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Issue 60 - Saints and sinner

Whisky Extras

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Whisky Magazine Issue 60
November 2006


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Saints and sinner

Robin Laing delves in to the historical connections between the country's saints and the water of life

Religion and strong drink do not usually seem to mix but having found a number of connections between whisky-making and Scottish holy men I wondered if men of God have always looked at distilling with a disapproving eye.

For example, is there a patron saint of distillers? I checked the Internet and came up with four possible answers. Firstly, the Virgin Mary seems to be patron saint of nearly everything, including coffee house owners, distillers and the human race.

Secondly, we have Saint Seryn the Merciful, patron of brewers, bakers and distillers. Seryn was ‘a pure virgin of modest aspect’ who could heal all diseases.

She would have my vote, for sure. Thirdly, King Louis IX of France became St Louis, the only French monarch ever to be canonized. He is the patron saint of button makers, hairdressers, distillers and difficult marriages. Enough said. Finally there is St Nicholas, best known as patron saint of children, but incidentally also patron saint to unwed maidens, pawnbrokers, sailors, prostitutes and….yes, distillers. Maybe this explains why Santa Claus is usually portrayed as a jolly fellow with a big red nose.

Scotland has a rich panoply of home-grown saints, though the earliest ones were actually the missionaries from Ireland who are reputed to have brought the secrets of distilling to Scotland in the 6th and 7th centuries. However, it was Saint Patrick who taught the Irish the secrets of the wee still and he was born near Dumbarton. So now we see the likeliest scenario; Patrick ended up in Ireland, showed them the evils of whisky-making and a posse of holy men were immediately dispatched to Scotland to stamp out whisky-fuelled rabblerousing and lawlessness. They failed.

One of the earliest Scottish saints, Drostan, was Columba’s nephew and one of the original 12 companions who came with him from Ireland. Drostan travelled through Speyside and set up base at Aberlour where he baptized converted local heathens in a spring, which came to be known as St Drostan’s Well. The well stone is now preserved in the Aberlour Distillery and heathens still occasionally experience conversion in that hallowed place.

St Moluag, another 7th century missionary, is closely associated with the ancient church of Mortlach, in Dufftown.

Moluag is supposed to have answered the prayers of Malcolm, King of Scots, in 1010, enabling him finally to defeat the Danish Vikings, an even wilder bunch of rabble-rousers, heavy drinkers and pillagers than the Scots. Mortlach distillery continues the connection with Moluag, drawing its water from the Priest’s Well, which rises near the church.

The name of St Moluag is traditionally invoked against insanity and perhaps this influence has permeated the whisky of Mortlach, which may be the reason why the people of Dufftown are so welladjusted and contented; surely a powerful, blessed dram. Incidentally, Macallan is named after ‘the field of St Fillan’, patron saint of the mentally ill. Do I begin to see a thread running here?

A poem by Alexander Rodger tells how Saint Mungo, patron saint of Glasgow, liked to make whisky in a wee still and drinking the produce would make him sing bold songs.

Longmorn distillery is associated with Saint Marnoch and the name is said to mean ‘place of the Holy Man’ or ‘place of Marnoch’. According to a note by historian Iain Russell, Marnoch died from a drinking spree which involved mogan, a kind of whisky distilled from oats and his ‘martyrdom’ is commemorated in the name Longmorn or Lan mogan which means ‘full of oat whisky’.

Islay has a large number of sites relating to holy men, perhaps because the missionary need here was highest. Islay’s newest distillery at Kilchoman is named after Saint Comman and here stands one of the finest Celtic crosses in Scotland. At the top of this magnificent cross you can make out a number of carved angels – surely a reference to distilling!

At the other side of Islay is the equally impressive cross at Kildalton. ‘Dalton’ simply means foster child and the site is probably connected to St John the Evangelist. In 1882, some human remains were found here and the victims had been ‘spread-eagled’, a particularly nasty form of Viking torture. The Vikings did this to holy men who refused to tell them where the whisky was.

Much lower in the hierarchy of holy men are the monks. The origins of whisky are obscured by the mists of time but if we could shine a beam of historical inquiry through the haze it’s a safe bet you would find monks. After all, for so many men to devote their lives to prayer, meditation, hard work, celibacy and often silence, there had to be some compensation.

Mannochmore distillery means ‘the great place of the monks’. OK, it was built in 1971 but the water comes from the Mannoch Hills, where monks must have been up to something or other. Not far away lies Kinloss Abbey. Here the monks were renowned for developing various alcoholic beverages and while these were purely for medicinal purposes, everyone knows that whisky is ‘the cure for which there is no disease’. There is a legend of an underground link between Glenburgie Distillery and Kinloss Abbey. This has not yet been verified, but somehow I don’t imagine the distillery workers sneaking off to the Abbey for a few hours of contemplation and spiritual guidance.

It is recorded that Thomas Crystal, 22nd Abbott at Kinloss operated several brasinas, or breweries, in the Keith area around 1499.

Keith became one of the great Speyside whisky centres, so he may well have taken brewing to the next step. Alfred Barnard tells how the Benedictine monks of Pluscarden, near Elgin, were using the waters of the Black Burn for brewing and distilling.

Indeed in the 15th century there was a New Year’s Day ceremony in which the Abbott blessed the stream and thereafter the life-giving beverage distilled by the monks was called aqua-vitae and drinking it ‘made the hearts of all rejoice, and filled the Abbey with unutterable bliss’.

Remember too, that the first record of whisky making in Scotland mentions the aqua-vitae made by Friar John Corr in 1494.

Certainly the Scots never had much difficulty reconciling strong religion with strong drink.

It was probably the very Calvinist values of the Scots that turned their whisky making into the most successful distilling enterprise on the planet.

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