The Troubling of the Waters

A graduate of Edinburgh t Diversity, George Mackay Brown lives in the Orkney Jstands, Scotland. He published his third book of poetry, THE TEAR OF THE AVUAEE, in 1905.

There is much talk lately about Quoylay whiskey, but the truth is, there were several different kinds of whiskey in that island.

Tom of Scatter’s whiskey was like a blowlamp flame in your throat, the reason being that there was no Scatter tradition of whiskey-making. Tom merely scavenged odds and ends of technical information from here and there. Two excisemen caught him making it in his barn. He was fined a hundred pounds in the sheriff’s court, and all his implements were confiscated. There was still a bottle or two of Scatter whiskey in the hill crofts last winter, but nobody really liked it. You had to drink the well dry to take the scald out of your throat next morning.

Nobody ever got a chance to taste Paul Baikie’s whiskey, because he and his three sons —■ dark, unpopular men — drank it all themselves. It can’t have been good whiskey, because when they were drunk, the Baikie men were more morose than ever. Nobody can deny they were very fine boatmen. It’s said Roland the tramp informed on them after he had got nothing but a cup of sour milk out of them one cold winter day. Paul Baikie refused to pay the fine. He was in jail a whole summer.

Perhaps the most famous whiskey in Quoylay was made by a henwife called Beena Bcws. It teas made to an ancient fixed recipe, a traditional thing like a ballad that had salted the life of generations. It wet the lips of newborn babies and old dying men in every corner of the island, and it was an essential ingredient in the bride’s cog at a wedding. I tasted it once; it wasn’t good. Beena Bews is dead now, and that ancient ballad is lost.

File tinkers of Voes made a whiskey. I would rather not speak about it. It was made apparently without vessels of any kind, but wrung out of cloths heavy with distillation. John the tinker was blind from it when he was twenty-seven. ‘That whiskey is not made anymore.

Noah Folster made a whiskey that was appreciated in cultured quarters. The laird said he could taste the peat of Keelylang in it. Mr. Seward the teacher detected the unique loamy flavor of Quoylay grain —every sip (he said) lapped his tongue like a yellow wave of harvest. Mr. McVcy the minister said an empty jar of Noah Folster was like the death of a brilliant young poet. . . . With all that fulsome talk in high circles Noah was quickly in trouble. The laird paid his fine, and so he should have — all that palaver about the fragrance of buried forests! Noah’s whiskey was the color of dirty daylight, and its taste on my palate was bog water with an evil essence in it. Noah went on making the stulf for many a day after that, in the laird’s cellar, behind a doublelocked door.

Swcyn Johnstone went into his outhouse one morning, poured the half-distilled spirit into the burn, took a great hammer, and systematically beat his copper still into a burnished lump. It was the finest still in the island, the old men say, a work of art made by the present blacksmith’s great-grandfather in 1821 to the order of Captain Fenwick of the Beagle. . . . Sweyn’s wife, out feeding the hens, had seen the exciseman walking up the hill. It turned out to be the new minister, not the exciseman at all. Sweyn went into the house, drank tea with the new minister, and spoke civilly for an hour about politics and the weather. He never made whiskey after that day. They say the ducks in his burn were drunk for a week,

Deaf Check’s whiskey had a promising taste, but it was always drunk too new. “Very old Orkney whiskev,” Check used to say to the plowmen who visited him on a Saturday night, but in fact it was never more than six or seven weeks old. It was the color of winter sunlight. Nobody ever informed on Check. Ten years after he was dead, a stone jar of his whiskey was found under the bridge stone at his front door, which was being repaired “Never, never, never was there stuff like it,” said Jacob Robb the mason who found it, a man not given to exaggeration. “I lived,” he said, “in the Island of the Young, an enchanted man for three days until that stone jar was dry.”

Nowadays there is a licensed grocer at the crossroads, a Mr. MacFarlane from Dalkeith, where the island people buy their whiskey in sealed bottles at two pounds one shilling and sixpence a bottle.