Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face, Great Chieftain o' the Puddin-race ..." declares the booming voice of a small, kilted man, caught in the spotlight. And with these opening lines from Robert Burns' immortal Address to a Haggis, the banquet is well and truly underway. Our speaker is the world famous (well, in Scotland anyway) presenter of the TV series Beachgrove Gardens, Jim McColl. Tonight, however, he is putting on a star performance worthy of Broadway as the evening's Fear an Tigh, or Master of Ceremonies. His performance involves bending down to address the haggis, nose to sheep’s meat, one moment and then leaping backwards, prodding it from afar the next. With the poem complete and the dish carved we all stand to raise a toast.The gathering at Blair Castle in Perthshire took place in autumn as part of the twice yearly get together of the Keepers of the Quaich, the society dedicated to the Scotch whisky industry. Watching McColl dance about with his skean-dhu, or dagger, flashing in the lights reminded me of a tale from a previous banquet. The story goes that the Fear an Tigh that evening was having quite a tussle with a particularly slippery haggis which jumped the knife and had to be snatched from the floor. "What's he doing?" whispered Nancy Reagan, wife of the guest of honour – the former President of the United States Ronald Reagan, to her neighbour on the top-table. "Addressing the haggis," replied Lord Elgin, the Society Patron and past Grand Master. "What for?" came her reply. "So we can eat it," replied Lord Elgin politely. This was met by a horrified cry of: "EAT IT? I'm not eating it!"This time the guest of honour was Philip Lader, the US Ambassador to Britain, who earlier that evening had been sworn in by laying hands on the ceremonial Quaich together with the 31 Life Members and eight Masters also being inducted. Before the haggis, the Quaich itself, a shallow silver drinking bowl the size of a small basin, was piped in and presented to the top table. After numerous speeches, music, songs and more speeches, it became apparent that the Ambassador would have a very hard act to follow.When the summons came to attend the banquet I had certainly heard of the Keepers of the Quaich but had little idea of what actually went on. With its Members, Masters, Grand Masters and its confusing set of rituals it all sounded decidedly Masonic. If not, then perhaps with its emphasis on swearing allegiance it was Jacobite in origin as in toasting the King o'er the water. And what about the induction ceremony itself – what kind of rites of passage would that involve? I thought back to my first night at boarding school and to the time I first crossed the equator by sea. On that occasion the crew had threatened to tie me to the funnel and pelt me with slop, though by three in the morning everyone was too tired or drunk to oblige. This time round, however, I was just there to observe or rather to be a second-hand observer since the induction chamber itself was reserved for Members only.Getting there involved a slightly hairy dash up the A9, taking the car's dials to places they rarely stray, but as we swung off the motorway and through the deserted village of Blair Atholl we had more-or-less made up for bad traffic en route. The imposing, white-washed castle was
beginning to glow in the dusk by the time my wife and I arrived. Dating back to 1269, Blair has changed and expanded over the centuries. For a while it came to resemble a Georgian manor house until the 7th Duke re-installed the battlements in good Victorian tradition. Inside, the décor leans heavily towards military hardware and deer – we're not talking Bambi here either. The panelled reception rooms and the Grand Hall are hung with helmets, chainmail, crossbows and swords which are splayed out like a fan on the wall. The entrance and main staircase is wall-to-wall muskets while any space that remains is given over to antlers. Imagine being the Duke of Atholl, raised from your slumbers in the dead of night by the distant sound of breaking glass. What weapon would you pluck from the wall as you set off to stalk the intruder in your pyjamas? Decisions, decisions …
"So what happened? Tell me," I ask the New York journalist beside me as we sit down for dinner. "Oh, you know, the usual. We were stripped naked and made to stand round this big silver bowl and perform …" But before his fantasy could run away with itself, McColl had raised his auctioneer's gavel before bringing it down with a resounding crack. It was time for Grace. The Reverend Cairns, the former Moderator of the Church of Scotland, dispatched a wickedly irreverent broadside at every other variety of booze on the planet. Talk about preaching to the converted! This rousing battle cry to go forth and convert the natives to the water of life went down a storm among the 230 guests. His tone was one of bemusement for all those sad souls from the Sake sippers of Saigon to the Pisco drinkers of Peru whose lives are made miserable for want of whisky. Like everyone else I assumed the poem had been written years ago during a long winter spent in some remote glen by a distillery manger huddled beside his still. In fact it was scribbled down that afternoon by the Rev. Cairns himself. The man is clearly in the wrong job.Over dinner we had Buchanan's De Luxe 12-Years-Old, described as a balance between grassy Speyside and Perthshire sweetness, followed by the delightful Ardbeg 1975 Vintage from Islay. And to round off the evening there was a'bunadh – the fabulously rich, buttery cask strength malt from Aberlour that is almost a meal in itself. We were however allowed wine to accompany our 'whisky flavoured smoked salmon' starter and 'Loin of Perthshire Lamb'.Over pre-dinner drams of Cutty Sark Original I cornered some poor American lady and let loose one of the bees currently buzzing round my bonnet, that of drinks to accompany food – though the whisky industry is better than most. After a recent trip up the Douro, I still do not believe there is a style of Port to accompany every dish throughout the day, despite everything my hosts said to the contrary. The woman nodded vigorously and then with a furtive glance left and right, muttered: "The truth is I don't really like Scotch." We giggled. Like mention of prophylactics or Sir Ian Paisley within the Vatican, such whispered comments amongst the whisky barons felt subversive if not downright sacrilegious.It was back to the dinner to hear one of the industry's biggest barons, John McGrath, Chairman of Diageo, propose the Loyal toast. He drew inspiration from the way whisky has had to struggle against governments and their hostile tax regimes and how this has helped encourage a sense of unity.We were getting to the crux of the matter – the role of the Keepers of the Quaich in drawing together the diverse and
dissipated threads of the trade under one roof. The industry could now pay tribute to its far-flung worker bees and at the same time re-affirm the bond between Scotch, of which 90 per cent is exported, and the land it comes from. This last point is crucial to whisky. After all not every spirit can bang on about its roots with such conviction as sight of the massive Cameron Bridge distillery in Fife and its steady stream of Smirnoff tankers would prove.Many claim the big decisions affecting Scotch whisky are too often made outside Scotland, but watching the big guns on the top table one wondered what deals were being struck right here in the heart of Perthshire. The industry is currently in a state of jittery anticipation over the fate of its third biggest player – Seagrams. Then again the talk was probably of something far less contentious. On our table we were discussing when the Society of the Keepers of the Quaich was actually conceived. If its origins weren't Jacobite perhaps they were from the late Victorian whisky boom? The truth is the Society is barely twelve years old – a fact that seemed almost shocking given how polished and well choreographed the whole event was. It also begs the question: why hadn't anyone thought of it before?The American Ambassador rose from his chair to give an excellent speech that was witty, lucid and completely off the cuff. "I guess Clinton can't be all bad if he appointed such a man," the lady next to me, a life-long Republican from Ohio, surprisingly conceded.A muffled nasal moan grew steadily louder, moving towards us down the corridor. Suddenly the doors burst open and in marched the Athol Highlanders, bag-pipes at full throttle, beneath a blue haze of cigar smoke. It was quite a sight and a very fitting end to the evening which can only be described as ‘quite’ an experience. Though I’ll kick myself for never finding out if that journalist from New York was telling the truth.