The spirit that united Scotland

None more Scottish

This is a longer (and I think better) version of an article that appeared in Saturday’s Guardian:

In 2008 CEO of Diageo, Paul Walsh, referred disparagingly to how Scotch was marketed through ‘bagpipes, heather and tartan’. His point was that distillers had relied too long on cliched notions of Scottishness to sell their product.

Scotch whisky as we know it was invented in the mid-nineteenth century by blending the characterful Highland malts with cheaper Lowland grain spirits. It was a union of the two very different Scotlands. The Lowlanders spoke Scots, a Germanic tongue like English, the Highlanders spoke Gaelic, the Lowlanders were Presbyterian whereas the Highlanders were mainly Catholic.  Robert Louis Stevenson wrote ‘the division of races is more sharply marked within the borders of Scotland itself than between the countries. . . . ’

The growth of blended Scotch coincided with the birth of Highlandism. This was a  peculiar phenomenon where Scotland, a predominantly settled Lowland mercantile society, took on the trappings of the Highlander as a way of differentiating themselves from the English who they were now yoked to in the Union.  To a large extent this image of Scotland was created by Sir Walter Scott. Scott stage-managed the visit of King George IV to Scotland in 1822. Sir John Plumb, an historian writing in the 20th century, captured the ridiculousness of George’s visit to Scotland but he also sees its significance:

‘He paraded Edinburgh in the kilt, resplendent in the Royal Stuart tartan and flesh-coloured tights, and yet managed to keep his dignity. The Scots loved it. Quaintly enough George IV had struck the future note of the monarchy . . . be-kilted, be-sporraned, be-tartaned, riding up Princes Street. . . . to the roaring cheers of loyal Scots, he was showing the way that the monarchy would have to go if it were to survive an industrial and democratic society.’

It’s the model for the Royal Family today who never look happier than when pretending to be Scottish. Whisky showed how the two Scotlands could unite to sell themselves to the world. Sales promotion played on romantic Highland imagery of the kind that Paul Walsh was tired of. The London offices of Dewars whisky had enormous electric sign of a Highlander in a tam o’ shanter raising a glass of Dewar’s White Label. As he drank his beard and kilt swayed. Highlandism was particularly effective abroad. Before WWI Dewars had a cart pulled by Shetland Ponies that was driven by a man in full Highland regalia through streets of Berlin.

Last year a new whisky was launched with David Beckham called Haig Club. You’d think that the tattooed bearded Beckham would inject a contemporary feel to the product and yet there they are in the adverts, the salmon, the misty loch and the kilts. And who are Haig owned by? Why Diageo of course. If it ain’t broke. . . .

About Henry

I’m a drinks writer. My day job is features editor at the Master of Malt blog. I also contribute to BBC Good Food, the Spectator and others. You can read some of my work here. I’ve done a bit of radio, given some talks and written a couple of books (Empire of Booze, The Home Bar and the forthcoming Cocktail Dictionary).
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3 Responses to The spirit that united Scotland

  1. Gary Gillman says:

    Henry, excellent and I can only advise if you don’t have it “Scots on Scotch”, a superb essay-collection which amongst other things explores how whisky was marketed with the 19th century Scottish renaissance in mind, and how it providing a unifying factor for the ethos of Empire.

    The book is written and edited by Phillip (Pip) Hills, one of the founders of the Malt Whisky Society. By far one of the best things ever written on whisky, IMO.


  2. Gary Gillman says:

    Sorry, I meant “provided” not providing.


  3. Henry says:

    Thanks for the tip. I’ll have a look now.

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