A country built aslant: exploring Scotland’s fault line

I was born in Islington – a very different place in 1947 than it is now – but I had never been particularly proud of the fact until I heard Alistair Moffat at the Lennoxlove Book Festival, talking about his new book Britain’s Last Frontier, A Journey Along the Highland Line. The London borough, he told us, played a big part in the success of the whisky industry. 

 

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It was something I had never heard before and so seemingly unlikely that it set me looking for more details.

It appears that in 1905 Islington council brought a landmark prosecution against two merchants for selling whisky “not of the nature, substance and quality demanded.” The case went to a series of lengthy appeals and led eventually to the 1915 Immature Spirits Act, which among other things specified that Scotch has to be matured in casks in Scotland for at least three years – the legal foundation for today’s thriving industry.

A quick search online reveals that the Islington trading standards officers are still on the case a century later: as recently as November 2012 they seized four bottles of “Granton Scotch Whisky” and one of “Golden Velvet Whisky” from a shop in the borough. The former, since it was made in Italy, cannot be called Scotch and the latter because they didn’t recognise the brand. Subsequent investigation produced no trace of the alleged distiller, the McDaniel group of companies.

Highland fault line from Conic Hill

Far cry from Islington: Highland fault line from Conic Hill by Mike Norton

Moffat’s book is about much more than whisky, exploring the fault line which runs diagonally across Scotland from south-west to north-east, dividing the Highlands from the Lowlands. It is not just a geographic and geologic border, but a cultural, linguistic, economic and a social one too.

I have a particular interest in that line because it can be clearly seen on the soil map produced by the James Hutton Institute (of which I happen to be chair). To the south and east are rich, fertile soils, enabling productive agriculture and prosperous communities. North and west of the line the soils are poorer and have to be worked much harder to secure a living. It explains a lot in Scotland’s history.

Another of Moffat’s remarks also took my attention when he decried those historians who write about Highland history without any knowledge of Gaelic, the language spoken until a century or so ago by the majority of the population. The same point was made strongly by John Lorne Campbell in his first book Highland Songs of the Forty-five, published in 1933, which marked him out as a serious scholar and a fearless – if not reckless – commentator.

By analysing Gaelic songs from the period of the Jacobite rebellion, he sought to prove that the Highland army were not the ignorant rabble they had been made out to be, but had a reasonable understanding of the political, religious and cultural differences which provoked the war. There were very few Gaelic texts from the period, but many songs had been written down and preserved. It was a primary source overlooked by historians of far greater learning and eminence than the 27-year-old Campbell.

John Lorne Campbell on Canna

John Lorne Campbell

In his introduction, he roundly condemned ‘many Scottish and practically all English writers’ on the period for their ignorance of ‘the language spoken in half the area of Scotland’. Although he described himself privately as shy, immature and lacking in self-confidence, he found no difficulty in expressing himself forcefully in print.

Without formal training in historical research, or any academic qualification other than in agriculture, he nevertheless attacked the reputations of some leading Scots historians of the period, including Peter Hume Brown, a former Professor of History at Edinburgh University who had also been Historiographer-Royal for Scotland, and D.N. Mackay, who had recently published an acclaimed book: Clan Warfare in the Scottish Highlands.

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