Irvine Welsh at The Vaults
His ground-breaking 1993 novel Trainspotting centered on a bunch of heroin addicts in Leith, but these days whisky is more likely to be a plot point in author Irvine Welsh’s work. He’s now a member of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, and sat down with Unfiltered editor Richard Goslan at The Vaults over a few drams to discuss his whisky journey, the influence of mind-altering drugs on the work of Robert Burns and why Scotland in general and Leith in particular will always be an exotic location for his fiction
PHOTOS: PETER SANDGROUND
Author Irvine Welsh pictured in December 2020 at The Vaults in Leith, with Cables Wynd House – better known as the ‘Banana Flats’ – in the background
The Vaults feels like the most appropriate of locations to sit down for a few whiskies with Irvine Welsh. He was born in Leith, after all, and stayed here until he was four and his family moved out to the prefabs of Pilton and then the maisonettes of Muirhouse on Edinburgh’s periphery. After a spell in London he returned to Leith, where he wrote Trainspotting and put the location on the world’s literary map.
From the door of The Vaults today we can look directly across to the brutalist bulk of Cables Wynd House, better known as the ‘Banana Flats’, where the character Simon ‘Sick Boy’ Williamson was born and raised in Trainspotting. You could draw some comparisons between the building and Irvine himself. Both were derided in their early days by their respective architectural and literary establishments, but with the passage of time they’ve become celebrated rather than scorned. The Banana Flats are now protected from possible demolition, with A-listed status by Historic Environment Scotland.
Irvine, meanwhile, has gone from Edinburgh’s unwelcome literary upstart to being hailed by the Lord Provost as “an iconic chronicler of our city”, and A-list status of his own.
GET THE JUICES FLOWING
Today though, we’re settled in by the fireside in the Society’s Members’ Room at The Vaults, to pour a few whiskies and let the conversation flow. By his own admission, Irvine has come to whisky relatively late in life, and we kick off with a dram of Cask No. 113.15: An apricot jamboree from the Society’s Light & Delicate flavour profile, something to waken the palate and get the juices flowing, which immediately meets with Irvine’s approval.
“You could go nuts on that, it’s very easy to drink,” he tells me. “I’ve never been a whisky drinker, although I used to write a wine column for a magazine called Marmalade, where the idea was to get people to write about stuff they knew nothing about. I really got a taste for wine, but whisky is one of these things that when you get past a certain age, people seem to get back into it. When I was young, I thought it was an old guy’s drink. Then you see all your mates when they get past 40, and they just start suddenly having wee drams here and there.
“A friend bought me a membership to The Scotch Malt Whisky Society and I’ve been down [to The Vaults] a few times. But I’m one of these people who rely on other’s people’s guidance. I do so much travelling, and get the opportunity to sample loads of great food and loads of great wines and local drinks everywhere I go, so I tend to put myself in other people’s hands for these things.”
With Burns Night on the horizon, talk turns from our national drink to our national bard, and their equal parts in promoting Scotland to the world. “Whisky is a big part of our culture, going way back,” says Irvine. “Burns is an international poet of the world, and whisky is so much of a part of his repertoire. And whisky’s just something that’s there, and ubiquitous. Because I’ve not been massively exposed to it at any level, it’s quite interesting for me to see the reverence that people have for it, and it’s a huge thing, a huge defining thing for Scotland.
“But there’s also a whole shift in the landscape. It’s like you’ve got Burns saying ‘Whisky an’ freedom gang thegither’, the romanticisation of whisky. Then you have [Hugh] MacDiarmid’s ‘A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle’, the horrible abyss of alcoholism. So I think it has a huge kaleidoscope and it’s represented all the intricacies of Scottish culture, all the positives and all the negatives, and I think it’s a proper national drink in that sense.”
“A friend bought me a membership to The Scotch Malt Whisky Society and I’ve been down [to The Vaults] a few times. But I’m one of these people who rely on other’s people’s guidance ... I tend to put myself in other people’s hands for these things.”
