History

Scotland and whisky: the real story

Pip Hills strips away years of bombast, puff and heavy stereotype to reveal the truth about Scotland and whisky
By Pip Hills
On the wall above my desk as I write, there’s a picture which tells a story about Scotland and whisky. It’s a great picture, painted by Henry Raeburn around 1810. A full-length portrait, the title is The MacNab. It shows a Highland chieftain in full military rig of the late 18th century: a green, short jacket over a red tartan, kilted philamore; black bearskin bonnet; otter-head sporran; broadsword hanging from a leather shoulder belt; three dirks and two pistols. He glares out at us from misty mountains.Mine, alas, is only a copy. The original was bought by Lord Dewar in 1917 and is now owned by United Distillers & Vintners. The latter inherited it with the Dewar brands from the old Distillers Company, the original whisky conglomerate of which Dewar’s was a part. Dewar bought it because, as a self-made millionaire, he wanted to associate himself with Scottish things he regarded as classy. But what does it tell us about Scotland and whisky? Some surprising stuff. The MacNab is a fake. Not the portrait – that’s authentic. It’s the man – or rather what the portrait tells us about the man. The MacNab is a proud and military figure in which most whisky drinkers will recognise something authentically Scottish. His truculence and arrogance are real enough, but the military uniform is that of the Breadalbane Fencibles and none of the weapons apart from the broadsword would have been much use in battle, even if a man of 70 were able to wield them. The Fencibles was one of many regiments in which Scottish gentlemen, using war with Napoleon as an excuse, stayed home and played soldiers. The picture is typical of what happened to Scotland for the next two centuries: a version of Scottishness was created for public consumption which bore little relation to reality. Most ‘Scottish’ icons were created in the early 19th century. The kilt as we know it was designed by an Englishman and the clan tartans invented to dress clansmen who put on a show for the King’s 1824 Edinburgh visit. The whole Highland image was foisted on a nation, most of whom wanted nothing to do with it. Scotland was treated as the English Empire’s first colony and her identity moulded to the purpose of her masters. Many Scots were collaborators – the ones who stood to make a buck – and a social division was created which persists to this day. The real Scotland was lost for nearly 200 years. Scots have always been ambivalent about this: most are fierce in defence of their national identity, but they differ as to what that is.The same goes for whisky, an integral part of the invented Scotland. By the late 18th century, whisky was the drink of the lower classes. Gentlefolk drank wine and, if they took spirits, brandy. Whisky was for commoners: they made it, drank it and didn’t like paying duty on it. It was close enough to their hearts and notions of liberty for Burns to say “whisky and freedom gang thegither”.The history of whisky as a posh drink really begins with that same visit in 1824. Asked what he would like to drink, the King asked for Glenlivet, which even then had a reputation for quality. None was to be had in Edinburgh (!) and Elizabeth Grant tells us her father sent a rider north to his house at Rothiemurchus where she had kept it “long in wood and mild as milk”. So by 1824, at least some of the highland gentry appreciated the stuff as did some folk in London – otherwise how did the King get to know of it? The King’s visit was a great success and created a fashion for things Scottish in general and Scotch whisky in particular. The Court was the arbiter of fashion and if the King liked anything, that was enough to make it okay.
