FolkWorld Issue 39 07/2009; Article by Walkin' T:-)M

Robert Burns

Robert Burns (FW #38)

Burns and Scotland
on the Silver Screen

Tam O' Shanter - A Tale

The Sound of Whisky (2)
Robert Burns: Freedom an' Whisky Gang Thegither

When Scots all over the world celebrated their national bard's birthday on 25th January, they were addressing the haggis, the traditional Scots dish of sheep's stomach, and the main subjects which dominated the life of Robert Burns - the ladies and, of course, Scotch whisky.

Let other poets raise a fracas
"Bout vines, an' wines, an' drucken Bacchus,
An' crabbit names an'stories wrack us,
An' grate our lug:
I sing the juice Scotch bear can mak us,
In glass or jug.
In the year of the Lord 1781, the 22-year-old Robert Burns went to Irvine, a coastal town in North Ayrshire, to learn the trade of flax-combing. The town became the haunt of Burns, after whom two streets in the town are named today. Indeed, it was here where he first was encouraged to send some of his poems to a magazine. In Irvine Burns also got lost in three fires of a different kind: He lost all his possessions by burning, he lost his virginity, and he tasted the drink that was coming down from the Highlands and was called uisce beatha, the water of life!

Drinking and socialising became one of his passions, though he was a moderate drinker throughout his life because of his weak stomach and his poor health. From his works, we know that he drank ale, wine (particularly claret), port, rum, nantz (a type of brandy) and, of course, whisky. In 1785 he wrote his poem "Scotch Drink" (see box on the left), mentioning one of the most famous whiskies of the period explicitly: Thee, Ferintosh! O sadly lost! Scotland, lament frae coast to coast.

O Willie brew'd a peck o' maut,
And Rob and Allen cam to see;
Three blyther hearts, that lee-lang night,
Ye wadna found in Christendie.

Wha first shall rise to gang awa,
A cuckold, coward loun is he!
Wha first beside his chair shall fa',
He is the King amang us three.

Icon Sound Willie Brew'd A Peck O' Maut

Ferintosh whisky came from north of Inverness. In 1690, a privilege was granted to the Forbes family of Culloden to distil free of duty from grain grown on their property. This privilege was to reward their support to Protestant King William III. By the time of Burns, there were at least four distilleries on Culloden's estate. The privilege however was withdrawn as part of the Wash Act of 1784.

Another whisky Burns mentions explicitly is in "The Jolly Beggars": and by that dear Kilbaigie. The inspiration for the song was a visit to Poosie Nansie's, a tavern and brothel in Mauchline. The Kilbagie distillery was one of the large Lowland distilleries which used shallow flat-bottomed stills that could be run off in minutes. The spirit from such stills was notorious for its harshness, and most of it was exported to England to be rectified into gin.

One of his most popular drinking songs is "Willie Brew'd A Peck O' Maut," written in the autumn of 1789. Burns and his friends Allan Masterton and William Nicol spent a most enjoyable night. The result was this song, with words by Burns and music by Masterton.

Scotch Whisky

Legend has it that distillation reached Scotland in the 5th century by Irish monks. In 1495 a distiller named Friar John Cor is mentioned. Taxation caused a rise in illicit whisky distilling, in the times of Burns there were about 8 legal distilleries and 400 illegal stills. This was changed in 1823, when Parliament eased restrictions on licensed distilleries, while at the same time making it harder for the illegal ones to operate. Scotland is traditionally divided into four regions: The Highlands (including the Islands such as Arran), the Lowlands, Islay and Campbeltown. Speyside, encompassing the Spey river valley in the Northeast, comprises almost half of all Scottish distilleries.

Scotch Whisky Regions

Scotch whisky is divided into distinct categories: Malt whisky must contain no grain other than malted barley and is traditionally distilled in pot stills. Single malt whisky is a 100% malted barley whisky from one distillery. Vatted malt (also called pure malt), is created by mixing single malt whiskies from more than one distillery. Grain whisky may contain unmalted barley or other grains such as wheat and maize and is typically distilled in a continuous column still, known as a Patent or Coffey still. Blended whisky is a mixture of whiskies, usually from multiple distilleries; to achieve a particular blend, the blender may have to use up to 40 individual malt and grain whiskies.

