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Historia Ecclesiastica

Eight Bols of Malt

On Scotch whisky.


There has aye been a romantic association between the stiff peaty dram and the Catholic identity here in Scotland. Indeed, whisky has long been understood as currency in the Scottish Highlands and the islands, providing joie de vivre in the mild summers and warmth in the harsh winters. However, the dram’s association with ecclesiastical history is rather difficult to explain.

Today, the association is a product of what we might call the “Outlander effect,” after the popular television program, by which anything and everything that might be vaguely identified as “Scottish” is made integral to our identity. Thus Scottish cultural nationalism begets Jacobitism, and Jacobitism begets all sorts of cultural fancies that may not have been entirely historically popular: kilts, whisky, Scots bonnets, Bonnie Prince jackets, popery. But we ought to be skeptical of kitsch and (more to the point) of reducing the faith to another cultural touchstone for television writers.

Some historians incessantly remind us that the first recorded commercial sale of whisky was at Lindores Abbey, just north of the River Tay, in 1494. In this year, it is recorded that the monks of Lindores made “eight bols of malt” for James IV, King of Scots to have a wee dram:

Et per liberacionem factam Fratri Johanni Cor per preceptum compotorum rotulatoris, utasserit, de mandato domini regis ad faciendum aquavite, infra hoc compotum viij bolle brasii.

Given that such an exchange happened before the Reformation, some like to use this anecdote to make an association between the dram and the Church. But the work of the monks at Lindores does not tell us a lot about why the dram is so associated with Catholic culture today. In fact, all we do know about the spirits made at Lindores is that they would have tasted more like medicine than the bottle of Highland nectar we know today.

Despite what one might think, initially alcohol was not part and parcel of recusant Catholic life in Scotland. In the 1620s, we hear that Irish missionaries arrived in those areas which were untouched by the Reformation in the Western Isles. One account hilariously recalls that when the missionaries tried to celebrate Mass, they had to sojourn all the way to Edinburgh to procure wine for consecration. Likewise, the Franciscans who had been ministering to the faithful in Kintyre were “given a rare delicacy” when they arrived on the Isle of Mull: “a drink of beer; this was the first time they had tasted beer since they left Ireland.” It is not until much later that Catholic Scotland would find its spirit.

Unlike the baptism of coffee, which was fit for the baroque palaces of Clement VIII, the baptism of whisky had a simpler, more homegrown setting. In the Eastern Highlands, much of the dram’s christening took place at a charming little farmhouse, tucked into a strategically positioned glen, to avoid the risk of Hanoverian assaults. The farmhouse was called “Scalan,” the secret seminary where Catholic priests were trained between 1717 and 1799. Situated in Glenlivet, Scalan was home to many “heather priests,” who were trained here on Scottish soil, unlike their confrères away in Rome. Life at Scalan was dangerous, but for the most part pleasant. It provided a safe place for young men to learn sacred theology, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Scots Gaelic while engaged in manual labor at the farm.

In 1774, the master of the seminary noted that there was a bit of a problem with local drinking. Neighboring farmers had become incapacitated because of a nasty spirit they had been brewing, “only drinking down sorrow, and with the Husky Bottle banishing away the thoughts of hard times.” Indeed, it was not a problem unique to Scalan. Many of the clergy living in private houses became heavy drinkers. Tom Devine argues that illegal distillation and alcoholism were especially rife in Glenlivet:

Several prominent centres of illicit distillation in the north-east (such as Glenlivet) were areas of lingering Jacobite sentiment where the distiller benefited from distrust of southern government and antagonism to legislation which taxed a basic essential of life.

