Ian Smith celebrates Sir Walter Scott on the 250th anniversary of his birth.
As the fine dinner draws to its climax the unmistakable sound of the bagpipes can be heard approaching down the hall, before the towering figure of the piper, clad in traditional highland regalia, appears in the dining room.
As he marches past the table, the assembled guests raise their quaichs, charged with Scotch Whisky, in a toast to the ancient culture of Scotland.
Sound familiar? It certainly should to every Keeper of the Quaich who has had the honour of attending the Society's Banquet in the splendour of Blair Castle.
But on this occasion, this isn't a description of the bi-annual Keepers' Banquet, but rather an account of a typical evening's entertainment in the home of Sir Walter Scott some two centuries ago.
This year marks 250 years since the birth of Sir Walter on 15 August 1771, and it is an anniversary of enormous significance for Scotland, but also for Scotch Whisky and for Keepers of the Quaich.
As with the literature that made him one of the most famous authors of his generation, those convivial evenings over which Sir Walter presided at Abbotsford, his home in the Scottish Borders, were not just mere entertainments, but carefully curated and stage-managed events that took elements of Scottish culture and reinvented them and presented them in new ways that have echoed down the centuries to this day.
There is sure to be much debate over Sir Walter's legacy in this 250th anniversary year, between those who will celebrate one of the world's great literary innovators, a pioneer of the historical novel, the preserver and champion of Scottish, and particularly Highland traditions; and those who believe his reimagining of Scotland fixed the country's identity in tartan clad aspic.
One thing that is undeniable is that few, if any, figures in Scottish history have had such an indelible impact on Scotland, its Society and its culture. And that impact extends to Scotch Whisky through the influential role he played in advancing the interests of whisky distilling in the early 19th Century and weaving it into the fabric of Scottish Society.
If this role in advancing the interests of Scotch isn't enough to earn the esteem of Keepers, we can also add that Sir Walter was the world's first and probably greatest ever collector of quaichs.
In the 18th century, following the failure of the Jacobite risings – in which Sir Walter's great grandfather fought on the side of the rebel Bonnie Prince Charlie – Highland culture was effectively forbidden. Its way of life, its dress, its whisky. In his Waverley novels, set in that Jacobite age, Sir Walter set out to rehabilitate Scottish identity by reclaiming its traditions.
Gerard Carruthers, Professor of Scottish Literature at Glasgow University, who is undertaking a research project on 'Walter Scott and Popular Culture' as part of the anniversary year celebrations, says whisky plays an important role in Scott's repositioning of Scottish identity.
"There's no question whisky becomes part of Scott's symbolism of Scottish life and culture," he says.
"That started with Burns, and as with many things Burns has the best lines –' freedom and whisky gang thegither' and so on – but with Walter Scott and the way he portrays whisky in Waverley with the famous passage about the Highlanders' drinking habits, we start to see a food and drink patriotism emerge that is part of the romanticisation of the Highlands, with whisky very much a part of it."
Crucially, Scott's intervention in Scotch Whisky went beyond the pages of his novels and became advocacy and activism in the real world, where he was effectively the world's first whisky influencer.
That achieved its apogee with the visit of King George IV to Edinburgh in 1822 – the first royal visit to Scotland since well before the 1707 Act of Union between Scotland and England – when Sir Walter was tasked with arranging the public celebrations and proceeded to create a spectacle that put Scottish culture on the map in a way that had never been seen before. This included famously presenting the King with a dram of Glenlivet whisky on his arrival at the Port of Leith, despite the fact that under the punitive excise laws of the day, it was an illicit product.
Prof Carruthers says: "Scott is saying Highland culture matters. It is colourful and vibrant, and whisky is part of that. You have to remember the historical context is one in which views of Highland culture are basically racist, portraying their culture as inferior, their way of life as primitive, their whisky as unpalatable. Scott set out to challenge that and him helping arrange for George IV to drink whisky, and the King liking it, that is positive cultural ambassadorship in action."
Surely it is no coincidence that a year after the King's visit one of the most significant pieces of legislation in the history of Scotch Whisky – the 1823 Excise Act – was finally passed, liberating whisky distilling and laying the foundations for the explosive growth of the industry in the Victorian era that would establish Scotch as the world's leading spirit.
