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THE WHISKY MUSE 'Scotch Whisky in Poem and Song Collected and reproduced by Robin Laing' Luath Press Ltd ISBN 1842820419

This excellent book of songs and poems put together by Robin Laing, and illustrated by Bob Dewar, derives from one of Laing's abiding passions - whisky. It is, just as it suggests, all about 'the water of life' - from the making of the brew to the happy (or sometimes not-so-happy) consequences of drinking it.

There are almost a hundred contribution pieces from the familiar (like Burns' John Barleycorn) to the less so (like Charles Nicol's poem A Mither's Lecture Tae Her Ne'er-dae-weel Son). A fair few are by Laing himself, which is entirely appropriate: not only is he a fine writer and singer, but he has a particular interest in good whisky. A proof of this is his one-man show (and linked CD) called The Angel's Share, and his later show with Jim Malcolm at the Edinburgh Fringe, Whisky, Women and Song.

As a matter of fact, every good Scot ought to share Laing's interest in whisky, as the book's introduction shows. One in fifty-four Scottish jobs depend on an industry which sees two billion litres of whisky produced annually, with exports going to 200 countries. These exports are valued at over 2b, making whisky one of the UK's five top income earners. Sadly, only a quarter of the whisky companies are in Scottish hands, but that's another story.

Big money and big business apart, the star of the show is, of course, the amber liquid in the glass in the drinker's hand. Laing takes us through the whole whisky story in eight sections. It starts quite rightly with the making of the dram. John Barleycorn has already been mentioned, but there's also a poem on distillery working conditions - and how they've actually improved since the allegedly 'good old days'. There's a poem too, celebrating the re-opening of Ardbeg Distillery. This is by Laing and perfectly expresses the joy of the Islay malt lover at the return of this most nectarish of nectars.

There are many songs praising whisky, not always good ones, it has to be said, like Whisky Johnny:

"If I can't have whisky, I'll have rum That's the stuff to make good fun"

but at least they're enthusiastic. The late Andy Stewart's Campbelltown Whisky gets a hearing too. There's dispraise of whisky too, like What A Mischief Whisky's Done and Tam Maut (Malt). These, like many in the collection, are in broad Scots, but fortunately, there's a good glossary at the back.

If whisky harms, so it helps of course and there are ten pieces on its possible curative powers. There are tall stories associated with it as well, like James S. Adam's The Wedding at Cana, where Jesus, finding no wine left, promptly transforms water into two hundred gallons of the good stuff instead!

That action of course, wouldn't have pleased the local excise, and indeed there's a section on whisky devotees and their running battles with the law. Well-known songs are there, like Burns' The De'il's Awa Wi' The Exciseman and poems like Sydney Goodsir Smith's Tak Aff Yer Dram, about the right of every Scot to do his own distilling. This, says the poet, will "breed again the hero race". The poem is enhanced by a topical cartoon with a bonneted Scot asking of the Chancellor: Are you listening, Gordon Brown?

There's a section on 'the other whisky battleground', that of the ancient contention between men and women over the rightness of men imbibing huge quantities of the stuff; by and large, the men lose the argument here. Finally, there's a section on whisky as a social lubricant, containing wonderful songs like Happy We Are A' Thegither.

Apart from the songs and the poems, another delight of the book is the illustrations - funny, telling and to the point. Occasionally, they're slightly bleak and Steadman-esque, as for the song Donal Don, yet perfectly appropriate to the theme.

Lovers of whisky should get this book: why, it even contains a checklist of the Highland, Islay and Campbelltown malts (Rhymed Guide, page 26)! The sampling of each - there are a hundred and seven - should keep a body very happy, albeit possibly leaving him or her broke by the end of the experience!

Steve McGrail

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This album was reviewed in Issue 55 of The Living Tradition magazine.