After the victories achieved at the Battle of Glenlivet, the locals were not quite willing to obey the ordinances of the English government. It seems that this is the period in which whisky became a “basic essential of life” for the recusant Catholic communities in the Highlands. Devine tells us that local terrain and the fact that distillation was so commonplace “made detection difficult in some regions.” He attributes the “armed strength of the smuggling communities” to their continual immunity from the “gaugers,” a local pejorative term for the King’s excisemen. In his personal diary, Lewie the Vet from Glengairn (the next glen over from Glenlivet) recalled his father’s whisky-making days, not long after the Forty-Five. He recalls that his father was “gey stairn to his releegion” and “learnt me to say ma prayers in Gaelic.” One day his father took him down to the bothy where he had been making the gorgeous libation, describing a mechanism for making whisky that is not so different from the way we do it today:

Inside were keepit the stuff for makin’ whuskey and a muckle caadron or black pot. It had a ’ig bow o’ cooper and tree pipes cam’ aff o’ this heid and they j’ined ither pipes that gaein’ in throw the watter in a tank to cool the whuskey afore it got into the barrel.

Lewie insists that the stuff was once used responsibly, recalling happy memories of having the “whuskey” after Mass on Sundays. But there was something very different about whisky back then. While “the fowk was aye drinking,” he adds that “they made stuff that wadna hairm them.” Back then, “there was na adultry in it.” What on earth could have happened in these tranquil glens to turn the water of life into demon drink?

Contrary to what writers of historical television programs might have you believe, the Church did not take a favorable view of illegal distillation—in fact, it made an active effort to control it. In the 1810s, Father James Gordon, who had been instrumental in condemning the trade, arrived at the parish of Tombae in Glenlivet. Father Gordon grew up in a Protestant family, which of course would have had a less than approving view of drink. Famously, this priest condemned the smuggling trade in Glenlivet, but not just because it was an illegal industry. What he termed the “abominable traffic of driving the mountain dew” coincided with many other vices—and chief among them was adultery. 

The illegal stills in Glenlivet were not housed in bothies as much as they were kept in houses of ill-repute. The stills were mostly worked by women, mainly as an extension of their roles in the kitchen, but afterwards the women often stayed in the bothies and forthcame many illegitimate children.  Naturally, the Church did not look upon these illegal distilleries with much favor; they were places of sin. The good Father Gordon wanted to put a stop to it. 

Like the souls involved with the spirit, the Glenlivet whisky stills themselves needed redemption. A number of reforms led eventually to the passing of the Excise Act 1823, which would legitimize the distillation and selling of whisky. However, although the licensing reforms meant that the mountain dew could be distilled, bottled, and sold legally by anyone, the licensing requirements meant that only those who were relatively wealthy could afford to comply with the provisions of the act. Consequently, most of the smaller stills that had thrived in the golden days of smuggling had been lost—and the “wild life of the bothies” was destroyed. This, however, was no bad thing for the glens.

In the 1820 Status Animarum at Tombae, we find a draft letter from Father Gordon, writing to someone about Paul Grant, who had continued to “drive the staple commodity of the country” over the last few years. This, of course, was a reference to Grant’s role as an infamous whisky smuggler in the region, wanted by the gaugers for his evasive tactics. Father Gordon later notes, however, that the changes in the regulations which occurred not long before the licensing reforms had brought Grant’s smuggling lifestyle to an end, after which he was met with “many serious losses” and debts. “Soon after he abandoned that abominable traffic of driving the mountain dew and took his farm,” Father Gordon writes, and married “an excellent, active and most virtuous young woman” and was now “a well behaved, sober and industrious man.” Indeed, in the 1847 census, we see that Grant is still happily married with five children, all of whom are confessing and communicating regularly at Father Gordon’s church in Tombae.

We find a similar story from one Father William McIntosh. What Grant was to Glenlivet, McIntosh was to Glengairn, the neighboring parish. As a young man, McIntosh was a notoriously violent whisky smuggler. The liberalization of whisky licensing stopped the bothies and discouraged purchasing from stills which had been driven underground. Smuggling then became an incredibly dangerous job, one that McIntosh relished.

