Saturday, August 01, 2009

Scottish lessons in blending old and new with flair (August 2, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Elgin, Morayshire (Scotland): There is a charming insularity about far-flung communities that never fails to baffle the cosmopolitan traveller. My first experience of distant Scotland was on a visit to the island of Skye in 1978. Enjoying the conviviality of a local pub one evening with a group of English friends from London, we were accosted by an elderly local who was thrilled to meet an Indian from India. "An Indian saved my life in North Africa during the War," he informed me loudly and then proceeded to ply me with many rounds of the local brew. I was the first Indian he had met after returning home to Skye.

He introduced me to his friends. I tried some small talk. "Are you a local?" I asked one gnarled gentleman smoking a large pipe. "No, no," he retorted, "I live five miles away." The sense of localism may have been a little exaggerated but it did drive home the importance of truncated borders to small, compact communities.

But that was three decades ago, when the world was a larger place and when trade and communications hadn't yet fully connected Scotland to its global whisky markets. Last week, at Elgin, the main town of Speyside, the heart of whisky country, the talk centred on what locals regarded as an outrage. On July 26, some 20,000 people (a huge number by local standards) marched through the streets of Kilmarnock to protest against the decision by the international liquor conglomerate Diageo to cut 700 jobs in the plant that bottles Johnnie Walker, the world's most popular blended whisky. Led by the Scottish first minister (you could describe him as chief minister of Scotland) and local notables dressed, quite inexplicably, in ceremonial hunting gear - top hat, red riding jacket, white breeches and riding boots -the protestors stressed two things. First, that the closure would devastate the town Kilmarnock and raise local unemployment to 70%; and second, that Kilmarnock and Johnnie Walker had been linked for as long as any one could remember.

"You have got this wrong," a senior Scottish politician told Diageo, "You have underestimated the relationship between this community and wider Scotland and your industry. You have to think again."

Maybe, the adverse publicity of a move that could be regarded as transforming Johnnie Walker from a "whisky" to a "whiskey" may yet compel the company to blunt its capitalist impulses. But regardless of how Diageo responds to the tartan revolt, the transformation of a local produce into a commodity has led to a quiet recognition that small, family-owned businesses blend far more harmoniously into the local community.

This was certainly the mood in Dufftown, located some seven miles from Elgin in neighbouring Banffshire, which boasts of standing on "seven stills". Dufftown, through which the tiny river Fiddich flows, is home to Glenfiddich, the largest-selling single malt whisky in the world. For a town that has a population of barely 5,000, Dufftown is one of the top four foreign currency earners in the whole of Britain.

Selling its whisky to all corners of the imbibing world should, ideally, have globalised Dufftown. Yet, Glenfiddich remains firmly rooted to its Scottish identity. Last Tuesday's ceremonial unveiling of the 50-year-old Glenfiddich, said to be priced at an astonishing £10,000, was followed by a formal dinner that resonated Scotland. There was a wonderful recitation of Robert Burns' invocation to the haggis, bagpipers in attendance, locally-sourced salmon and venison and whisky in the traditional Quaich. The inextricable links between Glenfiddich whisky, the descendants of William Grant who still own the business and Scotland were driven home quite unambiguously. What also came through was the management philosophy of treating its employees as family: the Malt Master who evolved the 50-year-old brew had been there for 45 years and the head of the cooperage section, in charge of the wooden barrels, joined the company 48 years ago. It was their human skills and dedication that was showcased at the launch of the company's premier product.

The transition of sheltered communities into the cruel world of global capitalism is never easy. In the past, Scotland combined an adventurous population that travelled the world and created a vibrant diaspora but at the same time retained a cultural distinctiveness. Burns, haggis, whisky and history are central to the identity of Scotland. They can come into conflict with the most mindless and rootless variety of onesize-fits-all globalism.

In 50 years, Scotland has changed considerably from the wind-swept bleakness of Hitchcock's 39 Steps. It is not some oil-fired, tartan Ruritania. But the jump to modernity is that much more reassuring because it is laced with a strong sense of Scottishness - a facet of evolution its English neighbour discarded.

Sunday Times of India, August 2, 2009

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

FYI - the 'inexplicably dressed' protesters were in fact dressed so because of the logo of the brand they were protesting for. They were dressed as 'Johnnie Walker' himself!