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Old World Scotland
Chapter II. Usquebagh


WHAT about whisky during the centuries when ale and claret were the chief handmaids to Scottish mirth? Had it no existence? Were its virtues really unknown? Or did the Scot, in Burns's phrase, ''twist" at it "his gruntle [Snout] wi' a glunch [frown] o' sour disdain"? If it was unknown, who was its discoverer, or how was it introduced? At least a fairly satisfactory answer is possible. So far as the bulk of the Lowlands is concerned, whisky was virtually nonexistent as a beverage till near the close of the sixteenth century, and did not come into general use till very much later. The name of its creator does not survive even in national myth; the circumstances attendant upon its entrance on the stage of time are involved in such a mystery as that which shrouds the origin of species. The probability is that the general benefactor was some mighty "medicine man" of the ancient Celts; but who he was and when or where he first set up his still and called spirits from the yeasty malt remains unrecorded. It is, however, well-nigh indubitable that in Scotland the original manufacturers of whisky were the Celts of the Highlands. Usquebagh was made as early as the twelfth century by their cousins the Celts of Ireland, and the presumption is that the art was known to their common ancestors before the migration. Distillation is mentioned by the Arab Geber, who flourished about 800; but whether Geber was known or not to the inhabitants of mediaeval Britain, it is unlikely that a mere hint from him would, as some writers have loosely and carelessly suggested, inspire the British Celts to the production of usquebagh. No doubt the art of distillation may have been discovered spontaneously by different nations, but it is entirely inconsistent with facts to theorise that the manufacture of whisky in Scotland originated in times comparatively modern through the introduction of the art of distillation from England or elsewhere. On the contrary, it is beyond question that usquebagh figured in the rude orgies of the Celtic clans long before modern influences had penetrated to their fastnesses. For centuries it may have remained wholly unknown to their Lowland neighbours dammed up, as it were, by the barriers of alien custom and foreign speech. Hector Boece, who wrote about the beginning of the sixteenth century, says of the ancient customs of the Scots, that " at such times as they determined to be merry, they used a kind of aqua nice void of all spice, and only consisting of such herbs and roots as grew in their own gardens. Otherwise their common drink was ale; but in time of war, when they were enforced to lie in camp, they contented themselves with water, as readiest for their turns." Boece is rather incorrect and credulous, and many of his statements must be taken cam grano salis; but his native district bordered on the highlands, and not in- probably the Highland custom of drinking usquebagh was occasionally indulged in there, although himself appears to have had a very indistinct and imperfect knowledge of the character of the liquor.

Possibly the first to introduce usquebagh to the Lowlands were the monks; and, at any rate, the earliest Lowlander associated with its manufacture was a friar, John Coy by name, who in 1495 obtained eight boils of malt from the exchequer for this purpose. Its Latin name, aqua vi1a, also suggests conventual associations. In 1505 the right to sell it in Edinburgh was conferred on the surgeons; and in 1557 Bessie Campbell was summoned before the magistrates and ordered to cease from vending it in the burgh except on days. The first Scotsman handed down to posterity in connection with a case of drunkenness from whisky, was probably the ill-fated Darnley on one occasion he distinguished himself by making one of his French friends drunk on aqua compoita, of the inebriating  qualities of which the Frenchman may have been too sceptical. An enactment that, by reason of the dearth of malt, no whisky should he brewed or sold from the 1st of December, 1579, to the 1st of December, 1580, except that nobles and men of rank might distil it from their own malt for use in their families, would seem to prove that by that time the liquor was advancing in popularity. It was much earlier in general use in the west of Scotland than in Lowland regions—a fact which may be accounted for either by their proximity to the Highlands or to the districts of time Strathclyde Welsh. Early in the sixteenth century the inhabitants of the western burghs—Ayr, Irvine, Glasgow, Dumbarton—had liberty to furnish the inhabitants of the isles with "baken bread, brown ale, and aqua vitae, in exchange for other merchandise." In several towns and burghs bordering on the Highland regions whisky was distilled in considerable quantities early in the seventeenth century. The principal indications of its Lowland use at this time occur in the districts fringing the Highlands, while the whole weight of evidence leads to the conclusion that its use in the latter region was universal. In 1616 the funeral expenses of Sir Hugh Campbell of Calder amounted to £1,647 10s. 4d., Scots, of which no less than a fourth went in whisky; while Taylor, the Water Poet, refers to the " most potent aqua vitae" drunk at the great Highland hunt meeting of 1618. In 1638 it was not sold in the taverns of Aberdeen, "wine, ale, or beer" being alone mentioned in a regulation regarding their early closing but along with ale or beer "strong waters aqua vita " was in 1655 forbidden by the town council to be made or sold without a special license. By 1655 it was also sold in Glasgow taverns, and in 1657 a special day was appointed for fixing the excise on it.

In William Cleland's Poem upon the Highland Host who came to Destroy the Western Shires in Winter, 16787 the Gaelic love of whisky is specially satirised.

