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Freedom, friendship and whisky…

From John Newland 03 crop

Being half Scottish on his mother’s side may have been the reason HV Morton appeared to particularly enjoyed that country’s national drink. He wrote about it in several of his books, and there was always a common theme to his descriptions. Morton’s attitude to whisky can be summarised in three words: masculine, comradely but, above all else, elemental:

The earth gushed water. Boulders shone like brown glass. Mists hung out of heaven to wrap the world in a grey wetness. Burns spouted. Rivers rose to the bridges. Pools overflowed. New and unexpected streams were born out of a responsive earth. The wind joined in, hurling the rain upwards in sudden mad gusts, so that in the magnificent sincerity of the storm, the very laws of gravity were defied and, in other words, it was made perfectly clear why Scotland invented whisky.” (“In Scotland Again”, 1933).

Whisky, for Morton, is more than a mere drink, it is a force of nature, powerful, chaotic, unpredictable, a way for a man to reconnect with his primeval self, and a way for men to connect with one another. A means perhaps to escape the controlling influences of civillisation.

Thus, in his 1929 “In Search of Scotland” he describes a city-worker who once a year dons the kilt, heads to the highlands and, in the shadow of the mountains, glorifies his ancestors with a shared draft of Talisker which “burns within” to light fires of patriotism and rekindle a love for the auld country, “the hills and the glens and the peat-hags and the great winds and the grey mists” of Scotland. In the same volume the reader is taken, after hours on a stormy night, to a backroom snug lit only by the glow of an open fire where old soldiers share tales of battle and of campaigns won or lost:

There is one grand virtue in a stormy night. If you are late enough you are at once admitted to that snug little room which exists at the back of every Scottish hotel, where a vast fire is always burning and where a glass of special whisky waits for favoured guests.

“The landlord was a young Scotsman who had fought in Gallipoli. We talked of Chocolate Hill and Suvla Bay and then, of course, we became local, and I was told the legend that Burns wrote ‘Scots wae hae’ in this hotel

Tonight is Burns’ Night, when Scots everywhere celebrate the life and works of one of the greatest poets ever in a feast that echoes down to us from more simple times: Haggis, neeps, tatties and whisky*. Some will do this in great gatherings with much ceremony and speechifying, others such as myself prefer the “snug little room” evoked by Morton. I am proud to say that tonight I will be tucking into a Simon Howie haggis and toasting the great men, Rabbie and Harry, with a glass of Talisker at home in the company of my son.

Freedom, friendship and whisky gang thegither” (Robert Burns)

The whisky had uplifted them… It had given them wings” (HV Morton)

Slàinte mhòr!

Niall Taylor

[* Translation for the uninitiated: Haggis, turnip, potatoes and whisky!]

(Originally circulated as HVM Society Snippets – No.251)

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HV Morton on Whisky

Originally distributed to the HV Morton Society as: HVM Society Snippets – No.151

IMG_5061 copy small“The whisky had uplifted them… It had given them wings.”
(from “In Scotland Again” chapter 6, section 9)

Product placement is nothing new. John Mills was sipping his “Ice Cold” Carlsberg in Alexandria a lifetime before James Bond inexplicably started flashing his omega ® watch and nokia ® phone – logos placed strategically for all to see – across the big screen and mysteriously eschewing his traditional vodka Martini (shaken, stirred or otherwise), in favour of the same well known (if somewhat out of character) Scandinavian lager, favoured by Sir John.

Surely, such mundane contrivances would have been beneath Morton. Never the less, it has occured to me, if he wasn’t being sponsored by Talisker then he was missing a trick!

Morton wrote his books in the days when a malt whisky was something very special, to be savoured and enjoyed, as one might a rare work of art. The drinking of a single malt was a mark of distinction; hoi polloi were condemned to make-do, as best they could, with mere blends.

These days, with any number of malts so easily accessible from the shelves of the nearest supermarket, something of the mystique is being lost. Thus it is a wonderful reminder of times gone by to read of Morton’s reverence for what is clearly his favourite whisky – with its hints of peat fires and sea salt and a strangely endearing, almost medicinal, tang.

It is Burns’ night, and many a lover of Scotland – adopted, native or otherwise; at home or abroad – looks forward to raising a glass to celebrate the brief but colourful life of their country’s great national poet, Robert Burns. I thought, on this occasion, a passage from Morton’s “In Search of Scotland” might be appreciated. It is from chapter 10, section 5, after the narrator has offered a lift to a wandering highlander, soaked during a mountain storm, on the road to Crianlarich. As the weather lifts, the sun comes out, a little gold cloud dances over the head of Ben Dorian, and Morton writes:

“I remembered that I had in my bag a bottle of Talisker whisky, that remarkable drink which is made in the Isle of Skye and can be obtained even in its birthplace only with difficulty. This seemed to me an occasion. When my companion saw the bottle of Talisker he ceased to leap about and, becoming solemn, he said:

“’Talisker? Ye don’t mean to open the bottle? It’s a shame to waste it; but, man it’s a grand whisky!’

“We settled down.

“He had a tin mug in his rucksack; I had one of those idiotic so-called drinking cups which you place firmly on a stone with the result that the whole thing telescopes and spills the liquor. We poured the amber-coloured Talisker into our mugs, and descending to an amber coloured burn in the heather we let a little ice cold water into the whisky.

“There is, so it is said, a time for everything, and the time for whisky is after physical fatigue in the open air among great mountains. This Talisker drunk below the great, windy clouds in the shadow of Ben Dorain was different from the whisky which a man drinks in his club as Lachryma Christi drunk in the shadow of Vesuvius differs from the same wine in Soho. This drink filled us with good nature and enthusiasm.

“My friend, perched picturesquely on a stone told me a lot about himself. He was something in a city. He always spent his holidays in his native highlands. He loved to wear the kilt for two to three weeks and to run wild in the heather. As the Talisker burned in him it lit fires of patriotism, and I listened with delight as he spoke of his love for the hills and the glens and the peat-hags and the great winds and the grey mists.”

Talisker

I like to think, just occasionally, the odd bottle of that “amber-coloured Talisker” might have found its way to Morton, sent from a grateful distillery owner across the water, in return for services rendered. Call it part of the angels’ share.

“Freedom, friendship and whisky gang thegither” (Robert Burns).

With grateful thanks to Jim Leggett, of the The Bahamas

With best wishes,
Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England
23 January 2013

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