By Michael Jackson

In a wick-ed mood

Michael Jackson digresses democratically
When jazz musician Eubie Blake was congratulated upon his hundredth birthday, he commented: “Had I known I would live this long, I would have looked after myself better.” Shortly afterwards, he died. This shows how unreliable centenarians can be. The Queen Mother’s ton-up has been covered more than adequately elsewhere. If she has in the meantime done anything to embarrass me, I shall doubly regret having been swept into the parade of royal topics in this issue of Whisky Magazine. Enough royals. The R*y*l F*m*ly is not really my beat. I don’t know what the Qu**n M*ther would say to that. She is Scottish and apparently has her fellow countrypersons’ gift of making the English language sound withering. I heard a story about her going riding: when she returned, a male guest observed that her steed was sweating heavily. “So would you, young man, if you had just spent an hour between my legs,” she is said to have replied. Would she dismiss me with what Stalin called “a rootless cosmopolitan”? Probably not, but I always fancied myself as the style of footloose journalist who can fly into a crisis torn nation and, within half an hour, file a polished article on the mood of the country. In the arcane customs of the scrivener’s craft, research of this nature is completed by the time-honoured ritual of interviewing the taxi driver on the way from the airport to the hotel, possibly even taking him for a Scotch in the bar. Most cab drivers don’t really need interviewing - their observations emerge unsolicited.Seeking to escape the centenary celebrations in London, I recently flew into the remote R*y*l Burgh of Wick (minus my suitcase, thoughtfully left in Limbo by British Airways - it later reached me via Edinburgh and Inverness). After a disappointly brief haggle with the local cabbie, I began listening. “My name is Mad Cathie,” the cab person began. “Why do they call you that?” I asked, trying to disguise any inappropriate alarm. “Because they say I am a terrible driver,” she explained with a smile. Mad Cathie is a (young) grandmother with her faculties seemingly in order. She gave me a quick tour of Wick, before driving me 150 miles around the counties of Caithness and Sutherland without mishap.Wick was once the herring capital of the North. It also has the most northerly distillery on the Scottish mainland, Old Pulteney. The herrings are long fished out but the distillery has recently been given new life by the enterprising firm of Inver House (which also owns Balblair, Speyburn, Balmenach and An Cnoc).Mad Cathie told me that her father had been a cooper of herring barrels and had later found employment shovelling coal at Old Pulteney. The distillery now has a visitor centre - the door to which is decorated with the image of a herring boat. I was not sure how seriously manager Fred Sinclair took my suggestion that he bottle a herring barrel finish. The saltiness of this coastal whisky, which I find a particularly therapeutic, has already led to it being known as the Manzanilla of the North.I then asked Mad Cathie to negotiate the road to Dunbeath. It’s the fishing vllage that was the birthplace of the lyrical novelist Neil Gunn, who also wrote a fine book about whisky. Whisky lovers have a thing about peat and I had Mad Cathie show me the seemingly endless peat bogs of Flow Country, an eco-system of global significance. Cathie seemed to enjoy a good day’s work: it is not easy to make a living in Wick. She’d like to move but she and her husband cannot get a decent price for their house. She showed me her home. She was even more keen to have me see the Castle of Mey, where the Qu**n M*th*r lives each August. I was impressed with the notion - not many people in the Wick area have a different home for every month. Yet I had to pass - I had a story to file, on the mood of the country. On the day, it seemed to be r*y*l*st.