The little-known story of the man who wrote one of Scotch whisky’s most important books.
Recently, the singer Shirley Collins was described as being a ‘radical traditionalist’, which seems a somewhat paradoxical statement. Tradition, after all, is permanent, unchanging, the sound of the past being handed down through generations. It is sober, constant, conservative even, built in established truths.
Radicalism, on the other hand, challenges everything that tradition stands for. It is innovative, iconoclastic, edgy.
Yet Shirley Collins is just that. She has just released her first new record for 38 years – Lodestar – and at the age of 81. Her singing is deeply embedded in tradition, but has never been purist or restrictive. Rather it has always seemed to exist in a different timeframe, simultaneously modern and ancient while being neither.
It is ‘folk’ in the sense of ‘folk tale’, a fabulous place of metaphor and symbolism; a place of death and blood; betrayal and love; murder and innocence; celebration and nonsense. It is unadorned, but never simple. She doesn’t sing as much as let the song possess her, allowing those old words and music to rest gently in the air, slowly altering your perceptions. Radical, yes, but traditional.
Golden Decanters: Is the independent bottler really challenging the norms of Scotch?
While listening to it, I remembered something which Eriko Horiki had said to me earlier in the year. She is an extraordinary, Kyoto-based artist who has taken Japanese paper-making (washi) into the world of fine art and sculpture. ‘Hand crafts like washi were innovative,’ she said. ‘That is why they have lasted for 1,500 years. Nothing can last without innovation.’
In other words, to maintain a tradition you have to be radical. Tradition has to adapt, be open to new voices, and needs to change while being respectful. There’s a lesson there for Scotch, surely?
Maybe, but maybe not one everyone has learned, as it was around the same time that I made this connection between the two women that news of the launch of Golden Decanters emerged.
I know Richard has dealt with the issues surrounding their price in his usual perceptive fashion, but that wasn’t my concern. Instead, it’s the firm’s claim that they were ‘tired of tradition, tartan and twee’ and as a result had commissioned Glasgow-based textile designers Timorous Beasties to create the aforesaid decanters.
The fact that Famous Grouse had worked with the design firm a few years ago was not an issue. I’m a fan of the studio’s work, which challenges norms and takes a tradition forward. They came to people’s attention with their ‘Glasgow toile’ fabric, which on first glance is an accurate recreation of 18th-century French toile with its scenes of rural life.
On closer examination, the figures in the Beasties version were junkies shooting up in graveyards. Radical? Yes, but within a tradition.
The Golden Decanters are anything but. Their scenes of shooting, fishing, golfing and, er, a Heilan coo are the very symbols of the Balmorality*, which has ossified so many parts of Scottish culture for the past 170 years.
Whisky prospers when it challenges tradition, questions the norm and takes it gently forward. It respects the past, but sees the need for change. It succeeds when it has the same mindset as Shirley Collins when she allows a song to glow through her.
* Thanks to George Monbiot for the term.
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