IT’S THERE TO BE DRUNK
Time for something completely different – and that means a dram from the Society's Deep, Rich & Dried Fruits flavour profile, an ex-oloroso sherry matured whisky, Cask No. 68.52: Death by chocolate cake. We’re all transported to places by a whisky’s aromas and flavours – in this case, Irvine is suddenly back in Jamaica. “It’s almost like if somebody put that in front of me and said that this is whisky, I wouldn’t quite believe them,” he says.
“I would think this is some kind of rum, it reminds me very much of the rum that I was drinking in Kingston, and it’s got that after-dinner digestive thing going on. That’s a very interesting drink!”
Irvine has even turned to whisky in his fiction, notably with the pursuit of a trio of ultra-rare bottlings in his 2015 novel A Decent Ride.
“The character [I created] was a sort of Donald Trump kind of American businessman who has that very American rich guy’s conception about what Scotland is. It is golf and whisky, and he wants to play loads of golf, and gets interested in whisky and he wants to collect these bottles. He doesn’t particularly even like whisky. It becomes a status thing that he’s determined to get, and I liked the idea of these guys not really valuing it. It’s just another drink for them in the pub, mixing it up with the crappy stuff that they have, or keeping it like some kind of ornament. The point is that ultimately it’s not there as an investment – it’s there to be drunk.”
A STORY-TELLING TRADITION
We’re singing from the same songbook, and as with everything the Society does, the whisky in front of us is very much for drinking. Next up is a bottling even older than Trainspotting, from Cask No. 46.95: Tripping in the Blue Peter garden, a 27-year old Speysider distilled in November 1992.
“Aw, my God, this is fabulous. It’s funny how they just get more and more out there with the descriptions of things,” says Irvine, appreciating both the name and the whisky’s taste sensation. “On the palate it burns, and you think this is gonna burn all the way down. But it just... it just evaporates, then you’ve got the taste lingering. So smooth.”
Drinking such a mature whisky gets us reflecting on his old days back in Leith, where Irvine’s mother worked in the whisky bonds. Now, he says, it’s a place of recreation for him more than anything else, but still rich in connections and memories.
“There’s a diversity in Leith and you can see it down at the Shore, or up Leith Walk, and the Central and all that. It’s an interesting community. It’s always had that. Even when I was a kid, my dad used to take me to Hares, which was like the old North British Hotel above Leith Central Station. You would get this big kind of three-course meal served by the waitresses with the black and frilly white hats and all that stuff. It was really old school, but it was kind of quality, and even then, there was just a hint of the old kind of mercantile wealth in the area.”
It's also an area he returns to in his fiction, wherever else he may be located at the time of writing. “When you grow up in a place you always think: ‘This is boring. I want to get out.’ And then when you travel, when you go to different places, you realise that where you come from, it’s actually quite exotic. People are kind of strange and weird and crazy – in a good way – and they have a completely different way of looking at it. And you grow up thinking you come from the most boring place in the world, and then you realise that you come from the most quirky, exotic place in the world, when you actually start to compare all these things.
“I’m always drawn to writing about here because people are natural storytellers. You can walk into a pub in Leith and sit down beside somebody and you can walk out with enough material for a novel. People just tell stories all the time.”
BURNS, PORN AND DRUGS
Irvine tells me he’s currently working on a screenplay looking at revisiting the narrative around the life of Robert Burns, challenging some of the preconceptions we may have about Burns as the gifted ‘ploughman poet’ and digging into aspects of his biography that haven’t been tackled or publicised.
“There’s so much rich material about Burns’s biography that hasn’t been incorporated into popular culture,” he says. “One of the interesting things about him is when you see a guy who was the oldest of 10 children, and he lives in one room with his mother and father and siblings, they’re basically knocking out siblings all the time, so he’s kind of growing up what we would now describe as inappropriately sexualised by that kind of experience.
“Then he goes out as a young guy into this world where he can’t have access to the farmer’s daughters, otherwise they’re gonna shoot him, and his mates are the same. So they have these Masonic kind of drinking clubs, and his early poems were very sexual in nature, you know, and it was basically a kind of pornography club for young men.
