The enemy within

The enemy within

Richard Jones reveals the terrible truth: the ‘auld enemy' may have been involved in the production of your treasured dram

Production 09 Jun 2003 | Interviews | By Richard Jones

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In the beginning, God created the earth. On the second day, while he was making his countries, God discovered a small island off a continent he’d decided to christen ‘Europe’.“I know,” thought God, “I shall make this land an area of outstanding natural beauty. I shall bless it with lochs and glens, crystal clear waters and rivers teeming with wild salmon. I will name this country ‘Scotland’ and shall bestow upon the nation my favourite drink ‘whisky’, the water of life. I shall bequeath major reserves of gas and oil to bring its people great wealth and Aberdeen-Angus cattle so that they need never go hungry.”When he’d finished his work, one of the angels turned to God and said,“Hang on a minute. Why should Scotland be blessed with all these natural treasures? Aren’t we making life too easy for its people; shouldn’t they have something to test them?”And God replied, “You haven’t seen who their neighbours are yet.”OK, the joke might almost be as old as the earth itself, but it neatly captures the ancient rivalry between Scotland and England. There’s so much ‘previous’ between the two nations, it’s difficult to know where to start.In more recent times, you have to turn to subtly different forms of conflict: the Tartan Army’s invasion of Wembley after their football victory in 1977; Paul Gascoigne’s wonder-goal on the same stage in Euro ‘96; or the cultural devastation reeked on their English neighbours by the likes of Sheena Easton, the Bay City Rollers and Rod Stewart’s leopard-skin hotpants.Perhaps author Tony Roper summed the Scottish perspective up best when he joked, “They conquered us umpteen hundred years ago and have been screwing us ever since. Even in recent years, Margaret Thatcher saw fit to use us as guinea pigs to test unpopular policies.”When it comes to whisky, the English are cast in the role of villain. Although it was the Scottish parliament who introduced excise duty in the 17th century, it is the heavy-handed legislators south of the border who shoulder most of the blame. The Act of Union in 1707 brought Scotland’s excise rates into line with the much higher duty levied in England, and the Scottish Excise Board, manned almost exclusively by English officials, set about collecting the tax with relish.For more than a century, the Scots took to illicit distilling and whisky smuggling with patriotic fervour. Even the moral guardians of Scottish society refused to stand in the way of this illegal trade. In fact, they positively encouraged it; the clergy allowed contraband whisky to be stored beneath their pulpits and even, on occasion, to be transported in coffins, safely entombed from prying English eyes.At the beginning of the 21st century, a ‘wee dram’ is now an international drink. Whisky is the most popular spirit on the planet and the fate of many distilleries now rests in the hands of overseas interests.Thousands of individuals across the globe are involved in the marketing, distribution and selling of Scotch whisky. But when you settle down after a hard day’s graft to enjoy your favourite malt, global reality is placed on hold.Foreigners don’t actually make the stuff I’m drinking, do they? Surely the inside of a whisky distillery remains sacrosanct, the preserve of kilt-wearing, 20th generation clansmen, who daub their faces in woad à la Mel Gibson before setting out to work each day whistling The Flower of Scotland?What, then, would the world think if it knew that whisky was being thrown together by outsiders? And not just any outsiders: but the spawn of Edward I, the auld enemy, Sassenachs. The English.Take Oban. In the mid-1990s, there was not one, not two, but three operators at the distillery who hailed from south of the border. Liverpudlian Paul Cummings looks back on the time with affection.“We were mob-handed! As well as me, there was a friend from Liverpool and a bloke from Newcastle. If there was any stick, we soon gave it back. Especially as the Geordie lad was a weightlifter!”Paul originally moved to the town of Oban in 1982 to escape unemployment in his native city. After working in a hotel, a job came up in the distillery and he’s remained there ever since.“When I first joined, there were a lot of older guys working at Oban, I think they’d only just stopped the traditional ‘dramming’.” Paul recalls,“They were a real bunch of characters and very friendly but the guy who handed out the nicknames was away at the time. After I’d heard what he’d called everyone else, I was pretty worried I can tell you. But, when I finally met him, he turned to me and said, ‘You can just be the English Bastard!’ I thought I’d got off pretty lightly!”Fred Reid from Auchentoshan Distillery reckons you have to learn to handle it.“Wherever you go, you’ll always get a bit of stick at first, but it’s just to see if you can take a joke,” he says.Born and bred in Blackpool, Fred met his Scottish wife when she was visiting the seaside town on holiday. After moving back to Glasgow, he managed to find a job at Auchentoshan as a warehouse labourer.Today Fred works as a Mashman and 27 years of life north of the border have taken their toll on his accent. With a discernible Scottish twang to his voice and the occasional ‘aye’ thrown in for good measure, he describes his latest tactic for dealing with anti-English banter.