A tap horn filled with usquebay "is mentioned as one of time essential equip- merits of each; and, says Cleland, after cataloguing the "good things," which the Hielaimdman doth specially affect:-

"There's something yet I have forgotten
Which ye prefer to roast or sodden,
Wine and wastles, I dare say,
And that is routh of usequehay."

In the Covenanting times usquebagh was contemned by the Presbyterians, both people and clergy ; but one of the accusations brought in "Faithful Contendings against three of the Covenanting preachers by the Covenanting General Hamilton was that " when at any time they came out to the country, whatever things they had, they were careful each of them to have a great flask of brandy with them, which was very heavy to some, particularly Mr. Cameron, Mr. Cargill, and Henry Hall."

By an Act of Parliament-of 1090, Duncan Forbes of Culloden, in recognition of his loyalty during the rebellion of Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee, and in consideration of the damage done to his lands and distillery of Ferintosh by the rebels, received a perpetual liberty to distil grain at his "brewery of aqua vitae of Ferintosh" on payment of a small specific composition in lieu of excise. It is perhaps of importance to note that in this Act the brewery is styled "ancient," which would seem to indicate that whisky had been made at Ferintosh for at least a very considerable time, and probably long before the property came into possession of the Forbeses in 1670. The result of the grant was to give Forbes almost a monopoly in the inastruture of whisky, for which Fetintosh continued to be a common synonym even in the present century. In 1785 the privilege was withdrawn, over £25,000 being paid in compensation. "Thee, Ferintosh! O sadly lost" says Burns; and it may well be believed that the moderate price at which Forintosh could be sold, had greatly aided in popularising the liquor in the Lowlands. Many a Lowlander had doubtless learned to appreciate the merits of usquebagh during the Highland campaigns of Montrose and Dundee. Charles Edward in his wanderings had frequently to be content with it; and on one occasion he and two Highlanders finished a bottle between them, the larger share falling to the prince. At that period a "drain" was the first article of hospitality presented to a stranger on entering a Highland lint. Not, however, till after the subjugation of the Highlands and the amalgamation of the two peoples, did whisky come to be regarded as a Lowland Scottish drink. It was not uncommon in the Lowlands, in the time of the poet Fergusson, but he refers to it as "Highland,'' and in "Leith Races" associates whisky-drinking only with the Highland guard of Edinburgh.

To whisky pleuks that burnt for 'oukst
On Town-guard soldiers' faces.
Their barber bauld his whittle crooks,
An' scrapes them for the races."

For many years before whisky came into general use brandy had been drunk by the upper classes ; and among the Highland gentry who affected the fashionable manners of the Lowlands brandy had almost superseded their native liquor. In many districts of the Lowlands the use of whisky was also preceded by that of gin from England or ruin from Jamaica. In 1775 when Major Topham visited Edinburgh whisky was not a fashionable liquor. In the oyster cellars which he visited toddy appears to have been unknown. Punch was "quite the thing,'' but the choice was between brandy and rum punch. Rum was a specially favourite liquor in Glasgow (owing to its West Indian trade) at the close of the century Strang, in his "Glasgow Clubs," states that "rum punch was the universal beverage of the members of the Pig Club at their dinners, as it was at those of all the jovial fraternities in the city; and rum toddy was, as elsewhere, the accompaniment of every supper. Whisky in those days, being chiefly drawn from the large flat-bottomed stills of Killbaggie hennetpans, and Lochryan was only fitted for the most vulgar and fire-loving palates; but when a little of the real stuff from Glenlivet or Arran could be got—and to get it was a matter of difficulty and danger—it was dispensed with as sparing a hand as curaçoa or benedictine."

The appearance of the modern public-house on the scene of Scottish rural life is chronicled by Hector MacNeill in his Will and Jean" (1795) :-

Brattling clown the brae, and near its
Bottom, Will first marv'lling sees
'Porter, Ale, and British Spirits,'
Painted bright between twa trees.
Godsake, Tam, here's waith for drinking
Wha can this new corner be?'
Hoot ! ' quo Tarn, there's drouth in thinking—
Let's in, Will, and syne we'el see.'

Possibly Burns had considerable influence in popularising whisky in Scotland. He mocked at those who wet "their weasan with liquors nice"; he railed at ''brandy, burning trash,'' and poured contempt on poor devils ''who meddled" "wi' bitter doarthful wines"; and he patriotically extolled Scotia's native drink, the "barley bree," whether in the form of ale, ''the poor man's wine," or in that of whisky, soul o' plays and pranks! '' But ale is as frequently the theme of his muse as the stronger liquor. This was that "barley bree" that Willie, Nab, and Allan ''preed the lee lang nicht'; and it was from "reaming swats that drank divinely" that Tam o' Shanter got courage to gaze unabashed on the ''unco sight" in "Alloway's auld haunted kirk." Whether Burns's praise of liquor has had a prejudicial effect on Scottish life may be conimnended to the consideration of debating societies.


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