“They all basically started out as pornographers and he became a poet as a result, he fell in love with poetry, and poetry was almost like reality TV. It was a way you could become famous then. And he had that thing about him, he wanted to become famous, he wanted to get out of that environment.
“Another interesting thing about him was that when he went to the port at Irvine, and had a kind of malady and a breakdown.
“I assumed that it was some kind of venereal disease that had crept up on him for getting involved with the prostitutes. But apparently when he died, they’ve done some retrospective tests of his DNA and established that he had no venereal diseases at all. But an interesting thing, that’s actually in the Robert Crawford biography [The Bard], is that he took ‘Peruvian bark’ to cure his malady. It came off the ships, and contains [hallucinogenic drug] DMT, which is the most powerful sort of drug known to man and can transport you into a different reality.
“So you can see a lot of Burns’s poetic visions, not as alcoholic visions, like the mad DT [withdrawal] hallucination of Tam O’Shanter and his whisky, but as being drug-induced. All this is opening up a different thing for me with Burns.”
FROM SCOTLAND TO THE WORLD
At this point we’re ready to tackle the peatier end of the Society’s flavour spectrum, with a dram from Cask No. 53.323: Cheshire cat and a taste of Islay’s coastline.
It immediately returns us from hints of Spain or Jamaica right back to Scotland, as Irvine says when he noses and tastes this dram: “It’s just the soil, isn’t it?”
As we swill our glasses and let the smell of peat fill the air in The Vaults, we return to the theme of Burns – and how he has influenced Irvine’s own work.
“If you look at all the influences that someone like me must have had, Burns would be one of the biggest, and there’s no getting away from that ‘cause he permeates all aspects of Scottish culture. He permeates the ways that people express themselves, and he came from that whole Knoxian tradition of universal education. When I started writing, every single writer from Scotland, from Alasdair Gray and James Kelman and Janice Galloway in the west, to people like Barry Graham and Kevin Williamson and Duncan McLean, they all came from a council scheme. Whereas every single writer I knew in England all came from Oxbridge.
“I think that whole Knoxian democratic tradition continues right through the culture. So I think, yes, there is an influence, but I’m not aware of it in terms of the construction of anything, in terms of the linguistic constructions, because you’re so involved in the process of actually writing something that you don’t really reflect on what your influences are when you’re doing it.”
Like Burns and his use of Scots, Irvine’s uncompromising Edinburgh dialect can also pose a challenge to the reader, especially outwith Scotland – or even Edinburgh. Did he feel any pressure to compromise his use of language, to possibly appeal to a wider audience?
“I wasn’t really thinking about that,” he says. “When the first book [Trainspotting] came out, I thought it’s going to sell to a few people in Edinburgh, and they’re going to love it, and vibe on it. And then the London cognoscenti got into it, and I thought, ‘Well, they would ‘cause it’s druggy, so they’ll enjoy it.’ And then, it just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger. The book got passed around the prisons, and everybody liked it there, and then the play pulled people in, and then it went national, and then the film went international, and it just kind of it went on and on. But I didn’t really have any sort of big ambitions. I thought I would be somebody who wrote the occasional book and had a job doing something else, basically. I never thought I would become a kind of, for want of a better term, a professional full-time author. Certainly not an international one.
“What is interesting to me is when it came out, people enjoyed it very much – from England and South Africa and America and Canada and Australia and all that – they found it a challenge, but they loved doing it. They loved getting to 30 pages in and the voice was embedded in their heads, and then they were shouting at each other in Scottish accents and all that, calling each other ‘radges’ and ‘gadge’ and all that kind of stuff. They loved the challenge of that.”
Again the comparison with Burns comes to mind, with people around the world coming together at Hogmanay to sing Auld Lang Syne – possibly without knowing what all the words actually mean. Does it matter?
“You know, there’s just a vibe of togetherness about the whole thing,” says Irvine. “He’s written the world’s national anthem, basically, which is a bizarre thing for a Scot to be able to do, from such a small place.”
The same small place has also produced the world’s most popular spirit. On that note, we drain our glasses of 53.323: Cheshire cat and head back out onto the streets of Leith.