Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Lightly Peated

Whisky, Blabber 'n' Smoke


Neil Gunn’s Whisky Book Pt. 1

Whisky and Scotland

A Practical and Spiritual Survey*

I usually skip past any paragraph the starts with: “the word:  uisge-beatha comes from the Gaelic and means ‘the water of life”. I have read it too many times. But when Neil Gunn starts the Whisky and Scotland this way he wants you to pay attention – he wants you to pause and think why the ancient mind would have called it that. He is convinced that to them it really was “akin to one of the ultimate elements into which ancient philosophers resolved the universe. It is not a descriptions much as a simple statement of truth and of mystery.” He wants you to step back from being a modern consumer and think about the cultural roots of your drink.

The first chapter reimagines the discovery of distilling and its consequences , in a style something like a dramatised schools programme. It is a little too whimsical and, because beginnings are important, it can cause the book to be misjudged. I did that when I first read it and thought  that I couldn’t be doing with all this mystical sentimentality and it really clouded my reaction to the whole book. It was only when coming back, after reading his novels and finding out about his life, that I realised I had been too quick to judge. The book might be a work of non-fiction (with all the conventions that often entails) but the style of it harks back to older oral traditions. He is a storyteller drawing you in to tell you a shaggy dog tale that will circle around its subject , weave in and out, and take many diversions. Imagine that as evening falls a group of you are sitting around a crackling fire. A bottle is being passed round from which you each take your full measure as you listen to Mr Neil Gunn holding forth, against the injustices that have befallen his country, the virtues that have been lost and the belief that its strength could still be reclaimed.  Holding up his glass and looking at how the amber liquid glints from the fire he claims it is not merely a drink but it represents the spirit of the country itself.

His style might have fallen out of fashion and this might be off-putting; so let’s see how you react. This is the book’s third paragraph:

“Down round the southern corner of the dun there was a field of barley all ripened by the sun. in a small wind it echoed faintly the sound of the ocean; at night it sighed and rustled as the earth mother thought over things, not without a little anxiety. It was cut and harvested and a sheaf offered in thanksgiving; flailed and winnowed; until the ears of grain remained in a heap of pale gold: the bread of life.

In  simple ways the grain was prepared and ground and set to ferment: the fermented liquor was then boiled, and as the steam came off it was by happy chance condensed against some cold surface.

And lo! This condensation of the steam from the greenish-yellow fermented gruel is clear as crystal. It is purer than any water from any well. When cold it is colder to the fingers than ice.”

If you like the pace and the poetic conception – fine. If not don’t worry as there are plenty of other books on whisky to read.  However the importance of this book is that alongside Whisky by Aeneas Macdonald  it established whisky as a subject worthy of serious consideration. It thus has to be read in the context of its own time, not ours, and things we take for granted still needed to be fought over eg the need to defend the subject against an active temperance movement. (That is why Aeneas Macdonald wrote pseudonymously – he didn’t want his high minded, strict TT mother to find out). Now whisky appreciation is an established genre we can celebrate the aesthetics of taste and smell and highlight traditions and the skill of the makers and park any discussion of the problems of alcohol into different disciplines. 

Background to the Book

Writing the book was not Neil Gunn’s idea. It came from James Leslie Mitchell (Lewis Grassic Gibbon) who was in the process of commissioning a series for Routledge, highlighting Scottish writers, called ‘The Voices of Scotland’. Eric Linklater (1899-1974) wrote The lion and the unicorn: or what England has meant to Scotland; William Power (1873–1951), Literature and Oatmeal : What Literature Has Meant to Scotland; Alexander Sutherland Neill (1883-1973), Is Scotland Educated?; Edwin Muir (1887-1959), Scott and Scotland;  Compton Mackenzie (1883-1972), Catholicism and Scotland;  Willa Muir (1890-1970), Mrs Grundy and Scotland; Victor MacClure (1887-1963), Scotland’s Inner Man:  A history of Scots food & cookery. An interesting spread of topics but for sure it needed something on whisky, tone complete – and Neil Gunn was the man. At first he was reluctant because he was untested in the long essay form and even claimed he was not really a literary man and that his knowledge of whisky was “severely if copiously practical” . This was swept away by Mitchell: “Why shouldn’t whisky be talked of as a Frenchman would talk of wine? Exactly. Why not? Do. Talk of it in any way you please. I’ve an idea you think of this whisky book being designed by me as propaganda against cant and Calvin. Not a bit! Nonsense to say you’re not a literary person. You write the best English in Scotland; plus that (I’m told from some who heard you at Edinburgh in June) you know everything about whisky and can tell it charmingly. So do it”¹ Against this Gunn had no grounds to resist, apart from a secret reservation about his official position at Glen Mohr distillery and so insisted that “No mention would have to be made in any way of my Revenue position.”²