Sir Walter enjoyed nothing more than sharing a whisky toddy or a dram with good company, hence his spectacular dinners he hosted at his gothic baronial mansion at Abbotsford, with his groundsman John Bruce, known as 'John of Skye', performing for guests on his bagpipes.
The centrepiece of the festivities were Sir Walter's unique collection of quaichs, from which his guests were asked to select a vessel and join their host in raising a toast.
It was from his aforementioned great grandfather – Walter 'Beardy' Scott, who pledged not to trim his facial hair until a Stuart monarch was restored to the Scottish throne – that Sir Walter seems to have inherited his passion for quaichs.
The Abbotsford House collection still includes the Jacobite Quaich that was passed down to Sir Walter by his hirsute forebear.
Sir Walter was almost as prolific a collector as he was a writer, and his collection of quaichs includes some extraordinary artefacts. As well as those passed down to him, Sir Walter commissioned a number of quaichs to be crafted from pieces of wood associated with great historic characters and events.
Prized amongst the Abbotsford collection are the Waterloo Quaich – carved from an elm tree under which the Duke of Wellington located his command post during the climactic battle of the Napoleonic Wars – and another carved from part of a Yew tree from Crookston Castle under which it was reputed Mary Queen of Scots was betrothed to Lord Darnley.
There is also a quaich, claimed to be carved from an Irish Oak beam from St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin where one of Scott's great literary heroes Jonathan Swift had been Dean in the first half of the 18th Century.
Several quaichs in the Abbotsford collection incorporate coins, including one with a so-called Crookston Dollar. Again it would appear indulging Sir Walter's fascination with the Stuart monarchy and Marian mythology.
Kirsty Archer-Thompson, Collections and Interpretation Manager at the Abbotsford Trust, said Scott's fascination with quaichs was typical of his voracious appetite as a collector.
She says: "Scott is one of a number of antiquarians who became interested in acquiring artefacts, including parts of trees from places of historical interest, and he combined that with his passion for quaichs to create some of the remarkable pieces we have in our collection.
"Interestingly, although these quaichs incorporated historical fragments or associations, Sir Walter didn't consider them to be museum pieces in the same way as he approached other items in his collection. They were very much part of the interactive theatre of the Abbotsford guest experience, where they would be lined up on the sideboard as the meal drew to a close and one would be picked out, filled with whisky and passed around."
There is one further link to our Society banquet that should endear Sir Walter to the heart of every Keeper of the Quaich. At the conclusion of our dinners, we join in our own ritual of singing Scotland Yet!, the song that commemorates the moment when Sir Walter Scott uncovered the long-forgotten 'Honours of Scotland', the crown jewels of the Scottish monarchy that had been hidden away in the wake of the 1707 Act of Union. Sir Walter rehabilitated those symbols of nationhood just as he had with the traditions of Highland culture and with whisky.
It is fitting that The Lord Bruce, whose ancestors played a leading role in many of the events Sir Walter lived through and wrote about in his historical novels, leads us in that song at the banquets. Indeed, one of The Lord Bruce's ancestors, the 7th Earl of Elgin, was interviewed by Sir Walter about his experiences in the Napoleonic Wars.
He says Scott's legacy cannot be underestimated: "Scott is the great magician, conjuring up the martial history of Scotland, reaching into the historical locker and using the accoutrements of Jacobite Scotland – tartan, whisky – and staging a theatrical spectacle for the Hanoverian monarch. What a daring thing to do.
"He is retelling the past to create a new identity for Scotland just as the country is beginning to re-engineer itself with Edinburgh as the Athens of the North. The recovery of the Scottish crown jewels was part of that, and the way Scott presented it was an incredible act of theatre."
So, 250 years since his birth we can celebrate the anniversary, by imagining Sir Walter wandering down the antler-clad walls of Blair Castle and into the grand ballroom, feeling right at home as the Atholl Highlanders play their tattoo on the bagpipes and quaichs filled with Scotch Whisky are raised to the strains of Scotland Yet!
This article first appeared in the summer 2021 issue of The Keeper magazine