A barrel of laughs

A barrel of laughs

Brian Hennigan chuckles his way through a rich supply of Scottish whisky humour

Whisky & Culture | 16 Aug 2002 | Issue 25 | By Brian Hennigan

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Anyone offered one of the many recent “rare but authentic (honest!)” bottlings that the industry has been throwing at us will know that a sense of humour is an important commodity in the whisky world. You know the type of thing; Glenwallet 12 Year Old – The Newspaper Boy’s Selection, Matured in Fusty Milk Cartons – £85 plus VAT. The only thing requiring a greater sense of humour is the idea that Scotland remains one of the most expensive places to buy Scotch in the known world.Yet the successful combination of whisky and humour is a tradition that goes beyond “Duty Free Exclusives”. Since time immemorial, the lochs and glens of Scotland have reverberated to the sound of well-slapped thighs, as beefy Highlanders pay tribute to the jocular words of their dram-spilling chums.Jocular itself is a Scottish word, shortened to Jock and then applied to anyone of Scottish origin. Employed by visiting tourists on the streets of Edinburgh, it is sure to endear them to the local populace. Prefix it with the friendly term “Hey” (as in “Hey Jock, do you have a copy of the Chicago Tribune?”) and you are sure to receive some of our legendary Caledonian hospitality.Jocks play a central role in world humour, it being globally recognised that Scottish people are inherently amusing, particularly when running round an athletics track or playing football. Not surprisingly, many Scottish jokes feature a character called Jock. This may occasionally be changed to Jimmy, particularly if two Scots characters are involved. Should a third appear, he will undoubtedly be called Shug. Or Malky. In whisky-related jokes, Jock is generally a wise yet simple fellow, whose adherence to the glass delivers him of insights into a varying areas, including medical matters:Jock once attended a Temperance lecture given by Scotland's top medical man, a noted anti-drink campaigner. The speaker began by placing a live, wriggling worm in a glass of whisky. After a moment or two it died and sank to the bottom.The speaker said quietly to the audience, "Now my friends, what does this tell us?"Jock piped up, "If you drink whisky you'll not be bothered by worms!"Perhaps surprisingly a number of Scottish jokes are aimed at depicting a Scottish victory against English opponents, a situation so rare in truth that fiction is its only outlet:

