Travel

The hunt for liquid gold

Hundreds of people renning around the Scottish highlands searching for 1000 hidden bottles of single malt? Surely not? Maxwell Macleod decides whteher this is actually whisky myth or legend
By Maxwell MacLeod
First take one thousand bottles of prime Scotch malt whisky, provided free by someone in the industry as an advertising gimmick, and then put them in some remote Highland glen. Then, whisky hidden, you privately publish your first novel which contains clues on how to find the cache with the assurance that whoever finds the treasure will be able to keep it all.Add a number of tantalising press releases, a dash of juicy hearsay about whisky fanatics getting into a lather and hey presto! You are a published novelist with your name in the papers and, presumably, all set for a hefty advance for your next novel.A deliciously marvellous recipe for an electricly-charged, literary whisky cocktail and it was invented by a man called Richard Henderson. To make things even more explosive, he announced that there was to be a time limit. If the treasure wasn’t found by the end of 1999 all of those hunting for the whisky would be guided to a location that would host the millennium party to cap all millennium parties.This was the ingenious wheeze of Henderson, a middle-aged former prep school teacher, contrived in the late nineties and resulting in his novel - Chasing Charlie.It was an idea that certainly caught the imagination of the media that he hates with a passion. Within months of publication it was being widely reported that 15,000 copies of the book had been sold and that the Highlands were alive with what were unfortunately termed ‘Charlie Chasers’ - whisky hunters to you and I. Soon the stories of their exploits whilst searching for the whisky started flooding the newspapers. According to whisky legend, one reader became so obsessed with finding the whisky that she returned home early from a family skiing holiday in Italy after having become convinced that she had cracked the puzzle. Her theory was that the whisky was hidden on the tiny Hebridean Island of Soay. Filled with excitement she rushed to the Skye mainland overlooking the island and implored local fishermen to ferry her over. Unimpressed by her delusional ranting and the fact that the weather meant a crossing would be too rough, she was turned down. Undeterred and with her excitment at fever pitch, she hired a helicopter from Inverness. Within minutes of its arrival she was on the island confronting the local Laird, Tex Geddes.Mr. Geddes could only be described as a colourful character. He had once served in Special Forces and was famous in the locality for threatening to eat one of the lairds from a neighbouring island (in my presence). He stood before the eager whisky hunter and was armed with both a shotgun and a reputation for blunt speaking. He told her that he was of the opinion that if there were a thousand bottles of excellent malt on his island he would rather they were left there for his own convenience and would be quite pleased if she would move on. Or words to that effect. Not that it really mattered, because where ever the whisky was it certainly wasn’t on Soay.There are other tales: rugby teams climbing mountains whilst carrying boats, families with children crossing lochs on board inflated paddling pools, relationships failing because one partner stole clues from the other and explorers hiring detectives to help them uncover the truth.And then suspicious people, including myself, started to wonder how much truth there was in all of these tales compared to the amount of sheer hype. For example, if 15,000 copies of the book had been sold, making it a Scottish best seller, why was it that you never saw copies for sale in the shops, on shelves in Highland houses or even heard people idly talking about such crazy stories in public places? Soon the confronted author was confessing that he had indeed been involved with what he termed “helping to build up the mystery” and admitted that less than 3,000 copies of the book had, in reality, been sold.Today, with the millenium deadline passed, there are many people wondering whether the whisky was actually ever hidden at all, how many copies of the book were sold and whether the whole thing was, at least, a partial ‘scam’. Though, if you beleive the author, 850 of those bottles still lie in the Highlands waiting to be found. The author is, as we speak, writing another book to give more clues.Over the last year or so I have spent hours on the phone with the personable author and have spoken to several of those who have been seriously in pursuit of the treasure. During this time I have pieced together some answers although, with the main source of this information being the author of the book, it has been hard to write anything with certainty.Richard Henderson studied English at St Andrew’s University back in the early seventies. The gangly young man was, by his own admission, “not a particularly carefree student” and was much given to wild mood swings. Thus it’s easy enough to envisage why he would often take to the nearby Highland Hills to seek personal solace. Those long walks had a profound influence and in later life he was often gripped by an almost