A little knowledge is a dangerous thing and there are many ways it can lead us astray. In today’s case my ‘little knowledge’ was a vague recollection that Neil M Gunn had a literary reputation. I have never read anything by him, or even a critical evaluation, but I knew his name and that he was a proper writer. So I was sure his 1935 book on whisky would be interesting – and it was. But not in a good way. It was interesting because there is a fascination with the awful.
‘Whisky and Scotland’ might be one of the worst book on whisky I have read as it is full of generalisations, prejudice, and assertions. Perhaps this is just the flip side of one of whisky’s virtues as it is the most sociable of drinks. A group of friends sitting around, appreciating and sharing, will engage both their senses and their fancy in talk on any number of topics. Rhetoric can soar but at the end of a long night the grip of rationality might be loose and the mind a little dull when it thinks itself brilliant. This book reads as if it was written in that state.
In fact the book is not so much about whisky as it is a romantic lament for Celtic culture and a yearning for the lost social mores of Gaeldom. There is nothing wrong with that – it can be the engine of poetry and belief, and it’s obviously a deep part of Gunn’s personal identity. But there is a lot wrong with being sloppy about it – being carried away.
Take for example the section on the early history of distilled alcohol. Variants appeared in many ancient civilisation and the fact that the name itself has an Arabian root is not insignificant This though is not enough – for Gunn the Celts must have got there first!
“How the early Celts went about it, of course we do not know, though if they devoted anything like the terrible concentration one of their young bards had to devote to learning his thousands of lines, I should not be in anyway surprised hear from some Eastern scholar that a certain adventuring Arabian brought home with him once upon a time from the fastness of the northern barbarians a still head complete with worm (condensing pipe).”
This sort of fancy gives a hint of what the book is about. It is not a nuts and bolts description of whisky, its nature, and its place in the world. It is primarily concerned with Scottish identity:
“Fundamentally we are concerned with the commons of Scotland, whether in the Yllis of the Statutes or the Ayrshire of Burns. They and their whisky are one … Before we can know what whisky has meant to Scotland, presumably we must first have some idea of what Scotland means to herself.”
It is at this point that I realise that I had not paid careful attention to the title. The book is about both whisky and Scotland, or more precisely an imagined Scotland.
“Can it be that Scotland, which is being turned into a desert with alarming rapidity, has this destiny in front of her, that the Cairngorm will come the philosopher’s stone? The ways of destiny are inscrutable – and any day now they may turn from preoccupation with conquering to the art of civilising. Scotland has never yet led the world as Greece did or Venice. Is her time coming at last when in the face of a world given over to mass emotion and mass thought, to strident Fascism, religious Communism, self-heating Clissoldissm, she will assert once more individual responsibility and the individual soul? She has the tradition. She has the water of life. How fascinating it would be to watch her take hold of herself and set out on the great enterprise!”
There is nothing I can do to tether that paragraph to the world as I know it. But that is my fault Neil Gunn has already told me:
“I know that to many minds I have been indulging in a piece of special pleading for the Celt, or his more homely representative the Gael. Perhaps I have. But what I should really like to understand is why it should arouse a curious sort of instinctive hostility. Is not the reader conscious of a very slight (or not so slight) impatience at the mere idea of having to discuss ‘this Gaelic civilisation business’? From my experience – and at the moment I believe I am perfectly, even pleasantly detached, – the reader is.”
This reader was and because of it he could only treat the book as a curiosity and an example of how writing can become dated.
P.S. the portrait of Neil Gunn used it illustrate this post was painted by David Macbeth Sutherland as was found at https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/neil-gunn-18911973-166142#image-use