My muse! Guid auld Scotch drink!
We’re feeling inspired in the approach to Burns Night by our national poet’s celebration of Scotch as his muse – and went out to some modern Scottish writers to find out how whisky has inspired them
Happy New Year! We hope you’re kicking off 2020 in fine fettle and looking forward to a braw year of whisky adventures together with The Scotch Malt Whisky Society and your fellow members.
We’re feeling inspired already, taking the lead from our national bard Robert Burns, who memorably sang the praises of “My muse! Guid auld Scotch drink!” in his poem Scotch Drink. As we anticipate our annual celebration of Burns’s life and poetry later this month, we thought we’d ask various Scottish authors for their own reflections on how whisky has inspired them and acted as their muse. Here’s that they had to say about their relationship with our national drink:
Whisky has meant many things to me over the course of my life. Conviviality – the sharing of drams between friends, accompanied by good conversation. The perfect nightcap – either at the end of a long day or else to finish a memorable meal. A singular pleasure – that glass I pour when I'm alone with my thoughts, but usually also listening to music. Adventure – the blend or single malt that's new to you in a place you're visiting for the first time. Wherever, whatever, whenever – whisky takes on a special meaning.
My family roots are on Islay, so I think I have a genetic predisposition towards those island malts. I don't drink alcohol during the act of writing, but I love that moment at the end of the day when I pour myself an Islay whisky and settle down in my armchair to contemplate what comes next. The warm fumes rise in my head and provoke the confidence that when tomorrow comes, the words will be there to be plundered.
Looking back over the last 20 years, I’m amazed how often whisky features in my stories and novels. Sometimes, to be honest, my characters drink more alcohol than is good for them. But at other times the effect of a dram or two is much more positive: the opening of a bottle of single malt signals the start of a good conversation, and various whiskies have all unleashed fond memories, philosophy and passion in my fictional people. In my book To Be Continued, part of the plot involves a ludicrous whisky-smuggling conspiracy, in which an unnamed Speyside malt is rebottled as 'Salmon’s Leap' and 'Glen Gloming’ (two of the brands included in Compton Mackenzie’s famous, gloriously imaginative list in Whisky Galore). I had great fun writing that book. Burns wrote that ‘freedom and whisky gang thegither’: in my view, whisky and a lively imagination also make excellent companions.
The best stories, like the best malts, speak profoundly of place. And they do so in a voice that’s low and quiet, so you have to lean in closer and listen – you don’t want to miss a word. There is a passing pleasure in stories that have it all up front just as there is with a dram that’s giving it laldy on the nose and saying: ‘This is me’. But I only enjoy those books once and the same goes with bottles of similar ilk. To win a place on my shelves you need to be worth reading, or sipping, again.
Alexander McCall Smith
One of my poems talks about our feeling for Scotland and for the landscapes that are particularly associated with the production of whisky. Part of it reads:
And so we are never far from Scotland
If that is the imaginative miracle we wish were wrought;
All that is required is that we know
Where it is we most want ourselves to be:
On that road that runs across Rannoch Moor,
On that coast of Mull where the island
Turns the corner into the Atlantic,
On the slopes of Ben Rinnes
When above us is an attenuated blue
And in the distance are shafts of light
Hard against shifting veils of rain, tears
Shed for a country we love so much
It makes us wish to cry;
The heart of each of us
Has a way of being broken
That is uniquely ours.