Scotch whisky has been described as "Scotland's gift to the world", though any golfer might suggest that it's not the only one. You don't need to spend long in Scotland to realise that there is an extensive folklore, a back-story, if you like, about how such a widely-spread and large-scale industry came into being, and how it became so important to the nation. This back-story revolves around the history of illicit distilling and whisky smuggling across large parts of Scotland, and in particular across parts of Aberdeenshire, and covers the period from the mid-1600s to the early-1900s. You don't have to go far to see evidence of this, usually in the shape of the small illegal stills on display in museums, distillery visitor centres and elsewhere. It is perhaps arguable that this history may in places continue: we once arrived at a visitor attraction not long after it had opened for the day, to find the room in which it had its "display" still carried the strong and highly distinctive aroma of very recent distillation.
Because the back-story of Scotch whisky largely revolved around illegal activity, it was inevitably low-key and poorly-recorded; other than by those seeking to stop it. As a result the story has over the centuries become wrapped up in more than its share of myth. "Scotland's Secret History: The Illicit Distilling and Smuggling of Whisky" by Charles MacLean and Daniel MacCannell takes the reader past the myth and into the history of what really took place. It is a beautifully produced book that combines well-written and superbly-researched text with the copious use of high-quality illustrations. These include reproductions of contemporary paintings, old and modern photographs, drawings, and the occasional diagram and chart. They vary in size from part-page to double-page, and the effect is to break up the text beautifully and make the book far more approachable.
The two main authors each write a large section. Charles MacLean looks at the historic roots of illicit distilling and smuggling in Scotland, while Daniel MacCannell focuses on "Smuggling's Heartland: The Cabrach". The Cabrach is the remote and often upland area of Aberdeenshire in the foothills of the Cairngorms in which the illegal distillation and transport of whisky seems to have been the main driver of economic and social development for a considerable period of time. The book is compiled and edited by Marc Ellington, and as well as providing an excellent introduction, he has drawn in contributions from seven other authors. These cover particular topics of relevance, ranging from how whisky is made to the story of Scotland's (many) lost distilleries: via the legacy of the Jacobites and its influence on whisky; Robert Burns' involvement as an exciseman (and a consumer of whisky); coastal smuggling; the role of Banff in the smuggling of whisky; and more.
The end result is, like a good Scotch whisky, something to be savoured and enjoyed, rather than consumed in a single gulp.