The Tale of the Edinburgh Whisky Stramash
Each of our characters has played significant parts in the tale, click a character to take you to their story………….
It is thought that early Monks discovered distilling and produced a spirit known as uisge beatha – the water of life; in fact the first ever distilling record in Scotland was noted in a tax document in 1494 from a Friar John Cor who made “eight balls of malt to produce aqua vitae”, a production of around 1500 bottles.
It is also thought that with the dissolution of monasteries in the 16th century and with monks being driven from sanctuary, that distillation methods were spread as they had to put their skills to use. Initially whisky, the name of which evolved from uisge beatha, was taken for its medicinal qualities, being prescribed for the preservation of health, the prolongation of life, and for the relief of colic, palsy and even smallpox.
However whisky’s links with the Church of Scotland do not end there, during the illicit still period throughout the 17th century, the church ensured that production continued by storing “stock” in the pulpit and often assisting in transporting illicit stills in coffins from town to town.
Despite the Church’s positive association with Scotch’s production, even from its earliest form to being driven underground, a challenging relationship formed as whole parish’s would become affected by intolerable levels of consumption. It would not be uncommon for ministers of the Kirk to dispel drinking whisky for personal pleasure as the work of Beelzebub.
Much like ancient Greece and Rome, surgery and medicine are thought as closely allied disciplines as part of modern day science. However, throughout the Renaissance and until the 18th century in Western Europe, surgery was considered more a trade than a profession, and surgeons had more to do with barbers (barbours) than with physicians.
This disconnection between surgery and medicine may have originated due to religious attitudes as a papal decree prohibited priests, who traditionally would have carried out procedures, from performing surgery. As a result, responsibility for surgery passed from monasteries to barbers who had experience with razors. The academic and social status of these barber surgeons was usually considerably less than that of physicians
Barber and surgeon guilds began appearing in Europe around the 13th century; The Royal College of Barber Surgeons in Edinburgh was officially recognised with The Seal of Cause in 1505 (Incorporation). The Incorporation allowed certain privileges, including a monopoly within the Edinburgh area to distil for the purpose of medicine. It is unclear if the total product of any distillation was purely used for this sole reason; however there is some evidence that some may have been sold on the lucrative black market.
In 1540 they were amalgamated by an Act of Parliament. The law forbade surgeons from practicing barbery and barbers from practicing surgery, except for the pulling of teeth. There were many more barber surgeons than physicians, and there is evidence that barber surgeons sometime ventured beyond their trade into the practice of medicine .This amalgamation lasted for two centuries, until it was ended by an 18th-century trend that led surgeons across Northern Europe to disassociate from their hair-clipping colleagues. In Edinburgh, frequent disputes arose between the two branches of the Incorporation concerning the rightful scope of their work.
In 1695, the Incorporation was granted a new charter which confirmed the jurisdiction of the Surgeon Apothecaries over the practice of surgery. The charter also confirmed the Incorporation’s responsibility for anatomical teaching and this prompted it to apply to the Town Council for more bodies for dissection. This in effect was the dissolution of the barbers and the surgeons as single entity into the modern professions we associate them with today. The Council approved this application on the condition that the Incorporation provided an anatomical theatre. The first public dissections were conducted there in 1703.
It should be added that it is no coincidence that Dr Robert Knox’s (of Burke and Hare infamy) Anatomy School was located beside the Surgeons’ Hall. The sinister trade of body snatching is for another day………….
The exciseman, or gauger as he was known in Scots, was likely to be the most hated figure in Scotland from the 17th century. In the wild areas which lay between the Lowlands of the North-east and the illicit whisky industry was a massive enterprise.
People did not just distil for pleasure; most of their production was exported to the Lowland towns and cities. The money from the sale of the contraband did what farming in these poor areas could never do; it raised the money to pay the tenants’ rent and left a good surplus for a decent living.
Everyone, involved in the distilling or not, conspired to defeat the forces of the law. Local landlords, acting as Justices of the Peace, enforced ludicrously low fines on distillers – since these landlords too were often the recipients of the cash, as rent, from illicit distillers. The job of cracking down fell to the gaugers.
The gauger was spurred on by the promise of a large bounty, given as a percentage of the value of the spirits seized. While the soldiers in the mountains had little success in stamping out the supply side of the industry, located in well-hidden illicit stills, gauger’s concentrated, with much more success, in intercepting the contraband on its actual way to the Lowland markets.
At the height of the illicit still period there were over 14,000 illicit stills, with over 3000 prosecutions in a single year. The Kirk ministers assisted the local communities ensuring production and the smugglers organised smoke communications to warn of approaching gaugers; however the excisemen were confiscating just under half of all the illicit whisky produced in Scotland – no mean feat if you consider the volume being produced.
In 1823 the Excise Act was passed, which sanctioned the distilling of whisky in return for a licence fee of £10, and a set payment per gallon of proof spirit.Smuggling died out almost completely over the next decade and, in fact, a great many of the present day distilleries stand on sites used by smugglers of old. The Excise Act laid the foundations for the Scotch Whisky industry as we know it today.
The angels refer to the loss of liquid during the maturation process; about 2% of the volume is lost in this way each year. It is affectionately and simply referred to as the Angel’s Share. We hope they enjoy it and drink responsibly.