains for Scottish fragrance houses but couldn’t come up with any. “I could think of lots in France and Italy and even Penhaligon’s in England, but none in Scotland,” she remembers.
Could there be forgotten makers from previous centuries? She worked with research fellow Dr Dawn Hollis of the University of St Andrews history, investigating Scotland’s perfumed past, searching national records, archives and libraries. “We also delved into the archives at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE), and found barbers and chemists who were selling toilet waters and fragrance brands from around Europe. But there were no Scottish brands. It struck me that this presented an exciting opportunity to start my own fragrance house.”
Russon-Taylor’s fascination with scent goes back to when she was little, when she’d watch her mother getting ready for an evening out. “I loved the final stage, the spritz of perfume – Estée Lauder’s White Linen or Nina Ricci’s L’Air du Temps. They’re still treasured perfumes in my scent wardrobe today.”
Her glamorous grandma, a model and gown-shop owner, would dab on headier blends such as Lancôme’s Magie Noire and Dior’s original Poison, but her go-to was Estée Lauder’s Youth Dew bath oil. “The instant I smell it again I’m taken back to her fabulous pink-and-black bathroom.”
Russon-Taylor, who lives in Edinburgh with her three children, launched Kingdom Scotland in 2018. All its scents are conceived, crafted, matured and bottled here. Her first three unisex perfumes were inspired by the country itself: metamorphic rock, Caledonian pine forests, snow, ice and berries. The fourth scent, Kingdom Botanica, launching this year, is different, however. A vibrant mix of opulent, woody green florals, it traces the diverse history of Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden, marking its 350th anniversary. Creating it has taken two years and 35 ingredients inspired by people, plants and places associated with the Garden’s past.
The top note is spiced plum blossom, referencing RBGE’s ongoing collaboration with China (it has one of the largest living collections of Chinese plants outside their native habitat). Fresh pink pepper, meanwhile, is drawn from the evergreen tree found in Peru, where RBGE carries out major research. “Creating a scent to define and celebrate 350 years of such an iconic institution was quite a brief – but it’s the brief of a lifetime.”
She and RBGE archivist Leonie Paterson went back to 1670, when the institution that would become RBGE was a physic garden in the grounds of Holyrood Palace. They worked through to the Scottish botanists and intrepid plant adventures who made the British garden what it is today. “I wanted to represent the work of Forrest, Sibbald, Martin, Douglas, Balfour, Sutherland and Fortune – in scent.”
Her next port of call was the Herbarium and the Garden’s preserved and living collections, with the input of botanist Dr Gregory Kenicer. The Kingdom Botanica eau de parfum that resulted from this is, she says, “biodiversity in scent”. Profits from sales will go towards biodiversity research at the RBGE in the face of the climate emergency.
Like the rest of Russon-Taylor’s perfumes, this one uses only natural, sustainable and ethical ingredients. Her concern for the environment has been with her since childhood, sparked by her dad, a war baby: “He got me to reuse and recycle everything. We had a garage full of labelled jam-jars and boxes, and shelves of ‘useful things’.”
Studying geography and geology at the University of Edinburgh fuelled her respect for the natural world. She describes herself as a ‘rock nerd’ and is proud of her collection of crystals and fossils. “My boys are starting to steal them from my mineral cabinet – but I’m excited they’re interested! What I’d really like is a meteorite.” Her friend and fellow rock nerd Dr Hermione Cockburn, a presenter for BBC’s Coast and the Scientific Director at Dynamic Earth, has a four-billion-year-old meteorite. “We were at university together and travelled across south-west Africa researching her PhD in geomorphology.”
While her deepest inspiration comes from the outdoors, dramatic landscapes and seasonal flora, she is also spurred on by people-watching in Paris and Amsterdam. Her approach to scent creation as art also draws on her passions and life experiences. “I can bring in a love of the aromatic world of whisky,” she says. “My ideas are endless and a constant source of energy.”
Prestigious stores such as Les Senteurs in London’s Belgravia, the iconic perfume boutique that brought fragrance houses Creed and Frédéric Malle into the UK, stocks Kingdom Scotland. “My customers love the ‘sense of place’ and even the ‘sense of escape’ that the Kingdom scents give them.”
Does she have a favourite fragrance? She greatly admires Frédéric Malle’s Editions de Parfums for pushing perfumers into the spotlight and making them “rock stars”, as she puts it. “But Chanel No5, which my grandma bought me for my 21st, will always have a special place in my heart.”