A clearly worried Jock goes into a London bar and seats himself on a stool. The bartender looks at him and says, "What can I get you?" Jock says, "Set me up with five of your best malt whiskies please, and make them doubles." The bartender does this and watches Jock knock back one after the other, as fast as he can. Staring in disbelief, the bartender asks why he's doing all this drinking. "You'd drink this fast too if you had what I have.” said the pensive Jock. The bartender hastily asks, "What do you have?" Jock replies mournfully, "I have a pound."Not that Scots would take whisky in preference to all things. Jock and an Englishman were on a transatlantic flight from Glasgow when the stewardess approached. "May I get you something from the drinks trolley?" she asked. "Aye, a whusky" Jock replied. She poured him a drink then asked the Englishman if he'd like one. "Never!" he said sternly. "I'd rather be ravished by syphilitic whores all the way to America than drink whisky!" Jock hurriedly passed the drink back, saying "Och, Ah didna ken there wuz a choice”Scots are nevertheless happy to turn their sniper-like humorous aim on themselves. Jokes can be used to illustrate the wide divergence of attitude found within their own nation, as this one makes clear:A Glaswegian visitor to an Aberdeen bar was surprised to find the whisky at two pence a dram. The barman explained that it was priced to mark the centenary of the pub opening. The visitor noticed, however, that the bar was empty. “Are the regular customers not enjoying the special prices?” he asked. To which the barman replied, “They're waiting for the Happy Hour”.“Now I don't know if you remember the first time you ever tasted whisky and the tremendous shock to the nervous system that is. In Scotland this usually happens around the age of four – not because your parents give it to you but because there are these parties at New Year…”Thus Billy Connolly on whisky. Connolly, Scotland’s only comedian of truly international stature since Sir Harry Lauder, has himself been teetotal for approaching twenty years. His only encounter with whisky of late was when persuaded to sample a “Porage Royale” on the Isle of Arran, only to discover that “Royale” meant “soaked in whisky”. Connolly reports how, for the rest of the day, his deprived body was shouting “Yes! Here we go!”In earlier, “happier” times, Connolly is accorded with the use of the term “Nippie Sweetie” to describe heaven’s gift to humanity – a dram of Scotch. Perhaps so, but the phrase “nippie sweetie” itself is a well-known West of Scotland term for a person, typically female, who is quick of tongue and sharp of wit.Sir Harry Lauder was, of course, the legendary Scottish entertainer who gave the world much of its modern idea of what a Scotsman is like; careful with money, fond of a drink, based in London. Lauder gave the world such musical classics as Roamin' in the Gloamin.Sadly many of the jokes of the time do not bear much repetition, largely because humour is of the moment and something that sounded good last century – or even last night – can sound achingly dull the next millennium. (Much of the ironic slapstick japery of the Egyptians has been lost in an over-literal interpretation of hieroglyphs. “There were two dog-headed men” is actually how most jokes began in the reign of Rameses II). Interestingly, Sir Harry Lauder is one of the few entertainers to be named after a popular road, most Scottish towns of a certain size having a least one Sir Harry Lauder Drive or similar.Chic Murray provides a sharp contrast in comedic style to that of Connolly and Lauder. Born in Greenock in 1919, and a shipyard worker like Connolly, Murray also began in music before moving into comedy. Best known to many as the droll Headmaster in the film Gregory’s Girl. Murray appeared on stage wearing a long mackintosh coat and “bunnet”, a Beyond Fashion look still popular in many East Coast towns.His humour was of the absurdist school. He observed of an expensive restaurant:“It was a pretty posh place. They were so used to fur coats there that two bears strolled in and ordered lunch and nobody even noticed.”Famously, Murray also codified some drinking principles: “There are two rules for drinking whisky. First, never take whisky without water, and second, never take water without whisky.” Given the desire of modern marketing people to convert a more youthful audience to the appeal of whisky, it is hardly surprising that the services of comedians have been sought. With debatable success. Whyte & Mackay allegedly chose not to renew their contract with the Scots funnyman Phil Kay after he spent a night in the cells for being drunk and disorderly, after being apparently picked up by the police after he was kicked out of Glasgow School of Art's student association because of his behaviour.Better than employing a comedian to work on your behalf – and thus enjoying the associated risk of aberrant personal behaviour – is to have jokes manufactured featuring your brand. For example:A white horse goes into a pub and asks for a beer, the landlord serves him and then says, "We have a whisky named after you." The horse says "what! Eric?"Thistledown, described by its Editor Robert Ford as “a Book of Scotch Humour, Character, Folk-Lore, Story, and Anecdote” was first published in 1891, a brilliant collection of witty tales, including that of a “well-known Scotch laird of the old school” who “expressed himself with great indignation” when someone charged hard drinking with having actually killed people.“Na, na,“ said he; “I never knew onybody that was killed wi’ drinking, but I hae kenned some that dee’d in the training.”You will find this joke recycled in contemporary company and publications as if it had been thought of yesterday. Such is the thing with us Scots – we know how to make a joke last (this ability is paid testament in the English witticism: “How do you make an old Scotsman happy? Tell him a joke when he’s young”). All humour contains an element of truth. Much Scottish humour derives from the ancient truth that their Southern neighbours are a bit tight-capped when it comes to filling the glass.An English laird’s wife, who was rather stingy with her whisky, was giving her Scottish shepherd a drink. As she handed him his glass, she said it was extra good whisky, being fourteen years old. “Weel, mistress,” said the shepherd regarding his glass sorrowfully; “It's very small for its age.” And as Colin Montgomerie demonstrates so well, the Scots like nothing more than to combine golf with a smile.It had been a bitterly cold day on the Scottish golf course and the caddie was expecting a handsome tip from his wealthy English client. As they came to the clubhouse the caddie heard the magic words, "This is for a hot glass of whisky!” Holding out his hand, the caddie was given a sugar cube.Similarly, in a Scottish joke, the teller and the audience invariably take the side of the simple Scot against the more learned gentleman, in this instance a doctor:Dr MacGregor checked over his patient and said with a puzzled frown, “I can’t really tell what the trouble is. I think it must be due to drink.” Willie said, understandingly, “Ach, that's all right Doctor. I’ll come back when you’re sober.” Or a magistrate:“Alcohol is your trouble,” said the sheriff to the drunk. “Alcohol alone is responsible for your present predicament.” The drunk looked pleased as he said “Yer lairdship’s maist kind. A’body else says it’s ma ain fault!”And we’ll end with the Scotsman from an earlier joke, still trying to get a few drams without any money.Jock staggers into a bar and shouts, "A double whisky please barman, and a drink for everyone here … and have one yourself."
"Well thank you sir," says the barman and proceeds to pour everyone their drinks. Moments later Jock shouts, "Another whisky for me, and the same again for everyone else." The bartender looks a little worried now and says, "Excuse me sir, but don't you think you should pay me for that last round first?" Jock slurs, "I can't. I don't have any money." With this the bartender flies into a rage and throws the be-kilted visitor out of the bar. About twenty minutes later though the guy staggers back in and shouts out, "A double whisky for me, and a drink for all my friends."
"I suppose you'll be offering me a drink too?" the barman asks, marvelling at the
Scotsman’s nerve. "Not likely," slurs Jock, "you get nasty when you've had a drink!"
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