Freedom and whisky go together.
I first heard that line a few years ago at a Burns Night supper in a local pub outside Raleigh. It’s from Scottish national poet Robert “Rabbie” Burns (1759–1796), and the gathering was the annual celebration of his birthday, Jan. 25. I heard it spoken properly — Freedom and whisky gang thegither — by a master of ceremonies with a right Scottish burr.
The line gripped me immediately with the ineffable ring of truth. I thought of Prohibition right away. How could I not, especially in North Carolina, which passed its own prohibition over a decade before the Eighteenth Amendment, despite having been the nation’s leader in legal distilleries at the time. We spawned an entire sport out of distillers and distributors being able to outrun government agents.
I didn’t yet know the poem behind it, nor did I realize how its theme was playing out before me even then.
An Earnest Cry and Prayer
The celebration in Raleigh that night involved dance displays from local Celtic dance troupes, musical performances from local bands, dramatic readings of Burns’ poetry, food, and of course whisky. The highlight of the evening was a reading of Burns’ “Address to a Haggis” that concluded with a pipes and drums regiment marching in the night’s haggis.
After a dinner of neeps and tatties and haggis came a reading concluding with “Freedom and whisky gang thegither / Tak aff your dram!” followed by a toast of Scotch all around. The reading was lengthy, and it competed against a crowd grown more raucous on John Barleycorn. By which I mean they had been drinking. By they I also mean me. So I presumed what I heard above the din was an ode to whisky, just as we had earlier enjoyed an address to haggis.
Turns out the piece is not called “Ode to Whisky” or anything of the sort. Far from it. Instead, it carries the hefty and rather inscrutable title of “The Author’s Earnest Cry and Prayer, To the Right Honourable and Honourable, the Scotch Representatives in the House of Commons.”
Let a brief history suffice. Robert Burns lived during a period of great repression both in and against Scotland. He was born in 1759, thirteen years after Butcher Cumberland smashed the Jacobite rising at Culloden. After Culloden and amid Cumberland’s ongoing campaign to obliterate the Highland way of life (homes were burned, men murdered, women raped, and cattle taken), Parliament in 1747 had passed the Act of Proscription outlawing the wearing of “Highland clothes,” including the kilt, tartan, plaid, “or any part whatsoever of what peculiarly belongs to the highland garb.” Penalties for violation were severe. A first offender received six months in prison. A second offender was to be “transported to any of his Majesty’s plantations beyond the seas, there to remain for a space of seven years.” Teaching of Gaelic was also outlawed, and bagpipes were held to be instruments of war. The Heritable Jurisdictions Act in 1747 abolished judicial rights to Scots heritors, further weakening the Clan system and contributing to the Highland Clearances, waves of mass evictions from the Highlands and islands.
In short, Burns was witness to the aftermath of a slew of laws and regulations deliberately aimed at destruction — government used as a weapon against people, not an establishment for securing their Creator-given rights.
Burns grew up on his father’s farm, the oldest of seven siblings. Nevertheless, the local families including his own employed a tutor, and young Rabbie was taught to read and write. He was especially captivated by a book on William Wallace. Burns grew to hold the decided opinion that all men were created equal, a belief in steadfast opposition to that of the elitist ruling monarchy. For obvious reasons, he was supportive of the American Revolution. He was also a lover of women and whisky, both to notorious excess.
The government’s destructive meddling, meanwhile, continued. Dismay over excise tax collection led to a succession of laws to regulate and tax Scottish distilling. As is common with such overreach, however, it led to a black market and — as is also common — government officials perplexed by the unintended negative consequences of their taxation and regulation deciding that the solution was even more taxation and regulation. A proper history of Scotch will fill in fascinating details this summary leaves out.
Burns’ “Earnest Cry and Prayer” was prompted by the Scotch Distillery Act of 1786, a protectionist act on behalf of London gin distillers that hiked duties on whisky exported to England and taxed Scottish still capacity. It was a call for action to Scotland’s 45 members of Parliament from a man who knew all too well the destructive power of such acts.
Throughout his appeal, Burns challenges them, many by name, to bear witness in Parliament to the devastating impact of “that curst restriction / On aqua-vita.” He appeals to their compassion and patriotism, calls on them to stand strong, flatters them as statesmen on par with Demosthenes, prays for God’s blessing on them, and wishes the devil on any hypocrites. Here is a representative stanza (with a standard English translation):
Paint Scotland greetin owre her thrisstle;
Her mutchkin stowp as toom’s a whissle;
An’ damn’d excisemen in a bustle,
Seizin a stell,
Triumphant, crushin’t like a mussel,
Or lampit shell!