It was the job of McIntosh’s men to take the uisge beatha out to Aberdeen for enjoyment in the city taverns. However, one night McIntosh—a large man—found himself in a stushie with Malcolm Gillespie, one of the King’s gaugers. The story goes that the smugglers had been unloading the spirit from a cart when they were confronted by Gillespie. Immediately, all of them “quietly surrendered—all except our friend [McIntosh] who, severing the ropes which tied the kegs and letting the latter fall to the ground, sprung on the pony’s back.” Gillespie then took a shot at McIntosh, wounding him in the leg. Nevertheless, the determined McIntosh continued his flight and “after another mile or so struck off into the rough ground leading to the hills and made his escape.” Alas, this brutal encounter was not enough to discourage McIntosh. A few months later, McIntosh had yet another rammy with Gillespie on Union Street in Aberdeen, where Gillespie recognized McIntosh and “made an instant attempt at seizure,” but was rewarded instead with a “vigorous blow on the head from [McIntosh’s] cudgel, which sent him sprawling and senseless into the gutter.” Having then been outlawed in the region, McIntosh knew he had to flee the area to make a new life. He went immediately to Glasgow. 

In Glasgow, McIntosh lived with some other Highlanders and began attending the Clydeside Church of Saint Andrew (which would later become the cathedral). There, McIntosh realized that he had to make great reparations for his life of crime. Just outside the church, McIntosh seems to have had a conversion of heart after “gallantly jumping into the Clyde” and saving a drowning man’s life. And, after consulting one of the bishops, McIntosh went off to seminary on the Isle of Lismore, then to Saint-Sulpice in Paris. He was known to be “one of the cleverest and most esteemed clergymen” in the Highland Vicariate. Most important, Fr. McIntosh devoted most of his priesthood to the temperance movement, encouraging many parishioners to “take the pledge” in an attempt to reduce the effects of alcoholism in the Western Highlands among Catholics—and even among the clergy. Yet another man from the glens turned away from driving the mountain dew and focusing his efforts on higher things.

But it was not total abstinence that made the people of Glenlivet and the neighboring glens more virtuous, but gentle regulation. The licensing reforms of the early nineteenth century made distilleries more commonplace; whisky was sold at reasonable prices, and the dram became a part of civilized life. Most important, it meant that the drink could be enjoyed with obedience to the law. The smaller, illicit distilleries largely disappeared, and although some of them tried to continue without a license, the customers were scarce when other, perfectly legal options were available.

In 1824, George Smith founded The Glenlivet as a licensed and honorable institution for the distillation of the spirit. The nutty flavors that were so typical in the drams of this glen were no longer affiliated with vice, adultery, social chaos, and rebellion. Instead, whisky could be heartily enjoyed after Mass, with friends and—as one author notes—in the back of the shop because there was no pub in Tombae. 

Having turned the vices of The Glenlivet into virtue, Smith’s work meant that the uisge which was native to Scotland’s Catholic heartland was now viewed as essential to the good life in the glens rather than as criminal contraband; it could be enjoyed decently, with love of kirk and country. Smith is now buried at Father Gordon’s church in Tombae, where he was given a mausoleum for his service to the parish. 

Demon drink has always been a problem in Scotland. But while the temperance movement enjoyed some support among the clergy, the Church never enjoined the abstinence that would become a hallmark of Protestantism later in the nineteenth century. Why? Because all things in this world are best enjoyed in moderation and at leisure, and not out of necessity. As Chesterton put it, “Drink because you are happy, but never because you are miserable. Never drink when you are wretched without it, or you will be like the grey-faced gin-drinker in the slum; but drink when you would be happy without it, and you will be like the laughing peasant of Italy.”

The situation is not much different today. Alcoholism is still commonplace in Scotland. The abuses are many and “the drink,” as we call it, continues to ruin many lives. But the civilized Christian approach to the dram typified by Smith reminds us that this little spirit was not inherently wicked. Excesses, especially when they are illegal, are often accompanied by the most atrocious vices. With due obedience to temporal and divine authority we can enjoy George Smith’s Christian enterprise today with a wee drappie, knowing that we are reaping the fruits of his good works. 

So, the next time you take a nip of Glenlivet, before you toast the Bonnie Prince and the Blessed Mother with a Slàinte Mhoire, remember to make a toast to Auld George: Slàinte Seòras.

Jamie McGowan is a doctoral student at the University of Glasgow.

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