Whisky Connoisseur

Arthur J A Bell

A Toast to "a Weel-loved Friend"

Photo via Wikimedia

The Spirit of Scotland produces, above all, conviviality. Long recognised by Scot's medicine-men to thin the blood, and keep one hale and hearty -it also lifts the mood on long winter's nights - and any hangover of Calvinist gloom! So it's not surprising that poets and song writers have long used whisky as inspiration and topic for their muse.

Of course the most famous proponent of the virtues of whisky is our National Bard, Robert Burns. "John Barleycorn" is a splendid ballad he wrote, acknowledging it was based on a fragment of an older song. In it he tells of how the barley is brutally treated by human-kind...yet comes up trumps!

They took a plough and plough'd him down,
Put clods upon his head,
And they hae sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn was dead"

But several months later in the "cheerful spring"
"John Barleycorn got up again
And sore surprised them all
The barley continues to ripen and then in Autumn after the ripening
"They've taen a weapon long and sharp,
And cut him by the knee"

All kinds of further physical brutalities are heaped upon the grain....it is cudgelled...they put it in a pit and drown it...its turned over and over on the floor.. and then it is roaster "oe'r a scorching flame." As we near the toast to the great John we learn:
"And they hae ta'en his very heart's blood,
And drank it round and round;
And still the more and more they drank,
Their joy did more abound"

'The poet concludes with his salute to drink;
"Then let us toast John Barleycorn,
Each man a glass in hand,
And may his great prosperity
Ne'er fail in old Scotland."

Burns of course was an exciseman whose job it was to stop the "smuggling" or illicit distilling of his own favourite brew. How he squared that, we'll never know. In the comic masterpiece "Tam O'Shanter, which tells of the drunken Tam's ride home after getting completely steaming in an Ayr pub, comes this hymn of praise for whisky:

Inspiring bold John Barleycorn!
What dangers thou can make us scorn!
Wi' tippeny, we fear nae evil
Wi' usquabae, we'll face the Devil."
Tippeny refers to ale with a two pennies tax on it, and for any reader out there in cyberspace: who doesn't already know it - usquabae means "water of Life".

Now the man who is regarded by many as 20th Century Scots as their greatest contemporary poet was Dr Christopher Grieve, who wrote under the name Hugh MacDiarmid. He lived locally, and his cottage is now a Museum in his honour. Any time I met him he had always had more than a mouthwash of our leading export.
MacDiarmid's most famous poem is 'A drunk man looks at the Thistle". In it he bemoans that the quality of Scotch is not as it was: "Forbye the stuffies no the Real Mackay". He concludes his drunken rant; with a plea to Burns:

"Rabbie, wads't thou here - the warld hath need,
And Scotland mair sae of the like o thee!
The whisky that aince moved your lyre's become
A laxative for a' loquacity."

Writing early in the century, William Souter came up with this excellent riddle, to which you will quickly find an answer:

"It makes a body. cheerie
Or it makes a body greet;
It makes a body steerie
Oh dear Or it ca's ye aff yer feet.

It makes a body canty
Or it makes a body glum:
It makes a body ranty
Or it makes unco glum."

A quick translation of some of the Scots 'words for non-linguists out there: "greet" means cry, whilst "steerie" means you have to keep moving. "Ca's" means knocks you over and "ranty" is full of' boisterous fun and very" talkative. So there we are back to McDiarmid's "laxative for loquacity". Who says the Scots are dour and dull? (The graphic here is of a sculpture in Souter's home town of Perth entitled "Nae Day Sae Dark")

"The 18th Century poet Robert Fergusson wrote in his "Daft Days" about our great Capital, Edinburgh, or "Auld Reekie". He asserts that we're sometimes"capernoity"' or petty and bad tempered when we've had too much or are "fou" on whisky, so we have to be on our best behavior:

"And thou, great God of Aqua Vitae!
What sways the empire of this city,
Yikes When fou we're sometimes capernoity:
Be thou prepared
To hedge us from that black bandiitti
The City Guard"

Certainly when I was a foolish youth, on an expedition for scientific sociological research (honest!), of drinking in all of Edinburgh's taverns - "yes over 500 of them dear reader - I had to beware the City Guard. Luckily I managed to survive liver in tact and to add occasionally to the lore and learning of our unique national drink, Can I end my musing with an anonymous little song verse about John Barleycorn?

"We're a' dry wi the drinkin o't'
We're a' dry wi' the drinkin' o't'
The minister kissed the fiddler's wife,
And couldnae preach for the thinking o't."

So raise your glass and toast an old friend to millions: "Scotch Whisky .none better!"

ArthurJ A Bell CBE

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