Paint Scotland weeping over her thistle;
Her English pint pot as empty as a whistle;
And damned excisemen in a bustle,
Seizing a still,
Triumphant, crushing it like a mussel,
Or limpet shell!
He asks if any Scot could fail to feel his blood boil at seeing Mother Scotland’s stills destroyed and wealth plundered, crying to the MPs:
God bless your Honors! can ye see’t,
The kind, auld, cantie carlin greet,
An’ no get warmly to your feet,
An’ gar them hear it,
An’ tell them wi’ a patriot-heat,
Ye winna bear it?
God bless your Honors! can you see it,
The kind, old, jolly matron weep,
And not get warmly to your feet,
And make them hear it,
And tell them with a patriot heat,
You would not bear it?
He reminds them of their position, their knowledge of the law, and their rhetorical skills, before declaring: “Arouse, my boys! exert your mettle, / To get auld Scotland back her kettle” and to go in haste to Parliament and “strive, wi’ a’ your wit an’ lear, / To get remead” (“strive, with all your wit and learning, / To get redress”).
In his concluding stanzas, he hails whisky as the drink of the “freeborn, martial boys” of Scotland, and he readily sees the “foe” as government: “royal George’s will.” His final lines are well founded. If tyranny is linked to the oppression of distilling, then it follows that “Freedom and whisky gang thegither.”
A Foe Lives On
There was, alas, no change in the law. Worse, it also resulted in unintended negative consequences that a subsequent act of parliamentary overkill tried to fix. The Lowland License Act of 1788 led to “bankruptcies of several of the larger Lowland distilleries” — and an open letter to the Prime Minister from Burns under the pseudonym of “John Barleycorn.”
Back in Raleigh, I was to be witness to continued government oppression, purposeful and unintended, against many elements of that Burns Night supper. The whisky we toasted with was under heavy government control, and despite several bills over the coming years to try to free liquor from state control, they would all fall in defeat. North Carolina stands as one of the 17 remaining control states for liquor even though it is a license state for beer and wine. In recent months, North Carolina has been suffering a significant liquor shortage amid problems with its state alcoholic beverage control system and state warehouse operator.
The dinner served that night was inauthentic. What the bagpipes heralded in the pub was not haggis, it was a haggis equivalent. When the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture banned the sale of sheep’s lungs (a key ingredient) in 1971, the effect was immediately to halt the import of haggis. Every year sees hopeful articles written that this will be the year the haggis ban falls, but they have all come to naught, leaving the US in the bizarre position of having a black market in haggis. In the 2000s, Nick Nairn, a Michelin-starred chef, was caught smuggling in haggis by an airport sniffer dog.
Even the pub itself is now gone. It fell victim to North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper’s idiotic lockdowns in May 2020. A public house (“pub”) for community gathering, eating, drinking, singing, dancing, even poetry reading cannot survive long trying to sell takeout fish and chips.
A final irony but an undimmed love for liberty
Poetry not being the most lucrative of professions, and farming not helping, Burns took on a job for the preservation of his young family. Shockingly, he became one of the “damn’d excisemen” — which is to say, he collected those hated taxes on distillers. Burns enthusiasts have forgiven him this seeming act of treachery, perhaps in part because he hated it, too, poking fun at his own profession in song, “The deil [Devil] cam fiddlin’ thro’ the town, / And danc’d awa wi’ th’ Exciseman.”
Or perhaps it was because he never lost his love of liberty even in service of the devil. It nearly cost him his job and maybe more. In 1859, on what would have been Burns’ 100th birthday, American abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher passed along the following anecdote:
It is peculiarly fitting that the anniversaries of Burns should be celebrated in this land of freedom and democracy, for he sprung from the people, remained to the end one of the people, and his heart was ever with the democratic institutions of the United States. …
At a private dinner, in 1793, when the host proposed the health of William Pitt, the poet said, sharply, “Let us drink the health of a greater and better man – George Washington.” The toast of Washington was not drunk, and Burns was sullen for the rest of the evening.
The year 1793 was a mere 12 years after British forces fell to Washington in the American Revolutionary War. Pitt was the prime minister. And the occasion for Burns’ counter-toast? It was an exciseman’s dinner.