The Living Tradition
- by Robin Laing Issue 22 July/August '97
the summer of 1995 I was on holiday on the Isle of Eigg. The weather was
incredible and I was at peace with everything. Eigg does that to me anyway,
but there was at least one moment, I admit, when the effect was enhanced
by a glass of fragrant malt whisky, slowly savoured as the shadows of evening
spread over fantastically panoramic views. With thoughts of whisky and its
production and what it means to Scotland revolving in my head, I found myself
in songwriting mode and out came the guitar. The result was my personal
tribute to malt whisky, a song called "More Than Just a Dram".
I had always been vaguely aware of other whisky songs, though I don't know if I would have distinguished them from drinking songs in general. (One of the songs children learn in Scottish primary schools is "The Diel's awa' wi th'Exciseman", by Robert Burns. Now, of course, I started uncover whisky songs either from my own memory, or by coincidence from other sources. It began to dawn on me that not only were there were a lot of good songs, but that taken together they tell a story. Soon, I was actively collecting them, and becoming more and more fascinated as the themes emerged and the tale unfolded. For the songs encapsulate the social history of whisky in Scottish society, and they tell us a lot about the feelings of the Scots towards their national drink. It's all there to be unpicked. This is how my show, "The Angels' Share", came about. The Angels' Share", is a collection of material, (about 14 songs and a few poems), all on the theme of whisky, and my musings on some of things I found.
I began to see, for example, that the Scots do not have a straightforward attitude to whisky. There is a lot of ambivalence. The Protestant Church has had powerful influence in Scotland since the Reformation, and there is a rather dour, strict, Calvinistic element in our National Character, which was always going to have a problem with whisky. (It's amazing how often the Devil appears in Scottish whisky songs). So how come the Scotch whisky industry developed the way it did? Well, drinking whisky might lead to damnation, (or should that be dram nation?), but salvation would surely be the reward, in the Calvinist scheme of things, if the production of whisky could be turned into a successful business enterprise.
There is a real religious tension and a sense of background disapproval running through a lot of the material. A perfect example is in the song, "The Parish o' Dunkeld". This is a traditional song in which the parishioners string up the minister and turn the church into a shebeen. The church was never so full! Yet ironically, a later author has added a moralising message, clearly at odds with the original song. Interestingly, the original song was probably not about Dunkeld at all, but about a lesser-known village called Kinkell, which was in the same area as Kirkintilloch, famously dry for over fifty years as a result of a Temperance plebiscite! "In Kirkintilloch there's nae pubs ...".
The whole Temperance movement was deeply influenced by religion and wormed its way into many poems and songs in this fashion. It also produced plenty of its own, including some by the dreadful William Topaz MacGonagal. One of these is entitled, "A New Temperance Poem in Memory of my Departed Parents Who Were Sober Living and God Fearing People". What can you say?
Delight in drinking to excess is probably one of the commonest themes in the songs, "Wha first beside his chair shall fa', he is the king amang us a' ...". Hedonism is, after all, a natural human reaction to the threat of eternal damnation. The heavy drinking bravado that is a feature of the Scots and their folk songs is a desperate reaction to religiously-inspired disapproval, but which in turn makes people flock to the Temperance army, or at least sign the pledge after every crazed binge.
Tax, the scourge of whisky drinkers, is also a common theme, ("It's twelve and a tanner a bottle!"), but interestingly, always dealt with in comical terms. It is as if the tax satisfies a need to punish ourselves, so we accept it. In France or Spain there would probably have been a revolution.
Women fulfill certain roles in whisky songs. They can be the ones that lead the men astray, or they can indeed be the problem drinkers, ("And aye she took the tither souk, tae drouk the stourie tow"). In the Temperance stuff, they are nearly always cast as victimised bullies, "Then I heard my wife, as on the door she knocked ...".
The Irish have a wealth of whisky songs, but there are definite differences. Firstly, many of the Irish songs glorify poteen, which is terrible stuff, and not really whisky at all. Raw spirit is not given the same importance by the more patient Scots, who much prefer single malts.
Perhaps most important difference is the lack of that dark seam of guilt that runs through the Scottish material. At a session in Aboyne, Deeside, I sang "Nancy's Whisky", a version from the singing of Willie Scott, in which the drunken weaver squanders his money on a spree, and determines to go back to weaving and never touch whisky again. Rosie Stewart sang an Irish version in which the only differences were the tune and the ending. In the Irish version, the weaver determines to go back to his weaving to make more money for the next time!
Whatever ambivalence comes through in the songs, whisky is immensely important to the Scots and much of the material is celebratory. Whisky is, after all, a large part of Scotland's contribution to humanity. What better way to celebrate it than through folk song, for singing and whisky gang the gither!
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