The ghost in the machine

The ghost in the machine

Charles Maclean takes a midnight tour of spectural distillery dogs ghostly maltmen and spirit footsteps that are silenced by the burning of boots. So draw the curtains and gather round the fire

Distillery Focus | 12 Jan 1999 | Issue 1 | By Charles MacLean

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Soon after the 1978 centenary of Glenrothes the stillman on duty noticed a silent presence in the stillhouse. He recognized the visitor by his dark complexion and long white hair – it was ‘Bye-way’, who had been a well known figure around Rothes in former times. He was a friendly presence; the stillman was not alarmed.Bye-way – Biawa Makalanga, to give him his proper name – had been found in Africa in 1894 by Major James Grant, proprietor of Glen Grant Distillery, while he was on a hunting trip. He was a small Matabele boy who had been abandoned by the wayside in Makalanga province (hence his name), and when all attempts to find his family failed – it was believed they had been massacred in a tribal feud – the Major adopted him and brought him back to Rothes.He attended the village school and became Major Grant’s butler, and when the Major died in 1931 he left provision for him in his will, with a room at Glen Grant House, coal from the distillery and meals at the local hotel. Biawa was a well-loved local character: ‘he spoke with a broad Rothes accent, was gentle, kind, and a quiet soul who won the affection of the whole community’. There is a charming photograph of him at Glen Grant’s visitor centre. He died in Aberlour Hospital in January 1972 after a short illness, aged 84 or 85, and was buried in Rothes cemetery.The story of the apparition at Glenrothes came to the attention of the late Cedric Wilson, Professor of Pharmacology at University College Dublin and an expert in paranormal phenomena. During a long medical career, Professor Wilson had encountered numerous cases in which his patients had been troubled by earthbound spirits, and their condition eased by the spirits’ eventual release. He was also an expert on ley-lines – the mysterious ‘straight tracks’ of energy which are said to run across the landscape, plotted in prehistory by sacred sites. Apparitions are often associated with ley-lines; Glenrothes distillery apparently stands on an important ley which runs from Rothes Castle to the cemetery, and thence to the Coleburn Stone near Elgin and to the Northern Pictish capital of Burghead on the Moray Firth.Wilson had never been to Speyside, and part of the attraction of the case was ‘investigating the mysteries of Scotch whisky from his particular angle’. The management of Highland Distilleries, which owned Glenrothes, was understandably sceptical, but gave permission for Wilson to visit the distillery during the silent season, when it was not in production. He arrived in August 1981. The ley-line passed beneath the still house and was, according to Wilson, damaged. A new still house had just been opened at Glenrothes, incorporating the two existing still rooms and an old malt barn; curiously, the new No. 3 spirit still was not operating as it should have done, but this was only discovered later. It appeared that the installation had damaged the ley-line; it was repaired by wedging two iron stakes in the ground, one on either side of the defect. This was designed to inspire the earthbound spirit with confidence: through the resumption of the flow of energy along the ley-line, the spirit would realize that tranquillity had been restored. Wilson’s tactics are known to architects familiar with the upsetting power of broken ley-lines. The path of the energy field is ascertained with dowsing rods (as in water divining), and the cause of the break – which in this case was presumably the steel foundations for the new stills – determined. The iron rods correct the energy flow. It seems that increasing numbers of architects consult ley-line experts to neutralize sites in this way, especially if electronic equipment is to be used in the new building.The next step was for Wilson to try to contact the spirit, for which he returned to the stillhouse and stayed there alone for 20 minutes or so. When he emerged, he strode off smartly towards the cemetery. Ten minutes later he returned: the earthbound spirit had, he said, agreed to depart. Biawa has not been seen around Glenrothes since. It seems probable that his appearances at Glenrothes were prompted by the broken ley-line, rather than the threat of takeover, which also hung over the distillery at this time: one of the pleasures of the netherworld must be a lack of concern for the stock market. This might also explain the kindly spirit’s concern for a distillery other than the one which had nurtured him. Glenrothes is by no means the only haunted distillery in Scotland. Twice during the past few years the figure of a mashman has been seen at Cardhu. The poor man died suddenly in 1994, a month before he was due to retire. The first person to encounter his spectre had never met him in life, so was completely unperturbed, until he enquired of colleagues who had known ‘the man in the control room’ and described their dead friend. Also at Cardhu Distillery, about 30 years ago, ghostly footsteps were repeatedly heard in the mash house and only ceased when a pair of boots belonging to a recently deceased mash man were discovered and burned.From time to time the apparition of a dog appears at Aberlour Distillery. Nobody knows why, but once, when a photograph was taken of the distillery workforce a spectral female figure appeared in the prints, peering forlornly out of a window in the background. Possibly the owner, looking for her lost pet?The shade of a former manager haunts Glen Scotia Distillery in Campbeltown. Alas, the poor man drowned himself in Campbeltown Loch after he had been swindled. A ‘white lady’ in Glenmorangie’s old maltings contributed mightily to keeping apprentices on their toes during long night shifts turning the malt. Since the closure of the maltings, the distiller’s apprenticeship begins in the cooperage. Curiously, this is where the white lady now makes her appearance.The disused floor maltings at Glen Ord Distillery is also the walk of a long gone maltman, endlessly turning the vanished piece, while once a year the distillery is visited by the shade of a local auctioneer: in life it was his custom to drop in for a dram on his way home and he has never broken the habit.Next time you go to a distillery and see a light flicker, or a door open silently, think of Biawa.
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