Generally speaking, malting breaks down starches in the grain and helps convert them into sugars. Malt whisky production begins when grains of barley are soaked into water, and are allowed to get to the point of germination. Afterwards the malted grain is roasted in kilns over open, often peaty fires. The dried malt is then ground into a coarse flour (grist), and mixed with hot water in a huge mash tun, producing a sweet liquid (wort). It is cooled and drawn off into a massive vessel (washback). Yeast is added and fermentation turns the sugars into alcohol The resulting liquid (wash), now at about 5–7% alcohol by volume, is similar to a rudimentary beer.

Distillation is used to increase the alcohol content. The wash is distilled in copper swan-necked pot stills; all but two Scotch distilleries distill their product twice. The spirit is filled into wooden casks for the maturation process. Historically, casks previously used for sherry or bourbon were used (as barrels are expensive). The distillate must age for at least three years to be called Scotch whisky, although most single malts are offered at a minimum of eight years of age. The whisky is generally reduced to a bottling strength of 40-46% alcohol by volume. Occasionally, distillers will release a cask strength edition, which will usually have an alcohol content of 50–60%.

Tell them wha hae the chief direction,
Scotland an' me's in great affliction,
E'er sin' they laid that curst restriction
On aqua-vitae;
An' rouse them up to strong conviction,
An' move their pity.

Scotland, my auld, respected mither!
Tho' whiles ye moistify your leather,
Till, whare ye sit on craps o' heather,
Ye tine your dam;
Freedom an' whisky gang thegither!
Take aff your dram!
Burns coined the immortal dictum freedom an' whisky gang thegither in "The Author's Earnest Cry And Prayer", a satire on the governments taxation of whisky. However, since Burns badly needed a job, neither his poetry nor farming could support him and his many children, he supplemented his income by working as an exciseman - a collector of local taxation.

In days before income tax, excise was a tax, similar to today's VAT, levied on home-produced goods, essentials such as salt, soap, candles and paper, and luxuries as tobacco and spirits. The exciseman, or gauger as he was known in the Scots vernacular, was a most hated figure. The illicit whisky industry was a massive enterprise. Most of their production was smuggled to the Lowland towns and paid the tenants’ rent.

In the late summer of 1788, Burns name was entered on the excise list with the annotation: never tryed; a poet. At the end of his probationary period it read: turns out well. Burns' first excise station was a large stretch of countryside between Dumfries and the Lowther Hills, comprising tanners, maltsters, tobacconists, victuallers (publicans brewing their own beer) and wine, spirit and tea dealers. After a year, he was appointed excise officer responsible for a third of Dumfries and its immediate surroundings. In 1792 he was promoted to the Dumfries Port Division checking on all excisable goods passing through the port.

The deil cam fiddlin' thro' the town,
And danc'd awa wi' th' Exciseman,
And ilka wife cries, "Auld Mahoun,
I wish you luck o' the prize, man."

We'll mak our maut, and we'll brew our drink,
We'll laugh, sing, and rejoice, man,
And mony braw thanks to the meikle black deil,
That danc'd awa wi' th' Exciseman.

There's threesome reels, there's foursome reels,
There's hornpipes and strathspeys, man,
But the ae best dance ere came to the land
Was-the deil's awa wi' the Exciseman.

Icon Sound Icon Sound

There is a report of a whisky distillery in Dumfries, but there is no indication that it ever fell under Burns' responsibility. However, Burns was present at the seizing of the smuggling ship "The Rosamond" in March 1792. The ship had ran aground and despite resistance from the crew and the local population she was eventually captured. One rather fancy story says that Burns waded into the water, sword in hand, and captured the ship single-handed.

In the same year, he gave the job's general dislike a humorous slant in his poem, "The Deil's Awa Wi' The Exciseman". Here the despised figure is carried off to hell by the Auld Mahoun. The tune is the "Hemp Dresser" jig which is printed in Playford's "English Dancing Master" (1650) and also appeared in John Gay's "Beggar's Opera" (1728).

Burns probably wrote the verses for a toast at an excisemen's dinner. A more dramatic story about the origins of the song has it that Burns and several men were awaiting reinforcements before boarding a French brig to impound her cargo. After several hours of waiting in the wet salt marshes they were getting increasingly impatient. One of the waiting men suggested that the devil should take the messenger for his pains and that Burns might meanwhile produce a song.

Today Burns' name is associated with The Isle of Arran Distillers, which count a Burns Malt and a Burns Blend as part of their product range. All of them are officially endorsed by the Robert Burns World Federation, which is dedicated to the life and works of Robert Burns.

