As we celebrate Halloween, or All Hallow’s Eve, where Ghouls, Witches and Black Cats prowl the earth, our very own Cat, Catherine Housely, takes a look at some of the other Spirits that have resided in Scotland’s distillery warehouses. With stories of unfortunate stowaways, ghostly canines and even the Devil himself, it’s little wonder that workers were sometimes in need of a stiff spirit of another kind.
Whisky is often likened to magic in a glass. Witchcraft, a form of magic that struck fear into the hearts of our ancestors was linked heavily with the process of distillation. What better time to enlighten yourself on some of the stories of these supposed witches and their ‘potions’.
Whisky and the Spirits
With historic old buildings dating centuries back, deep dark warehouses and wind hewn, blackened stone structures looming remotely around glens and valleys, it is little wonder that most distilleries have at least one ghostly encounter that staff past and present can regale you with.
With Hallowe’en fast approaching, the night in which it was once believed that the dead could walk among us, it seems the perfect time to delve into some of our favourite distillery ghost stories.
This may be one of the more well-known distillery tour ghost stories. Many of us will be familiar with the tale of the Spanish senorita. In the 1970s, Glendronach imported a large amount of Spanish Oloroso sherry casks. While offloading them, a stowaway was seen escaping from an empty cask. She was said to have been dressed in scarlet and black and wearing a full mantilla or lace veil. Since then, there have been numerous sightings of this beautiful, exotic ghostly figure around the distillery.
It is said that in 1781 the Laird Archibald Campbell outlawed distilling on Jura. This ban remained in place for 29 years until one night Campbell was startled from sleep to find a ghostly apparition of an elderly woman hovering above his bed. She screamed her fury at the lack of whisky on the island and so terrified Archibald Campbell that he reversed the ban post haste and built a distillery to boot. Apparently, since that day, a bottle of 16-year-old Jura has been left out over the years to appease the ghostly granny.
But Jura’s ghostly apparitions are not consigned to the 18th century. There is a modern-day tale too. In 2010 Elvis the distillery cat is believed to have caught a ghostly figure on his cat cam! A psychic was brought in who made contact with a strong female personality named Elizabeth. Locals believe this may be the ghost of a schoolteacher who lived there many years ago.
Sticking with the Western Isles, Bowmore also has several ghostly tales associated with it. Staff past and present have attested to the fact that there is a ghost which haunts Bowmore’s Vaults.
As well as this, there is a local tale of a Headless Horseman. Crofter Lachlan Ban on returning to his house one night found his door open and a headless apparition riding away. As he entered his house, he found an open bottle of Bowmore in the middle of the floor with a good measure missing from it. It is said to this day that many islanders won’t offer a dram of Bowmore to a guest from an open bottle for fear of bringing the spirit of the headless horseman down upon them.
But probably the most well-known ghost story connected to Bowmore is that of the Devil being chased from Kilarow Kirk in Bowmore village. It is said that when the church was built in 1767, it was given circular walls so that the Devil would have no corner to hide in. Despite this he did appear from deep within the walls and was chased by the people with fire into Bowmore Distillery. They boarded the doors to imprison the Devil inside but upon entering, he was not to be found. It is believed he escaped inside a Bowmore whisky barrel on the paddle steamer to the mainland. This legend was represented in Bowmore’s Limited Edition ‘No Corners to Hide’ expressions.
A worker for Tomatin walked home, having finished his shift. Suddenly, he was confronted by the ghostly shape of a huge dog standing in his way! While most of us would be petrified, the workman found a serene sense of calm overcome him. Instead of fleeing, he put out his hand to stroke the specter, which disappeared instantly in a puff of smoke.
Tomatin celebrate the haunting with their peated range Cu Bocan, Gaelic for Ghost Dog.
Distillation and Witchcraft
As we head into Hallowe’en season, we start to think of the classic fairytale depiction of witches hunkered over bubbling pots, concocting potions, and elixirs. This is not a million miles from the reality of the development of the art of distillation. But instead of hooked nosed crones, replace this image with revered learned women, village wise women and homemakers.
Although women are mentioned in some of our favourite brand stories, we need to go much further back in time to see just how strong the connection is between women and the art of distillation.
Many scholars believe that the very first chemists were two Mesopotamian women who began experimenting with distillation to create perfumes for the nobility.
By the 1st century AD onwards, it was common for Alexandrian women to practice alchemy which involved distillation. The most well-known figure from the period is Maria Hebraea. Often known as Mary the Prophetess. She is credited with inventing a heating and distilling apparatus known as the ‘balneum Mariae’ (or bain-marie)
Maria also created a still consisting of two rounded vessels connected by an alembic and heated from below. The alembic carried vapours into a receiver and has become the commonly accepted term for a still. This rudimentary design is still used by some American moonshiners and small batch French brandy producers.
While Mary is mentioned in the pages of history for her endeavors in alchemy to create real liquid gold, most women distillers were just homemakers and village wise women. From the 1200s on, women regularly distilled alcohol-based medicines and elixirs to cure everyday illnesses and complaints whether that was in apothecaries or in the home. The accepted term for these distilled potions was ‘Aqua Vitae.’ This term was used to describe any type of ardent spirit. These female distillers’ names are largely unknown or forgotten except for the ones who had the misfortune of being recorded not in recognition of their skill but, as a consequence of a great turning of the tide – the witch trials
During the 16th & 17th centuries Witch Hunt mania swept across Europe. Where once it was common for a woman to run breweries and distill alcohol, these skills and occupations that once afforded them positions of respect became the proverbial smoking gun that could have them accused, tried, and executed as witches. If a woman was caught in possession of a distilled spirit, it could be used as evidence to have her found guilty of sorcery and the Black Arts. During this period, historians believe Europe executed 50,00-80,000 alleged witches. 80% of these were women.
Scotland took up the witch trial crusade with vigour largely due to King James VI. During a particularly bad sea crossing to Denmark, he was convinced that Danish witches had brewed up the storm that nearly wrecked his ship. On his return to Scotland, he wrote the book ‘Daemonologie’ in which he promoted witch-hunting and implemented the 1563 ‘Queen’s Act Against Witchcraft’. This resulted in the deaths of over 4,000 alleged witches across Scotland. In Aberdeen, the trials were held at the Tolbooth where 45 women and 2 men were charged with witchcraft.
Where once the art of distilling was the realm of women, and a widely accepted skill openly practiced and accepted by society, the tide turned against them and swept these early distillers into the realms of forgotten history.
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