The Scottish things which became fashionable were of a distinctly Highland slant. Indeed, beyond the Scottish border, things Highland came to be all that anyone knew of Scotland. Despite the fact only a tiny part of the population lives north of the Highland Line, or the fact that the Highlands were sunk in vendetta warfare at a time when the Lowlands produced some of the greatest minds of the 18th century Enlightenment, or the fact that the Highlands were being depopulated for the convenience of Victorian romantics while the Lowlands produced some of the best science and engineering of the 19th Century, Scotland was – and still is – seen as Highland.And – surprise – the best whisky was held to be Highland whisky. I’d guess if you took a poll of Whisky Magazine readers, about 90% would say that the best whisky is Highland. It probably is, but only because few of the great lowland distilleries are left. Some of the finest whisky I’ve ever known came from St Magdalene, which is gone, and Bladnoch which very nearly went. The popular preference is ideological in origin, not gustatory, and the folk who hold it are unconsciously following in the lead of King George the Fourth and the MacNab. And if you thinks this makes you an okay person, remember George was ludicrously fat and wore pink tights under a short kilt, while the MacNab was the last of the great shaggers and admitted to fathering 48 children.The Scots’ attitude to the Highlandisation of their identity varied. In the early 19th century many thought it perfectly ludicrous but over time and because it was endorsed by the people in power, it came to be accepted. Highlandry was convenient for the emerging whisky industry; the popularity of things Scottish created demand for Scottish goods, mainly whisky. Within a remarkably short time, whisky changed from a domestic product to an industrial one. Industrial processes required large-scale production and it was to meet demand that the patent still was invented. Patent-still grain whisky meant production of enough blended whisky to meet demand. A few Scots complained but most in time accepted blended whisky as their national drink.There is evidence that not all of them did. As late as 1908 there were enough distillers who objected to blends to mount the famous Islington case. Documentary evidence of how ordinary people felt is harder to come by. There are occasional glimpses of what they thought, but very few. Most informative is probably George Saintsbury, but even he, in his Notes from a Cellar Book, accords Scotch whisky only five pages of over 200. What Saintsbury says will please few modern drinkers. He dismisses blends as being beneath serious notice and rejects all malts which have been more than 15 years in cask as ‘slimy’. It is to Saintsbury we owe the information that as late as the end of the 19th Century, large householders in Scotland would keep a kind of solera: a cask they filled with more-or-less mature malt, tapped halfway down and, when the whisky got down to the tap, refill with another malt. At Loch Fyne Whiskies, Richard Joynson does the same today. So, on a larger scale, do Glenfiddich.The eclipse of malts at the expense of blended whiskies mirrors the acceptance by Scots of the near-submergence of their national identity in the British Empire. There were always folk who asked for malt whisky, just as there were always thrawn individuals who rejected Imperialism. By the 1930s resistance seemed to have all but vanished. The most notable refusenik testament is by Neil Gunn in Whisky and Scotland, published in 1936. Gunn was almost certainly correct in attributing the reason for the disappearance of malts: it wasn’t a conspiracy by distillers to deprive Scots of their birthright, it was because nobody wanted malt whiskies. Almost all whisky 70 years ago was taken with mixers and people wanted what they demand of vodka today: as little flavour as possible.For a couple of generations, single malts were known only to a few. Scottish literati drank malts in Milne’s Bar and Sandy Bell’s in Edinburgh. Stewart’s Bar in Drummond Street had its own bottling plant in which the occasional cask of Glenlivet was bottled until the demise, a few years ago, of Mr Stewart. Gordon & MacPhail supplied malts to some of the highland gentry in the 20th century as they had done the century before. Malts were served in the officers’ messes of some Scottish regiments. Assorted nationalists drank malts, as did the folk who could get them, preferably without payment, from the distilleries.The malt recovery was part of a Scottish cultural revolution which began in the late 1940s. A group of left-wing intellectuals – Hamish Henderson, Norman Buchan and others – discovered that in parallel with the appalling kitsch which passed for Scottish popular culture, there was a brilliant folk culture of poetry and song. This oral culture was just waiting to be rediscovered. It fuelled the belief that the real Scotland was infinitely finer than the ersatz with which so many people had to be satisfied.There began a process which, over nearly 40 years, has seen Scotland ditch 200 years of baggage and recover a more just, accurate estimate of her history and identity. The culmination of this process was the establishment of the first Scottish Parliament in nearly 300 years. It may not be much good but it’s our Parliament and we have a right to it.The recovery of malt whisky is a part of the process. There is a parallel between the rediscovery of the reality of Scotland and the re-emergence of malt whisky. It is probably no accident Glenfiddich, the first widely-marketed malt, is owned by the Grants: a family which, though wealthy, had not, like so many of their class, abandoned their origins. And it’s no accident the first book after Neil Gunn’s to seriously recommend malt whiskies was Scotland and Whisky by David Daiches, not only a connoisseur of whiskies, he’s an authority on Scottish culture and a champion of all that’s best in Scotland.The last 20 years have seen a huge improvement in the quality of blended whiskies, driven by the demand for malts and the comparisons that has invoked. The Scots pride in whiskies is different; gone is the bombast and the absurd kiltie which was once what the world knew of Scotland. The reality is better and so is the quality of esteem which comes from it. The freedom and the whisky have gone thegither, though maybe not in the way Burns imagined. And the MacNab is put firmly, irrevocably in his place.