History

Ghosts in the works

Ghosts are a common feature in whisky distilleries. Robin Laing goes in search of some of the most famous onces
By Robin Laing
Scotland is a land of story tellers; maybe it’s the whisky. Certainly in the Highlands (the spiritual home of Uisge Beatha) folk would gather together to share a dram and make music, sing songs and tell tales.Perhaps because of our blend of strict religion and primitive beliefs, many of the stories are about supernatural subjects. The folklore of Scotland is alive with witches, devils, fairies and ghosts. There is a definite interface between other-world spirits and distilled spirits; the devil features regularly in whisky mythology and there is a small army of distillery ghosts.The ghosts that inhabit distilleries are naturally shy and elusive. There is a tantalising assertion in Misako Udo’s book The Scottish Whisky Distilleries that Aberlour distillery “is haunted by a lady and a dog.” Fascinated, I sought more information, but Misako could not remember where she read about it. I asked various people at Aberlour, including Alan Winchester, and if there is anything to know about Aberlour, Alan knows it. But he knew nothing about the lady and dog phantoms. So here is a spectral snippet waiting either for deeper research or for someone to make up a story to fit.Mind you, Aberlour does have a ‘Fairy Knowe’ at the back of the distillery. This signpost to another realm is even marked on the Ordnance Survey map.The name Aberlour itself, means ‘mouth of the chattering burn’ and this suggests a pre- Christian belief in talking spirits. Alan Winchester who, as far as I know, is not a Druid (though a wizard at making whisky), says he sometimes hears the voices of ancient Celts coming from the burn. I didn’t like to say anything to him but I fear that hearing voices is not always a good sign.One distillery that does have a lady from another dimension is Glenmorangie.Some say that Glemorangie’s White Lady was a spooky story made up to scare the maltmen, so they would not fall asleep on the job when they were shovelling through the night.Nonetheless, members of staff at the distillery have been puzzled by strange occurrences: windows breaking; wallpaper sliding off walls; carefully stacked boxes being found in a jumble against the door; all happening at night when no-one was around.Some of the workers have also experienced chilling, scary atmospheres in different parts of the building.At Dailuaine, in previous times, lived an infamous outlaw and smuggler, James Grant, know as ‘James of the Hills,’ whose bothy was supposed to be haunted.Alfred Barnard, a voice from 1887, tells the story: “A popular legend has it that the midnight wanderer may yet see evidences of their craft, and that the darker the night and the wilder the weather the more likely is he to stumble across the haunted bothy, which is situated in a rocky cavern in a ravine through which rushes one of the Dail-Uaine Burns. There the still-fires are seen weirdly sparkling like eyes of diamonds, and the ghosts of the departed smugglers busy at their ancient avocation.” Barnard was a sponge for such stories. In another reference to smugglers’ ghosts he tells a story from Glendarroch distillery in Ardrishaig: “Tradition says that there is a smuggler imprisoned in the heart of the hill, who is kept in durance vile by the avenging spirit of a revenue officer whose life he took.“He is allowed to come forth once a year at midnight, on the anniversary of the day upon which the crime was committed, and should he then happen to meet the spirit of the comrade who betrayed him to the officers of the law, the spell would be broken and he released.” Most distillery ghosts are the un-departed spirits of people who died there, usually in unfortunate circumstances.Glen Ord is haunted by a former maltman, Cardhu by a mashman, the ghost of Mr Cochran Cartwright (manager 1869 – 1899) walks Glengoyne, Glen Spey is the sad limbo of a soldier who committed suicide and Glen Scotia is troubled by the ghost of a former proprietor who drowned himself in Campbeltown Loch after being conned out of his savings.According to Ian Buxton, Glenkinchie has multiple ghosts, including a former maltman Gentle Tam, Mrs Redpath and Mischievous Willie, who throws distillery guides across the floor.Not all ghosts are harmful.The wife of John Haig took to her bed and refused to get up when he died suddenly in 1773, until the ghost of her dead mother spoke to her. Encouraged by what the ghost told her, she left her bed and set her sons on the path to founding the Haig whisky dynasty.Ghosts may ‘appear’ but it is difficult for the living to initiate contact with revenants. Paul Pacult tried when he spent the night in the chilly, silent darkness of a warehouse at Highland Park hoping to meet the ghost of founder Magnus Eunson.He heard clanking sounds and a gust of wind brought “a rolling wave of rich, almost vanilla-like fragrance,” but he never saw Eunson. Talking to the watchman in the morning, he discovered, that there had been no-one in the distillery and that far from windy, it had been ‘calm as the dead all night.’ Highland Park workers continue to maintain that Magnus Eunson does wander the place after dark.The nearest I have come to an authenticated story that involves contact with a ghost is the story of Biawa Makalaga and Glenrothes distillery.Biawa was the black orphan boy who was brought back from Africa by Major Grant in 1894. He grew up in Rothes, working as a butler for the Grant family, and died in the town in 1972.He was buried in the cemetery that overlooks Glenrothes distillery. I got this story from Paul Rickards, as a first hand account.In 1979, one of the stills in the newly constructed still house was giving trouble. At the same time two of the stillmen had reported a ‘presence’ or ghost in the still house on some occasions when they were working alone on winter nights.In appearance, the ghost was unmistakably that of Biawa. The workers mentioned this to Paul, who worked for Robertson and Baxter and who had known Biawa since 1962. He also knew Professor Cedric Wilson, a pharmacologist with a deep interest in the paranormal.Approval was obtained for a visit to the distillery. Professor Wilson surveyed the site using a dowsing technique and quickly concluded that a ley line had been damaged by the construction of the new still house.He ordered two stakes of pig iron from the company engineers and these were sunk into the ground on either side of the still house.This ‘repaired’ the ley line allowing the flow of earth energy to be resumed.Paul Rickards says that “a silence descended on the place as the previously unnoticed tension was relieved”.Cedric then sat in the still house to try to establish contact with the ghost. He had not been told of the whereabouts of Biawa’s grave but seemed suddenly to stride decisively up through the graveyard and stood by the very gravestone.After ten minutes he returned declaring that his mission had been accomplished and that the earthbound spirit had accepted his need to depart. The ghost has never been seen since and the still now operates perfectly well.Any ‘spirits’ now emanating from Glenrothes, are spooky only in a good way.