Demon Voices and the Demon Drink
GREYLAG geese grazed in the fields which rolled down to the River Spey and snowdrops and crocuses brightened the road verges. The pale green tint on the birches emphasised the promise of spring but less than a thousand feet above the snow was still deep and the wind had a razor edge to it.
The breezes that blow off Ben Rinnes, the north-eastern terminal point of the Grampians, are legendary.
Nearby Ballindalloch Castle dates from the mid-sixteenth century but a local tale suggests the stone masons and builders had a hard time during its construction. No sooner had the walls reached a certain height than they were knocked down by some unknown force. This happened so many times that the Laird set up a special night-watch to discover who was responsible for the vandalism.
Early in the morning, the story goes, a great wind swirled down from Ben Rinnes and not only blew the newly built walls down but pitched the Laird and his cronies into a holly bush. Three times a demoniacal voice was heard above the rushing of the wind, saying, “Build on the cow haugh”. The Laird, well aware of what might happen if he ignored the warning, built his new castle on the lower, less attractive site instead.
It could have been the same demoniacal voice that was trying to convince me to stay in the warmth of the car rather than expose myself to the raw coarseness of the northern wind. The mischevious breeze was already drifting powder snow across the narrow Glack Harness road between Ben Rinnes and Meikle Conval, but tantalising glimpses of blue skies between the snow flurries were enough to cast out the demon voice and turn my thoughts to the demon drink instead.
Lying just a few miles south west of Dufftown, Ben Rinnes lies at the epicentre of Speyside whisky country. Someone once wrote that while Rome may have been built on seven hills, Dufftown was built on seven stills, and from the 840m summit of Rinnes you can look down on over a dozen distillery towns and villages - Aberlour, Keith, Cromdale, Dufftown, Rothes, Knockando, Ballindalloch, Craigellachie, Carron, Glenlivet, Tomnavoulin and Advie, all associated with the names that stir the blood of any whisky enthusiast - Balvenie, Glenfarclas, Glenlivet, the Mortlach, Cragganmore, Tamdhu, Glenrothes, Glenfiddich, Carndow, Tamnavullin - the epithets of the waters of life and the lifeblood of this entire regions of Moray, Nairn and Banff.
Indeed, this major whisky producing area extends about fifty miles to the west and about twenty-five miles south of the Moray Firth and the waters of both the Monadh Liath and Grampians mountain ranges contribute to the northern reaches of Strathspey. Not content with this distinction, Speyside whiskies are also distinct from other malts tending to be lighter in ‘weight’ while still carrying their own character on the palate. Not as peaty and heavy as, say, Islay malts, the whiskies of Speyside are still full flavoured, but in a more subtle, delicate way – water of life indeed.
As I tramped upwards through the snow drifts it didn’t seem too fanciful to imagine the basic elements of this uisge bheatha as the provision of the mountain - the melting spring snows, the roaring burns, crystal clear and cold, the rolling slopes of peat that was once used to fire the distilleries and the patchwork fields of barley below me in Glen Rinnes.
Rising boldly above the Laich of Moray, Ben Rinnes climbs to a height of 840m and offers a magnificent viewpoint across the Moray Firth to the mountains of Ross, Sutherland and Caithness. On a clear day you can see Ben Nevis in the west and Buchan Ness in the east and beyond Corryhabbie Hill on the opposite side of Glen Rinnes Lochnagar and the arc of the Cairngorms form the distant horizon.
From Glack Harness a track, then a narrower footpath runs all the way to the quaintly named summit, the Scurran of Lochterlandoch and offers a glorious afternoon’s walk the comparative ease of which is out of all proportion to the mountain’s height.
The name of the hill comes from the Gaelic Beinn Rinneis, which possibly means ‘headland hill’ but the word ‘rinn’ in Gaelic means a sharp point and while this north eastern hill couldn’t really be described as pointed it does boast distinctive granite tors on its summit which gives it a spiky appearance. It’s a well formed hill nevertheless, its slopes easing themselves gradually down to the waters of the River Spey on its north side and considerably more steeply on its southern Glen Rinnes side.
I only recently discovered that Ben Rinnes was once known locally as Babbie’s Moss. ‘Babbie’ was a local lass, one Barbara McIntosh who, in the 1750’s lived nearby at Rhinachat Farm, a couple of miles from Aberlour. Sadly, Barbara took her own life after her husband left her. She apparently hanged herself on a tree close to Ben Rinnes. As a suicide Barbara couldn’t be buried in consecrated ground. The summit of Ben Rinnes was chosen as her final resting place and her grave was dug at a spot known then as the Three Lairds Boundaries. Apparently the weather was horrendous as the burial party struggled up the hill but Barbara was buried in a shallow grave. A cairn was built over the grave and she lay in peace until the middle of the following century.
Tradition tells us that a number of Aberlour loons had doubts about the weird story surrounding the
Moss of Babie and decided to see for themselves the so-called grave of Barbara McIntosh. It was
September 1855 when the lads clambered up the hill with their picks and spades and high hopes of
putting an end to all the granny tales of yesteryear. They delved into the mossy soil till they came
upon a coffin. That first ring of steel on wood sent a shudder up their spines; was Granny right after
all? There was only one way to find out.