Put off, put off, and row with speed,
For now is the time and the hour of need,
To oars, to oars, and trim the bark,
Nor Scotland Queen be a warder's mark

Icon Sound Icon Sound Icon Movie

Isle of Arran Distillers is one of the few remaining independent distilleries in Scotland, based outside of Lochranza on the Isle of Arran, which lies off the southwest coast of Scotland (not to be confused with the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland). Although Burns never actually set foot on Arran, he should have been able to see the island on clear days from the Ayrshire coast.

Arran is called Scotland in Miniature, for it has all of its scenery including mountains, glens, lochs and castles. The island's beauty is best sensed through a haunting tune called the "Arran Boat Song," also known as "Highland Boating Song" or "Queen Mary's Escape from Loch Leven Castle". It is variously played as a slow air, a march or a jig. Other variants of the tune are the cowboy ballad "The Streets of Laredo" and the jig "Scarce o' Tatties" composed by piper Norman MacLean.

Robert Burns Burns himself found the tune used for a Jacobite song, "Bhanarach dhonn a' chruidh" (The Brown Dairymaid), by Gaelic poet Alasdair MacMhaighstir Alasdair (Alexander MacDonald, 1695-1770). In 1741 MacDonald published a Gaelic-English dictionary, the first in this language; he is also said to have accompanied Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745 and to have given him Gaelic lessons. Burns wrote his own words to the tune, "The Banks of the Devon," dedicated to a young lady, Charlotte Hamilton, residing at Harvieston on the banks of the Devon in the county of Clackmannan.

In the late 18th century there used to be several illicit stills on Arran. It is sometimes claimed that the Arran waters were the finest available in Scotland, only rivalled by the whiskies from the Glen of Livet. There also were two or three licensed stills, the last closed in the 1830s.

Arran Distillery was opened in 1995 by Harold Currie, former director of the Seagram Company. The place was chosen because of the constant water supply from the waters of Loch na Davie. Building work was first delayed for several weeks due to two nesting Golden Eagles who live on the mountain behind the distillery, then by a protected dragonfly species.

During the official opening ceremony the Golden Eagles provided a fly by, as if to give their blessing. Thus the distillery claims that their products are rightly described as the true spirit of nature. Indeed, Arran Single Malt products are non-chillfiltered, and they neither use peat in the production process nor caramel for artificial colouring.

Tasting Notes:

Robert Burns Single Malt Tasting logo Arran Distillery Arran 10 Year Old
Colour: Ripe Golden Barley Nose: The initial rush of vanilla sweetness gives way to the fruits of slow distillation - kiwi, banana, cantaloupe melon - with just a dusting of cocoa powder. It is undoubtedly complex and yet the aromas are in complete harmony with the malt. Taste: A touch of cinnamon adds a spicy edge to the soft and sweet texture which captivates the palate. The classic Arran citrus notes have rounded with age and reveal new depths of character against a background of sweet oak. Finish: It drifts over the tongue like golden syrup and fades ever so slowly to tempt another sip. This is a beautifully made whisky. Arran has come a long way in 10 years. Truly the best things in life are always worth waiting for!

Tasting logo Arran 100o Proof
Colour: Polished Copper Nose: Intense fruitiness with a burst of citrus - Seville oranges, lemond rind & lime - giving way to sweet apples, pear and rich vanilla. The array of aromas on display is underpinned by a delightful barley sugar character. Taste: A true blast of fresh island character with a full-bodied, oily edge which coats the palate. A splash of water allows a host of spicy-sweet flavours to emerge with honey, toffee and ginger all pulling the strings. Rich, malty and magnificent! Finish: The Arran Malt in concentrated form with bags of charisma to entice and engage in equal measure. What time does the next ferry for Arran leave?

Tasting logo Robert Burns Single Malt
Colour: Brass gold, Sauterns Nose: Fresh green apples, pear drops, cider, hints of vanilla Taste: Apples and sherbet, lemon meringue pie, vanilla Finish: Light and crisp - but ever so smooth and gentle - it dances on the tongue. An excellent aperitif with soft apple and gentle spiciness - a whisky calvados!


Photo Credits: (1) Robert Burns, (2) Scotch Whisky Regions (by Wikipedia); (3) Robert Burns lamenting the loss of Ferintosh @ The Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre, Edinburgh; (4) Robert Burns Single Malt, (5) Isle of Arran Distillery (by Arran Distillery).

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