02 February 2017 by Dave Broom
I was sitting in frost-covered Forres thinking about symbols. Again. After all, whisky is rich in them and they continue to frame much of the debate over its future direction. More shortbread or less? Fewer kilts or more – or 21st-century ones? Is haggis outmoded? You get the drift.
Symbols are shorthand, signifiers for deeper and more complex feelings, and beliefs. They are, as I’ve discovered recently, remarkably potent as well. We might dismiss the deployment of many of them as being lazy, but if they are misused then the reaction is rapid and surprisingly protective.
‘It might be a crap symbol, but it’s ours,’ we growl. I know, because it’s happened to me twice since last week.
Quaich - Symbol of friendship: The Quaich signifies a bond between giver and receiver
The first was the report that locals in a village in Devon had complained that the design of a proposed whisky distillery in their burgh was inappropriate and, in the words of one resident: ‘More in keeping to a traditional Scottish distillery… Princetown is not Scotland and the looks are not in keeping to the local area.’
The apparently anti-Scottish sentiment was engendered by the addition of a pagoda (or cupola, to be precise) on the top of the building.
It was one of those stories – ‘clickbait’, I think the young people call them – guaranteed to raise the ire and make you wish to read more. I mean, I thought: ‘How dare they? Don’t they understand? The bloody arrogance of them, etc, etc.’ So, I clicked and read and, you know what? I’m on the objectors’ side.
Who is being arrogant here? Why should a whisky distillery have to be in a ‘Scottish’ design? Why, if it’s not malting, does it have to have cupolas which were originally created for functional, not aesthetic, reasons?
If England is becoming a whisky-making nation, then shouldn’t it perhaps develop its own whisky distillery vernacular? I’m with the locals. The design is lazy. Make something different. Make it Devonian. Maybe the architect could come to Scotland and have a look at Dalmunach or Macallan’s Hobbiton and see how it can be done.
I was taken to task by a reader recently for mixing whisky and politics which, according to them, should be kept apart. Well, turn away my friend, we’re going in again.
It would be lovely, I agree, if politics could be kept away from whisky, but it can’t because there are things like, oh I dunno… taxes and trade deals and, oh yes, business involved in the selling of the stuff.
Politics influences price and availability – you just have to go to a Liquor Control Board shop in Canada to see what politics can do to a whisky selection.
But that’s by the by. Politics and whisky intertwined themselves again last week when UK Prime Minister Theresa May went to Washington. On these occasions, it’s only polite to take a gift to your host. You can imagine the discussions in No 10 when the form of said gift was being debated.
And so on, until some lonely Scottish voice says: ‘What about a quaich?’
‘A quiche? That’s a bit… French, isn’t it?’
So then they go on to describe Scotland’s friendship cup. It makes sense. Trump is – I hang my head in shame – half-Scottish after all, even if the only love he has shown for the place is to ravage the shifting dunes of Foveran and harass the local residents. The sublime Karine Polwart put it better than I could at Celtic Connections last week.
Yes, talks had to take place at some stage. It’s politics. There’s a pragmatic element to that game, which can involve a fair amount of holding your nose while talking to someone. It doesn’t mean leaving your morals at the door.
Symbol of Scotch: Broom says it’s ‘arrogant’ to assume English distilleries should adopt a traditional Scottish shape
Symbols are shorthand. For May, quaich = friendship = business. (You can imagine her frantic, imploring look as their eyes met over its brim…)
But symbols are deep. The quaich is more than a friendship cup. The moment of its sharing creates a bond. Its use comes from a time when a community would gather together, sit in a circle and pass the cup around.
It says: ‘We are equal.’
It says: ‘We can talk freely.’
It says: ‘Brotherhood.’
It speaks of cohesiveness and an open-hearted view of the world, of community, understanding, sharing and peace. No wonder it and whisky go together. The quaich is a powerful symbol of humanity. It is everything that Trump’s regime rejects.
May’s quaich says: ‘We can ignore the racism, bigotry and misogyny, the anti-environmentalism and willingness to gag the press. Not because we are compassionate and tolerant, but because we want to do business with you. The drinks are on us.’
Mrs May would have done better to place a bulk order of quaichs to give to our former partners in Europe, because those are the friendship bonds we need to re-establish.
News of the US immigration ban has made headlines and sparked protests around the country. The cup of friendship has been filled quickly enough with poison. Perhaps, if sharing was the underlying message, a long spoon might have been more appropriate.