The Whisky Island Trail

The Island Whisky Trail: Neil Wilson (Angel Share Publishing: ISBN 1-903238-49-8)

A book dedicated to whisky, sea and history. I’m interested in two of those, and as the song says, two out of three aint bad. From the first glance I would imagine the book is aiming for more easy reading audience. The front cover is glossy, the inside filled with photos and plenty of white space used to make the layout more visually appealing.

A quick glance shows that the chapters are broken up into a general history introduction to the whisky islands of Scotland, then a chapter dedicated to each island, then appendices at the end.

Oddly then the writing style seems to eschew that easy reading style for quite a formal style, a significant amount of page count is dedicated to respective prices paid, date ranges of various ownerships, numbers of people in the area or employed. All information that would not seem out of place in a more serious history text book. The appendices reinforce this with long lists of names of people who illicitly distilled whisky and their locations.

The opening chapter is probably the most interesting read, detailing many historical events including closely missed massacres on the islands, and theatrical power plays to catch the illicit distillers. It is this more humane element I find missing from the later chapters. The details are there, but delivered very dryly. There is a line saying “To see Jim at work at one of his masterclasses is to witness a real expert”, and a further paragraph extols the fascination Jim McEwan weaves, but no part of the text captures that fascination. Similarly it counters the line “The characters have gone from this trade” by saying “he cannot have been referring to his own workmates, in particular “The Gow”, Hamish Gillespie, stillman”, but fails to give us any insight into why this person is such a character.

The book is good at telling us things are interesting, but often bad at showing them, which can make for hard reading at times. The actual detail is impressive, and from the bibliography it seems well researched (Though I have not the knowledge myself to gainsay it), but it does not inspire the wonder that the Islands deserve. Even the many photos seem quite lacking in depth, which robs the landscapes of their majesty.

Odder still, for a book about the Island Whisky Trail, there is little on the actual whisky itself. Much on the production, the business and the history, but a few scant notes on the changing nature of the whisky, sometimes noting change in the harshness or booming quality by becoming “emasculated”, but without any real feel of connection to the spirit. In fact one comment on a “still with a forked head!” seems to demand further explanation, and notes on the effect that had on the spirit – but none is given. Maybe none was available from historical texts on which they would rely for that detail.

So it is a book on facts and figures, on relationships and business deals, the background rather than the whisky itself. As that sort of reference text it is one that whisky historians will find a useful document, it has a significant listing of now deceased still distilleries, and details of illicit distillers. It covers chapter and verse the economic highs and lows, though due to the break down of chapter by island it can get repetitive, with prohibition, and the world wars having a very similar effect in each chapter for example. Despite that the information in the book is useful, and there are occasionally turns of phrase in a tale that bring a bit of life, such as the musical use of skulls under the floorboards given in one chapter. There are many more details that are given that feel like it should give it life, but somehow and delivered too dryly to accomplish that.

A well research and detailed reference text, but not one for easy reading times.