A river runs through it
Flowing themes of family, history and whisky combined when Scott Mansfield from the SMWS team in Australia took a much-delayed emotional journey back to Scotland, where his roots connect with the place distillation was first recorded in the country
Songs of wistful yearning for a distant land – think of The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond – have long been prominent in the cannon of Scottish music. The country’s diaspora is a global phenomenon, with emigrants spreading their culture, science, arts and of course whisky around the world. For these Scots, great whisky – cask strength whisky – is a spirit rich and resonant, powerfully evoking ties to the past. But what of those of us born in a different land?
As the Australian son of Scottish mother, a long-delayed trip to Scotland (thanks Covid) allowed me to explore how the history of whisky has and continues to shape my family. As with each new Society cask, we are all unique but alike in form. We are shaped by the course of history, grand and personal. For beyond time and record my family, the Muirs, have lived in the Tayside region in Scotland’s heartland.
The River Tay takes its name from Ancient Celtic ‘Tausa’, which means ‘strong one’ or ‘flowing’. Famed for its fly fishing, Scotland’s longest river pulses down from the Highlands until it pours through the Firth of Tay into the North Sea. On its banks, much of the history of Scotland and its favourite spirit has been shaped by the great and good.
Kings, crowned atop Scone’s Stone of Destiny, ruled from the medieval capital of Perth. Centuries later, Victorian captains of industry in Perth and Dundee grew rich plying their wares around the globe. Entrepreneurial grocers Matthew Gloag, Arthur Bell and John Dewar mastered the art of blending. Their successors shipped these blends to distant ports. But while the whisky barons brought Perth prosperity, they owed a debt to a then-unknown monk who had lived down the Tay 400 years earlier.
ABOVE: Newburgh in Fife, where Scott Mansfield returned from Australia in search of his family’s roots
East of Perth, the small town of Newburgh looks across the Firth of Tay to Dundee. The Tironensian Order of Monks founded an Abbey here in 1191. Renowned for its orchards and sitting on the site of a sixth century Celtic church, Lindores Abbey lay on a major crossroad. Kings and the famed William Wallace passed this way. It is here that Friar Jon Cor, commissioned by King James IV, distilled the first ‘whisky’ ever to be recorded in Scotland’s long history. So it continued until the Reformation brought down the abbey and expelled the monks.
Yet, in the centuries since, the people of Newburgh continued to farm the abbey’s lands in the shadow of the ruins. By the Second World War, my uncle Gordon was running milk from Lindores Farm up to the township.
After the war, the whisky city of Perth was still drawing on the outlying towns to staff its bottling lines.
My mother Beth worked for Bells. However, by the 1960s the whisky industry sought to base its warehouses and bottlers in the Central Belt between Edinburgh and Glasgow. The ebb and flow of whisky production in Tayside saw my mother carried away in another wave of migration to distant lands, as she looked for a future and family.
She came to southern lands, as Scots had been drawn to for almost two centuries. Not surprisingly, here too, the love of whisky and the desire to create a local drop had a history of its own.
From the start, colonists distilled whisky in Australia, despite government restrictions. Challenged while fishing by his Scottish father-in-law in 1989, Bill Lark successfully lobbied for distillation laws to change. Experiments with local peat saw Lark craft a spirit redolent of the Tasmanian highland bush, inspiring a generation of distillers to create their own expression of Australian whisky.
PICTURED: two of the Society’s Australian bottlings
CLOSING THE CIRCLE
In 2022 the Society affirmed Australia’s place in the whisky firmament. Led by Matt Bailey and Andrew Derbidge from SMWS Australia, casks from a Melbourne and Sydney distillery were selected. Casks 147 and 148 were added to the roll call. Each outturn from these casks has been met with overwhelming demand.
My delayed trip to Scotland gave me the opportunity to close a circle. I was to bring a Society cask of Australian whisky back to where the written record on whisky began. I was also to bring my late mother’s remains back to be with her parents.
ABOVE: Scott Mansfield at Lindores distillery
ABOVE: Drew McKenzie Smith, founder of Lindores distillery
In 2015 I met Drew McKenzie Smith, custodian of the Lindores Abbey ruins. A decade earlier another traveller, whisky writer Michael Jackson, had visited and told Drew that recent readings of historical records had revealed the abbey’s significance in the history of whisky. Fired by this revelation, Drew spent the next two decades working towards reclaiming Lindores’ place by building a new distillery.
On my way to Newburgh I visited The Vaults for the first time. I was struck by how Leith was like so many ports, a place of last goodbyes and promises, of new hopes over the horizon. On sharing Cask No. 148.2 Kirsch Me Quick with Society members Ronan, Sam and Michael, I was pleased with their positive reception. “Who would guess a 3-year-old would be so complex.” It doesn’t take long to feel at home with the warm welcome at The Vaults.
Travelling north, my pilgrimage complete, the new Lindores Abbey distillery was so much more than I could have imagined or hoped for. It would have been easy for Drew McKenzie Smith to lock the distillery into a permanent homage to a distiller from half a millennium ago. Rather, the distillery pays its respects to the past but aims to create a future for Newburgh and its people.
ABOVE: Ronan Wilson and Sam Davidson share a dram with Scott at The Vaults
“It would have been easy for Drew McKenzie Smith to lock the distillery into a permanent homage to a distiller from half a millennium ago. Rather, the distillery pays its respects to the past but aims to create a future for Newburgh and its people.”
Over a glass of 148.2 Kirsch Me Quick we talked of new whiskies, Scottish and Australian, overlooking the abbey ruins from the distillery’s Legacy Bar.
Drew suggested that we embrace the idea of a world of whiskies as a kaleidoscope of expressions, each cask a record of those who made it and the promise of good spirits with those we are with now.
Lindores Abbey distillery lies on a gentle sweep of fertile land which ends at the edge of the Firth of Tay. It’s overlooked by Newburgh’s manicured graveyard, where my grandparents and now my mother lie.
Below, Newburgh’s orchards and fields of barley continue to bring forward nature’s bounty. Whisky now flows again where Friar Cor once tended to his still. Beyond this, a river runs, taking us to distant lands.
Postscript: The day an Australian whisky was first tasted on the site of Scotland’s first recording of whisky distillation marked the 200th anniversary of the 1823 Whisky Excise Act, which transformed the whisky industry. Also next to a canal in Falkirk, after 30 years of silence, Rosebank distilled anew.
Scott Mansfield is the SMWS manager for Queensland, Australia