Nevertheless he still had a degree of trepidation and needed to work his way into the project. The guidance from his editor, though, gave him a suggested structure:  “Booze in ancient times. How Scots got sozzled. The canning of the Celt. The evolution of whisky. Whisky as its is, how it is made, casked, warehoused, blended, etc, flavours and fragrance. What whisky has meant to the Scots belly; the Scots purse; the Scots reputation; and (of course) to the soul of Scotland!” But it also gave him complete freedom

“The main point is that you can write anything you please. You may stop your dissertation half way through and discuss bimetallism or polyandry for ten thousand words for all I care. No rules … You can do it beautifully!”³

He followed the map pretty closely but if you do want to know more about bimetallism  or polyandry I fear you will be disappointed.


This is not purely a whisky book although it is mostly read today because It is a book about whisky and Scotland.  In fact it is more about Scotland and ofttimes whisky is used as a metaphor for the country and its people rather than the actual material subject.

Take the fanciful opening which imagines the discovery of uisgebeatha; its purpose is to establish a Celtic character (which can be read through into the present day). These Celts are democratic and egalitarian in the way they won’t let their chief dominate them (in implied contrast with the Anglo Saxons), have a liveliness and imagination, with the bard being a person of status. The historical based discussion on the nature of Celtic culture leans heavily on the recently translated work of Henri Hubert: The Rise of the Celts; and The Greatness and Decline of the Celts claims the Celts were civilisers, with a rich cultural heritage who were driven from their lands by more warlike peoples until they only clung onto the rocks at the edge of the sea, and were thus ultimately oppressed. The idea of ‘The Celts were civilisers’ is a frequent refrain eg:

 “when Gaelic scholars set out to Chritianise some barbarians in Europe, when the Gaelic tongue was already skilled in metrical devices and philosophy, and when its folklore or mythology was as fine as the Greeks, with morality”.  

They also had social traditions that set them apart from their more powerful neighbours:

“To the poor Scot, deriving from the ancient Gaelic social life, ideas in property and ownership of certain fruits of the earth and sea were radically different from those of a poor Anglo Saxon deriving from feudalism; so much so that it was a difference not merely in conscious ideas but in blood impulse. I should like to stress this, because unless it is grasped I may go on talking about Scotland and what whisky has meant to her to the crack of doom and yet convey nothing but a flurry of superficial and (no cause being seen) irrelevant happenings.” 

This narrative of virtue and victimhood is a potent mix and one often stirred by nationalists even to the present day. And nationalism is the argument of the book even if the subject is overtly a spiritous liquid. 

At the time he wrote this book Neil Gunn’s literary career was taking off. His breakthrough novel, Morning Tide was published in 1931 and 1934 saw the release of his novel about the Highland clearances, Butchers Broom. Yet despite the demands of establishing himself as a major author he devoted enormous energies to the Scottish Nationalism. It was his passion. He jointly founded the Inverness branch of the National Party of Scotland and turned it into a powerhouse. Behind the scenes he was close to the leadership and played a significant role in brokering the deal with the Scottish Party to form the SNP. This happened in 1934, the same time he was writing his whisky book. You can see how this preoccupation, the sort of arguments he was constantly making, would find their way into a book of linked essays.

It was an interesting time to be fighting for nationalism though. In Europe the whole concept was a boiling, bubbling mess. In Italy there was Fascism, in Russia the ongoing unfolding of their revolution and in Germany the evil of Nazism and its expansionary demands. All exhorting nationalist feelings. So one Gunn’s tasks was to show that nationalism, pride in ones culture and heritage could be benign and not at all warlike. This is why there is the emphasis on the Celts as civilisers far removed from the militarism of the Continent.

Because the book was written for a polemical purpose it engages in issues of the time, especially Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. These sallies are now very dated and overtaken by events but, in fairness,  there was no way he could have foreseen the horrors of mass exterminations, concentration camps and a war that destroyed cities and civilians as well as combatants. 

There are bits in this book that can be skipped.

There are passages though where things come into clear focus and he writes with lucidity and passion. In the last chapter though he rails against the iniquitous exploitation of the whisky industry by HM Treasury and it is here that his feelings about whisky and Scotland come powerfully together.

