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Issue 20 - Scotland and whisky: the real story

Whisky Magazine Issue 20
December 2001

 

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Scotland and whisky: the real story

Pip Hills strips away years of bombast, puff and heavy stereotype to reveal the truth about Scotland and whisky

On the wall above my desk as I write, there's a picture which tells a story about Scotland and whisky. It's a great picture, painted by Henry Raeburn around 1810. A full-length portrait, the title is The MacNab. It shows a Highland chieftain in full military rig of the late 18th century: a green, short jacket over a red tartan, kilted philamore; black bearskin bonnet; otter-head sporran; broadsword hanging from a leather shoulder belt; three dirks and two pistols. He glares out at us from misty mountains.

Mine, alas, is only a copy. The original was bought by Lord Dewar in 1917 and is now owned by United Distillers & Vintners. The latter inherited it with the Dewar brands from the old Distillers Company, the original whisky conglomerate of which Dewar's was a part. Dewar bought it because, as a self-made millionaire, he wanted to associate himself with Scottish things he regarded as classy.

But what does it tell us about Scotland and whisky? Some surprising stuff. The MacNab is a fake. Not the portrait – that's authentic. It's the man – or rather what the portrait tells us about the man. The MacNab is a proud and military figure in which most whisky drinkers will recognise something authentically Scottish. His truculence and arrogance are real enough, but the military uniform is that of the Breadalbane Fencibles and none of the weapons apart from the broadsword would have been much use in battle, even if a man of 70 were able to wield them. The Fencibles was one of man...

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