“Alot of the boys at Auchentoshan come from Islay. So I always say to them ‘Who’s more foreign, me or you? At least I can walk to Scotland from where I come from!’”Fred also exposes the myth that the Scottish are prudent with their pennies.“I used to get quite a tidy income from the boys at work. They generously paid me off when I won bets on the England vs Scotland football games!”Trevor Cowan, looks back modestly on a distinguished career as a whisky blender.“I was in the right place at the right time, simple as that,” he says. “I started in the accountancy division of a company that eventually became Charles Mackinlay, a subsidiary of Scottish and Newcastle, and, when I went on National Service, a replacement was brought in to do my old job. On my return, there wasn’t enough work for both of us, so I was offered a new position in whisky production.”Trevor was born in Gateshead and is one of a number of Geordies who owe their careers in Scotch whisky to the important blending and bottling interests that were based in the North-East of England then.“I started shadowing an experienced blender in Newcastle, learning my trade and building up my confidence. Eventually Scottish and Newcastle decided to take the whisky division back to Scotland and I moved up to Edinburgh with it.”By the time the company was taken over by Inver Gordon, Trevor had progressed to production stocks manager, responsible for everything that was required to make a bottle of whisky from the labels, bottles and capsules to the blend contained therein.“Maybe I was thick-skinned” Trevor recollects, “but I never really noticed any anti-English feeling during all my time in the whisky industry. Occasionally there was a bit of banter during sporting events, but that was ok because I was generally on the winning side!”Even the remotest reaches of Scotland are not safe from the English. Like Trevor Cowan before him, John Bulman is another Geordie who became involved through the Scottish and Newcastle connection. “I was a shift manager on the brewing side of the business when the manager’s position came up at Jura Distillery,” John remembers. “It was obviously a big change because the environment was totally different, moving from a big city to the wilds of Jura. There were only 220 people living on the entire island.”Ted Burkenshaw is an engineer by trade from Loughborough. He decided to pack it all in and move himself and his family to Islay nearly 20 years ago.“I was 40 years old and I realised that I wasn’t going to last until retirement the way things were in my current job.”The lack of opportunities on the island made things pretty difficult for Ted at first.“I was unemployed for about a year before a distillery job at Laphroaig came up. Originally I was a yardsman doing whatever needed doing but later I was offered a position in the maltings.”Now three years away from drawing his pension, Ted is almost a tourist attraction in his own right at Laphroaig.“Visitors are always pretty amazed when they see me on their way around the distillery. I think it’s probably the last place they expect to hear an English accent!”English accent or not, Ted Burkenshaw is unequivocal about the welcome he has received on Islay.“The islanders are nice people and have always been incredibly friendly towards us. If anyone’s in any trouble, everyone pulls together to help out. Occasionally there’s a bit of ribbing at work when England play Scotland at rugby but nothing serious.” Paul Cummins concurs.“There’s a small, close-knit team at Oban Distillery. I’m the only Englishman left there now, but it’s not a problem. All the guys get on well, we know each other’s families. We’ll have a curry now and then, or go out for a few pints after work.”In fact, despite rumours to the contrary, the intrepid English who do venture north of the border seem to be treated remarkably well. A recent study confirms this.Seventy individuals who were born in England but had upped sticks to become adopted Scots were interviewed. A sizeable 94 per cent felt that anti-Englishness was not a problem and 88 per cent found it easy to assimilate into Scottish society.Indeed, since the 19th century, the English have come to live in Scotland in ever-increasing numbers.“Scotland’s been very good to me,” Paul Cummins states, “I’m married to a girl from Oban. I’ve got a lovely family, a couple of great kids and a nice house.”Ted Burkenshaw at Laphroaig is now fully integrated into Islay society and his two daughters have both married local men. With a young grandson to keep him busy, Ted clearly doesn’t regret his decision to leave Loughborough behind him.The English might have been placed on this earth to test them, but the Scots appear to have passed the examination with a gold star and 10 house points. Their nearest neighbours are now welcomed with opened arms in whatever capacity they ply their trade in Scotland.Whisky might be one of the treasures bestowed on them by the Almighty himself, but the Scots seem happy to share its secrets with the ancient foe.Providing they can do their job properly and enjoy a few jokes, the inside of a distillery no longer holds fear for anyone who doesn’t own special edition videos of Braveheart and Rob Roy. Or does it?“The old maltings building by yourself at night can be pretty eerie,” recalls Ted Burkenshaw in hushed tones. I’m not afraid to admit it, but on a couple of occasions I’ve felt something and the hairs have stood up on the back of my neck.”Perhaps not all Scots are quite so ready to relinquish control of their precious distilleries. Could Ted have come across the tortured spirit of a Laphroaig employee, long since departed to the great distillery in the sky, trying to scare him back from whence he came?
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