Burns’s dramscape

In his comparatively short life, Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns experienced huge changes in the production of the country’s national drink, as Gavin D Smith reports

Robert Burns was born on 25th January 1759, around the same time as the Industrial Revolution, which was to alter how people in Britain lived and worked in the most radical ways imaginable.

Between then and his untimely death on 21st July 1796, those changes inevitably affected the Scotch whisky industry, and Burns was not slow to take up his pen to write poems condemning what he saw as injustices associated with those changes, as well as celebrating the national drink in song and verse.

Burns is said to have been introduced to whisky at the age of 22, when he was an apprentice in the flax-dressing trade in Irvine, Ayrshire, prior to taking up farming for a living. The spirit inevitably makes appearances in the subsequent writings of this most convivial of men. Indeed, many of Burns’ poems and songs feature well-lubricated hospitality, and he specifically wrote in praise of whisky in his epic Tam O’Shanter:

‘Inspiring bold John Barleycorn [whisky]!’ What dangers thou canst make us scorn! Wi’ tippeny [tuppenny ale], we fear nae evil; Wi’ usquabae [whisky], we’ll face the devil!’

The topic of whisky was treated in an altogether more ‘political’ way, however in Scotch Drink, written during the winter of 1785/6. That was the year after new excise legislation, courtesy of the 1784 Wash Act, had ended the exemption of duty payments enjoyed by the Protestant Forbes family’s Ferintosh distilleries in Ross-shire.

Forbes’ estates had suffered serious damage at the hands of Jacobite supporters during the rising of 1688 in support of the Catholic James III and, by way of compensation, the Scottish Parliament granted Forbes the right to distil whisky on a duty-free basis in return for 400 Scots marks per annum. As a result of this, the Forbes family became extremely wealthy during the following century.

When the Wash Act ended the Forbes’ duty-free status, Robert Burns was highly indignant, penning Scotch Drink to vent his spleen:

‘Thee, Ferintosh! O sadly lost! Scotland lament frae coast to coast! Now colic grips, an’ barkin’ hoast [cough] May kill us a’ For loyal Forbes’ charter’d boast Is taen awa! Thae curst horse-leeches o’ th’ Excise Wha mak the whisky stells their prize! Haud up thy han’, Deil! ance, twice, thrice! There, seize the blinkers! An’ bake them up in brunstane [brimstone] pies For poor damn’d drinkers’

Apart from ending what was known as ‘the Ferintosh privilege’, a significant effect of the Wash Act was the introduction of a precise geographical line between Highland and Lowland whisky producers for excise purposes, with one aim being to stimulate legal distilling in the Highlands, thereby reducing smuggling.

The Highland Line ran from the Firth of Tay in the east to the Firth of Clyde in the west, with lower rates of excise duty being applied to small-scale distilleries north of the line which used locally produced barley.

One effect of the Wash Act was a significant increase in legal distillation in the Lowlands, accompanied by large-scale exports of whisky into England, though that was effectively ended by the imposition of prohibitively high levels of duty on spirits crossing the border into England in 1786 as a result of the Scotch Distillery Act.

Burns’ response to that Act was The Author’s Earnest Cry and Prayer – addressed to ‘The Right Honourable and Honourable Scotch Representatives in the House of Commons’.

Wi’ tippeny, we fear nae evil; Wi’ usquabae, we’ll face the devil!’

Tam O’Shanter by Robert Burns. Illustration by John Faed

In the poem, Burns’s recurring themes of nationalism and the use and abuse of power are directed against the 43 Scottish representatives in the House of Commons, and he concludes with the well-known quote:

‘Freedom and whisky gang thegither, Tak aff your dram!’

The effects of the Scotch Distillery Act, plus a degree of over-production, led to the temporary closure of some major distilling enterprises, including the Stein and Haig family-owned Kennetpans, Kilbagie, Kincaple, Canonmills and Lochrin distilleries.

Together, these five distilleries were responsible for producing almost half the country’s whisky output, illustrating how large Lowland distilleries had come to dominate the industry during Burns’s lifetime. Indeed, the region accounted for some 90 per cent of overall Scotch whisky capacity by the end of the century.

As the level of duty paid by Lowland distillers was based on the theoretical annual capacity of stills, many operators developed broad, shallow stills that could be discharged rapidly – as many as 94 times per day, rather than the authorities’ estimated seven times per week! Profit margins rose with so little duty being paid, but the spirit produced was often harsh and unpalatable. Indeed, in a letter to John Tennent dated 22nd December 1788, Burns wrote that: “The whisky of this county [Dumfries-shire] is a most rascally liquor; and by consequence, only drunk by the most rascally part of its inhabitants.”

He had been supplied with some Highland whisky by his wine merchant, and Burns noted that a neighbour had commended it highly “…both for its taste & strength”.

Distilled much more slowly than most Lowland whisky, Highland single malt cost around half as much again as its Lowland counterpart, but its quality was significantly better. The comparative scale of Highland and Lowland distilling is illustrated by the fact that in 1798 the 58 licensed Highland distilleries were responsible for less than eight per cent of total Scotch whisky production.

Illicit distillation in the Highlands was rife during Burns’s lifetime, and a grand total of 1,940 stills were confiscated during the year 1782 alone. The problem of illicit distillation would not find a meaningful solution until the Excise Act of 1823, despite the best efforts of the excise authorities.

ABOVE: Portrait of Robert Burns by Alexander Nasmyth, 1787

It was one of the ironies of Robert Burns’s life that despite penning the line: “Thae curst horse-leeches o’ th’ Excise”, he served from September 1789 until his death from rheumatic fever in July 1796 as an excise officer in the town of Dumfries.

On 1st November 1789, Burns wrote to his close friend Robert Ainslie: “I know not how the word exciseman, or still more opprobrious, gauger, will sound in your ears. I too have seen the day when my auditory nerves would have felt very delicately on this subject; but a wife and children are things which have a wonderful power in blunting these kind of sensations. Fifty pounds a year for life, and a provision for widows and orphans, you will allow is no bad settlement for a poet.”

Robert Burns’s house in Dumfries, Scotland where he lived with his family from 1793 until his death in 1796.

Photo courtesy of DeFacto