The stills of Glen Garioch still carry the image of a deer, which used to be the distillery’s emblem. This is a visual cliche and as a Nineteenth Century signifier of the romance of the Highlands. Landseer’s The Monarch of the Glen was one of the most popular pictures of and prints and engravings of the time and it were everywhere (to get some idea of how large a figure Landseer was in the popular imagination remember that on his death shops and houses lowered their blinds and flags flew at half mast, and wreaths were placed on the lions of Trafalgar Square). Even without the advocacy of such a popular artist the image of a magnificent unconquered beast against a wild and noble landscape is extremely powerful and you can understand how it fires the imagination. But there was also a significant social change and although the deer could stand proud, it did so against the backdrop of the Highland Clearance, of hunger depopulations, emigration and the breaking of traditional social ties.
In 1811, there were only six or seven deer forests which were actively managed for hunting but by 1873 the number was 79. By the end of the century there were between 130 and 150 and by 1906 deer forests covered 3.5 million acres. Everybody who was anybody wanted a Highland sporting estate and because of the powerful rise of Victorian industrialism there was a large emergent class of nouveau riche wanting to emulate a traditional land-owning aristocracy. And the social lead of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who first leased Balmoral in 1848 and purchased it in 1852, cannot be underestimated. There was a fashion for getting out into the wild and hunting – if you had enough money.
You might wonder at how such an exclusive pursuit became so identified with the Highlands and part of the popular imagination but the doings of those at the top of the social ladder are always written about and become an object of attention for the rest of us. In visual terms it is also unsurprising because a stag is a fine looking animal and has all sort of mythological connotations to bring to the interpretation of the landscape.
But if I look at those pictures of stags and think they are of their era and purely Victorian I would be missing the point that the structure of landholding is still remarkably similar. The classic Highland sporting estate is around 30,000 acres, with boundaries created in the nineteenth century from older and more extensive traditional landholdings. It will have a lodge, employ gamekeeping staff and typically be owned by someone with substantial business or financial interests who will visit infrequently but employ a professional estate agency firm to administer and manage the estate. There are around 340 sporting estates in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland covering around 5.2 million acres of land, which represents over 30 per cent of the total privately-owned land in Scotland and over 50 per cent of privately-owned land in the Highlands and Islands. This is too large to be ignored but now when we think of the Highlands we tend to think of a sublime landscape, and physical recreation in the form of walking, mountain biking or climbing. We think less readily about hunting. Our visual imagination has changed and we no longer see the stag as a major representation of the Highlands. Perhaps our attitude to killing animals is now more complicated and perhaps the celebrities we want to read about are now metropolitan and come from the world of showbiz. Nevertheless the hard economic reality is that things are as they were 100 years ago, we just don’t see it as clearly.
Isn’t it wonderful where a bottle of whisky can lead you? From a picture of a stag to the structure of land ownership. So I think I had better leave you with images of Glen Garioch before and after their makeover and you can marvel at how successful they have been in suggesting the past with carrying a message of anything in particular.