Wielding their spades in a frenzy they cleared the battered coffin & prised it open to find the corpse
of a woman, still remarkably fresh, with most of the features & hair intact. Had it not been for a
spade piercing the coffin the face of Barbara would have been remarkably distinct. Her pettycoats &
shawl were in pefect condition & the colours of the tartan plaid they had wrapped her body in all
those years ago was as bright as they day it fell off the loom.
The body was re-buried in its lonely grave until another generation with the same doubts disturbed
the soil twenty years later. Nothing had changed but the ghoulish deed didn't go unnoticed by the
local constabulary this time & the 19th century vandals were severly reprimanded.
After consultations between the ‘Captain’ of the Banffshire Police and local Authorities a Christian
burial was arranged for Barbara in the old graveyard at Aberlour.
Despite my earlier reluctance to face the wintry conditions it was curiously exhilarating to battle through the snow drifts and clouds and arrive by the summit tor just as the clouds broke. I could empathise with the Rev James Hall of Edinburgh who, in 1803 climbed Ben Rinnes on a cold and cloudy day. His written account tells of becoming lost and frightened but when the mists cleared he proclaims the experience as “a secret enjoyment, a calm satisfaction and a religious fervour which no language can express”. Such quasi-spiritual encounters are not unusual in the mountains and I’ve often found it curious that even non-religious people often revert to such pious language when describing such encounters.
If you can arrange transport, a complete traverse of Ben Rinnes is well worthwhile, continuing west from the summit down the length of the Lynderiach Burn to Bridge of Avon. Alternatively, descend as I did, in a south west direction to the Hill of Knockashalg before dropping down south eastwards to Wester Clashmarloch in Glen Rinnes and a quiet road walk back to Glack Harness. I think it’s also highly appropriate, after climbing such a worthy hill as Beinn Rhinnes, to toast yourself from a hipflask with a little dram of uisge bheatha, the water of life that flows from the very flanks of this north-eastern hill. As Robert Burns once wrote:
“Freedom and whisky gang thegither,
Tak aff your dram.”
I guess I’m fortunate that my own long love affair with the uisge beatha, the water of life, has remained just that, a gentle flirtation that has never quite led me completely astray.
A close friend of mine, a recovering alcoholic, once suggested to me that some people have a natural tolerance to alcohol, while others don’t and can become easily addicted. I make the point because I’m sure there will be those who passionately believe that a celebration of the amber gold has no place in a feature about the Scottish outdoors.
And I fully agree. I also accept that drinking whisky in the wild outdoors can be completely irresponsible and can dull your senses, increase the effects of altitude and make you significantly more prone to dehydration and even hypothermia. I accept all these points but having never completely conformed to the majority view in over forty years of writing about outdoor topics I don’t intend to start now. I like nothing better than a wee dram of whisky in my tent at the end of a backpacking day, and I don’t really care who knows it!
Moderation is the key, and the aim. A measure of whisky, or maybe a couple just to be sociable, can create a very satisfying ritual at the end of a wild camp meal, when the bones are weary and sleep is calling. It’s then that whisky helps the ‘connection with nature’ process that I, and many other backpackers, seek. Unlike tea or coffee whisky is a product of the land that I love, the land I’ve hiked over and camped upon for years; for me drinking whisky in the wilds is as integral to the outdoor experience as washing your face in the dew or hugging a tree.
You see, whisky is a genuine tour de force of nature; of the water that percolates up through layers of peat, peat that has been formed over centuries in wet and damp conditions, where flooding obstructs flows of oxygen from the atmosphere, slowing the rate of decomposition of the vegetation it is created from.
That water is then mixed with barley, one of the world’s healthiest foods, and one that is particularly suited to the Scottish climate. What happens then is a source of considerable mystique, almost magic. It’s said that the first distillation of alcohol was discovered in the middle-east when Arabic alchemists were making cosmetics and perfume by distilling flowers. It’s where the word comes from – Al kuhul, or eye makeup!
The Moors then brought the process to Europe, where it eventually spread to Ireland and Scotland where monks created the first ‘aqua vitae’ – an alcoholic beverage made from fermented barley. Hence the spiritual connection – were these Celtic holy men encouraged in their experiments by some celestial hand?
I’ve never really wanted to learn how whisky is made – I’m happy to let that be a mystery to me, and that mystique adds to the notion that what I’m sipping is something rather special, something enigmatic and otherworldly – almost divine.
And I believe that is why a glass of whisky is so much more satisfying when I’m lying on a highland hillside, gazing across a view of corrie and mountain and crag, listening to the primeval roar of rutting stags or the orchestrations of a tumbling burn. It’s here, on the hill, that I can add a dash of ice cold water, straight from a highland spring, just to release the flavour and complexities of the whisky itself.
As far as I’m concerned there are only three ways to drink whisky – neat, with a dash of water or with a lump of ice, (although this decreases the temperature of the whisky and inhibits some of the characteristics). I suspect those who drink whisky with lemonade or Coca Cola are simply trying to hide the taste of the whisky, and might be better trying something else, like vodka or gin.
I very rarely drink whisky during the day – for me it’s a ritual that heralds the end of the day, a bedtime luxury that is as soothing and relaxing as anything I know, and as I slowly sip that golden liquid as day turns to night, as the shadows lengthen across the hillside, I become aware that God is in his heaven and all is well on the land, just like the Celtic monks of old.
First published in the Scots Magazine