missionary zeal to convince others of the spiritual worth of such expeditions - perhaps never more so than in Chasing Charlie.Having graduated, he was to have trouble settling and eventually found himself as a senior teacher in an English prep school with a wife and children to support. This was not a good time in his private life and he took some time out to write the said novel. The core of the book radiates around a character he has himself been mentally chasing for some years - His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. By Richard’s own admission Prince Charles is a figure who has fascinated him for so long that he has almost become obsessed. According to the author, Charles is a shy and noble individual who has suffered the misfortune of being born to a role where he is constantly in the spotlight and is at the mercy of a media (whom Henderson describes as “filthy”) that despises such characteristics.The Prince appears as a central and sympathetic character in the book, joining a group of children who are taking part in a holiday expedition around the Highlands supposedly in search of a mythological treasure trove of gold that was buried two hundred years ago to finance the Jacobite Revolution.How many readers of the book wandered round the Highlands looking for the whisky is a matter of some conjecture. My own guess would be that the number might be around two or three hundred, Richard’s larger. Whatever the literary shortcomings of the book (it’s the sort of book which once you have put it down it’s hard to pick up again), Henderson certainly maintained a vigorous correspondence with a large number of the book’s readers taking extraordinary pains to offer further clues and much encouragement.As the end of the 20th century approached the atmosphere amongst many of those who had given up their weekends to the task became more and more feverish as their chances of finding the whisky diminished. The hunters came from all sorts of backgrounds. Those that I spoke to included a Highland Laird, a penniless mountain track builder and a retired school teacher.Shortly before the deadline, the author contacted those who had been corresponding with him to suggest that the last part of the deal would be that they would have to turn up on December 31st at a Highland location with the equipment needed for a twenty mile walk, possibly at night, and camping equipment. He also announced that he would not be revealing the location of the entire treasure but a mere 150 bottles and would be writing a further book to give the location of the last 850 bottles. Clues in the first book would tie in with clues in the second. You would only need to buy the second to find the treasure. Confused? Try reading the book.Whether this daunting invitation encouraged some of the hunters to choose less arduous ways of spending their millenium moment is up for debate, but as the light diminished on the final day of the millennium it was a band of only 48 who met up at a sheep bothie deep in the Highlands, near a place called Glendessary, to await Richard’s final instructions.Most of those who attended have described the ending of that first part of the saga as being a wonderful occassion. There was, apparently, much laughter as the party were led down a forest track and told by the ever amiable Richard that if they walked a few yards into the dense woods they would find a 150 bottles of top grade malt whisky and were welcome to take away as much as they could carry. Evidently there wasn’t much walking.After a short period, four of the more cynical hunters threw all of their free booty into their cars and roared off down the track to more salubrious celebrations. However, to the author’s delight, the rest joined him to celebrateat a nearby bothie as the end of the century ticked ever closer. And yes, it was fun. Incidentally the much sought after location of the final clues that would direct the person who found them to the hidden whisky that Chasing Charlie eluded to was on a small island off Ullapool. In synopsis, Chasing Charlie was an exciting and worthwhile idea put together rather badly by a well meaning and imaginative romantic. Few who have been part of the project doubt his good intentions and fewer still believe that he made any financial profit from the venture - it certainly didn’t gain Richard Henderson much of a reputation as an author. But did he ever really hide 1,000 bottles of malt whisky or did he just procure 150 bottles and bluff it out, hoping to find another 850 in the fullness of time? I have no idea. Will he write another book to reveal where those bottles are? If the 850 bottles exist, certainly. If he is a fraud then the game is now over. Who in the industry gave him the whisky? I don’t know, making it a strange public relations stunt for the company who assisted him. The final conundrum is whether Richard contrived the whole thing to show how incompetent the “filthy media” are and in doing so enhance the reputation of his harried hero. What isn’t up for question is that many people have spent many hours having fun searching, stomping andcursing their way through the Highlands searching for liquid gold as a result of the book. And that’s not a bad achievement for any author, I’m sure you will agree.