  1. The story of not just of decline but being disheartened by being conquered:

“The Highlands have had, of course, that romantic past to which some of us refer only with reluctance. The ‘clearances’ of the early nineteenth century, when vast numbers of crofters were driven from their homes, often in circumstances of extreme brutality, mark perhaps a high spot in that long process of decline that is the underlying theme of the historic story in modern times. Altogether it is a disheartening story in a disheartened people, losing faith in themselves, growing ashamed of their Gaelic speech, of every characteristic that differentiated them from those born to the English tongue. The world had conquered them, a bright world before which simplicity and poverty were secret sins. What really defeated them was their own sensitiveness, out of a past concerned for this things of the mind natural to good breeding. Not that it all happened in a state of continuous gloom. The Celtic people love variety and witty sayings and fun. But it did become common for southern visitors to talk of evasiveness, of deceit, of two faces, and, more searchingly, ‘The Highlander will tell you a lie rather than hurt your feelings.’ It was all in the air, the air that passed so refreshingly over heather hills, but bore the senses and now and then the faint carrion smell of the dead eagle trapped by the gamekeepers.”

2.  His attitude to the past was romantic but he hated cheap romanticism:

“That phase has almost passed and now we have what we may call the strutters – those who parade in tartan at fashionable assemblies and mods with an air of esoteric knowledge and exclusive privilege, but who would be horrified at mention of the word politics in connection with their own land. They make their money in ‘the other world’.

That tawdry, slightly shameful phase will pass also, and presently the ordinary Highlander, who has forgotten most of his Gaelic and has never worn a kilt, aware of the unspeakable slum life – something more desperate than he has ever known – that is the real stomach of the conqueror, will begin to demand less glamour and more barley, less intoxication by windy rhetoric and more by the true water of life.”

3. Scotland really is a separate country 

“He will demand to know – for our uisgebeatha wasn’t far away – why our whisky should be so heavily taxed compared with other drinks … The discrimination against whisky is so manifestly unjust that it does have the appearance of being deliberately vindictive… No foreign country behaves in this manner to a native product. The whole idea of a tariff is to protect the home article against the foreign… But perhaps to our Government a Scottish product is a foreign product! A sudden illumination that explains much – though I can hardly believe it!”

4. His people have a virtuous culture

“Now I admit when I first mentioned the Highlands, I was really thinking of the fisherman, the crofter, the shepherd, of his environment, with its distances and play of elemental forces, the long strenuous months when a pot of beer lies in the belly cold as death by drowning and cider is an affair of solemn eructation…

The Highlander – the Scot – does not want to be a beggar. He does not like to be told that he is not paying his way like an Englishman. He is beginning to feel that the exploitation of his whisky is a parable for the exploitation of much else. One day he may wake up and in the face of so much conquering decide that some civilising (despite Mr Buchan) is at last due an inning.”

5. The Highlands could thrive

“Yet how naturally rich this Highland region is, what potential wealth dumbly awaits creation! Inexhaustible resources of hydro-electric power, great areas for afforestation and stock raising, a vast fishing industry – the great Scottish herring-fishing ports are all north of the Highland line, sea inlets opening into glens where timber working, weaving, fish curing, etc should be communal industries … But what I really want to stress is the quality of the natural products: the best mutton and meat in the world, the finest game and salmon and trout, white fish of unexcelled firmness and flavour, herring that are admittedly the pick of all markets (the Norwegian are coarse in comparison), fragrant berries, heather honey (on a vast scale) of so exquisite a flavour that a world grown economically sane would never have enough of it and – did I mention whisky?”

* A Practical and Spiritual Survey is the subtitle of the original edition, which seems to have been lost. It has completely disappeared from the edition I have, which is a reprint of the 1977 edition. This is a shame as it adds something to our understanding of the authors intention.

N.B. The photo is of the Great Polish Map of Scotland from this Wikipedia page

¹ The citation for this is a bit complicated. It is quoted in Hart, Francis Russell., and J. B. Pick. Neil M. Gunn : a Highland Life. John Murray, 198i, p136-137.  Where the citation is: Munro, Ian S. Leslie Mitchell: Lewis Grassic Gibbon. Oliver and Boyd, 1966, p. 188. Text is taken, rather,  from NLS Dep. 209, Box 17 MS, which differs somewhat.

² Gunn, Neil M., and J. B. Pick. Selected Letters. Polygon, 1987, p43

³ Munro, Ian S. Leslie Mitchell: Lewis Grassic Gibbon. Oliver and Boyd, 1966, p. 189. (continuation of the earlier quoted letter)

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