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)
[* Translation for the uninitiated: Haggis, turnip, potatoes and whisky!]
(Originally circulated as HVM Society Snippets – No.251)