Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Poet Who Collected Taxes on His Dram

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Poet Who Collected Taxes on His Dram

Article excerpt

Why do the English celebrate Burns Night? My question in no way demeans the 18th-century Scottish poet Robert Burns: we commemorate his birth more enthusiastically than that of our own national bard, and the reason is clear and amber. Scotch, particularly single malt--the oak-aged barley spirit from a single distillery--is now almost infinitely various, and if countries from Japan to the United States enthusiastically ferment and age grains including corn, rye and wheat, the Scotch industry remains as unflustered as Burns by a doggerel-spouting rival.

As it happens, Burns did have such a rival, although only one person ever took the rivalry seriously. William Topaz McGonagall never lacked self-belief, despite crafting such immortal works as "The Tay Bridge Disaster", which commemorates an 1879 railway catastrophe and ends thus:

   ... your central girders would
     not have given way,
   At least many sensible men
     do say,
   Had they been supported on
     each side with buttresses,
   At least many sensible men
     confesses,
   For the stronger we our
     houses do build,
   The less chance we have
     of being killed.

Here, surely, is a man who truly merits a whisky-soaked celebration. Great poetry is its own intoxication, while writing of this sort, rather like the tragedy it commemorates, is a powerful reminder of the human fallibility that inspires many of us to drink.

Poor Wullie McGonagall was the grain whisky to Burns's single malt. The former has its place and can be highly entertaining; the latter is intense and complex with very Scottish inflections. Even Burns's name is an apt descriptor for a drink best taken with a "teardrop" of water, to lessen the fire and free the flavours. The industry has followed his example in burnishing the myth of Scotland, if frequently in a less poetic manner. …

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