A Wee Drappie o’t

Walter Scott had a poor head for drink but quaffed it in quantities


Although Sir Walter Scott had exceptional powers of imagination, it seems that his physical sensitivities were extremely dull. He was indifferent to music, perhaps to the point of being tone-deaf. His sense of smell was, like his sense of musical tone, almost non-existent. At Abbotsford when over-hung venison was inadvertently served to his guests, Scott greeted their consternation with an expression of utter bemusement. He could not tell good wine from corked, either by taste or smell, and relatively simple discriminations­ — for instance, distinguishing Madeira from sherry — were beyond him.

Given these deficiencies in bodily equipment, it is not surprising that, although Scott was a devoted drinker, his taste in wine was narrow. “My epicurean pleasure,” he would note in his journal, “is in the most simple diet. Wine I seldom taste when alone and use instead a little spirits and water. I have late diminished the quantity for fear of a weakness inductive to diabetes, a disease which broke up my father’s health though one of the most temperate men who ever lived.” He was certainly susceptible to feeling disordered in the morning. “My head aches slightly,” he noted after one party, before adding in mild puzzlement: “Yet we were but a bottle of Champagne, one of port, one of old Sherry and two of claret among four gentlemen and three Ladies.” On another occasion three years before his death Scott had dinner with two friends, and was again disappointed in his stamina the following day: “We drank a bottle of Champagne and two bottles of claret, which in former days I should have thought a very sober allowance . . . But I felt I had drunk too much and was uncomfortable.” Diminishing capacity for wine seemed to him a harbinger of the end: “I suppose I am turning to my second childhood for not only am I filld drunk or made stupid at least with one bottle of wine but I am disabled from writing by chillblains on my fingers, a most babyish complaint.”

Champagne and claret were Scott’s customary table wines, and though he was careful himself he refused to stint his guests, allowing a pint of claret to each when the cloth was withdrawn. But even then he preferred whisky, which he would drink from a quaigh — a Highland wooden cup, inlaid with silver — with a very special provenance. It had formerly been owned by Bonnie Prince Charlie, and had been curiously adapted to the perilous situation of its former owner. Its bottom was made of glass, so that the person using it might still keep a wary eye on his companion. During his Mediterranean tour in the final year of his life Scott visited Naples, but was not impressed by the local wine: “The country on which these hills border is remarkable for its powers of vegetation and produces vast groves of vine, elm, chestnut and similar trees which grow when stuck in by cuttings and produce lacrymae christi in great quantities — not a bad wine though the stranger requires to be used to it.”

Every autumn, around the birthday of his eldest son on October 28, Scott would organise the Abbotsford Hunt, in which he and his friends would course hares over the local moors before returning to Abbotsford for an extraordinary feast, described with relish by Lockhart:

a baron of beef at the foot of the table, a salted round at the head, while tureens of hare soup and hotch-potch extended down the centre, and such light articles as geese, turkeys, a sucking-pig, a singed sheep’s head, and the unfailing haggis, were set forth by way of side dishes. Blackcock and moorfowl, bushels of snipe, black puddings, white puddings, and pyramids of pancakes, formed the second course.

But when it came to drink to accompany all this mass of food, wine played only a minor role. The decanters made a few rounds of the table, but other drink was really the order of the day-ale, port, sherry, and above all whisky and hot punch. One might assume from this that Scott did not purchase much wine, but in fact he did. When he moved from Edinburgh to Abbotsford in 1826 his servant Dalgleish remembered packing up the old cellar ready for its journey south:

At the time we was removing the wine out of the seller in the town house to be sent to Abbotsford, Sir Walter cumes down to see how I was getting on.

“Have you any notion what quantity of wine there will be?”

“I cannot answer your question just now, Sir Walter, but I am keeping a correct account of the dozens as I pack them up.”

“Verrey good, but you must not taste ower often, or then you will be apt to forget.”

“Well, Sir Walter, I have packet up a good many dozens already, and I have not tasted yet, but as you are here, if you have no objections, we will have a tasting.”

“No, no, I have no objections.”

So drawing a bottle of white wine, and offering him the furst of it, he just put it to his lips and said “It would be a very poor cellar if it could not afford a little to support you when you was working so hard.”

On that day Dalgleish recorded packing up 350 dozens of wine and 36 dozens of spirits to be transported to Abbotsford. Nevertheless, he also recorded of Scott that “all the seven years I was in his service I never seed him the least the worse of licure.”

Dalgleish’s memory of Scott’s just putting the bottle to his lips but not taking a deep draught is characteristic. Scott valued wine not sensually, but rather for its social consequences, as when it allowed him that moment of fellowship and equality with his servant, or as he recalled after an election at Jedburgh in May 1826:

We had a good Dinner and excellent wine . . . Without being a veteran Vice a Grey Iniquity like Falstaff, I think an occasional jolly bout if not carried to excess improved society. Men were put into a good humour “when the good wine did its good office”; the jest, the song, the speech had double effect; men were happy for the night and better friends ever after because they had been so.

Wine was not a great bodily pleasure for Scott — if anything it was a source of bodily discomfort. But he recognised a “glass of good wine” to be “a gracious creature [which] reconciles poor mortality to itself, and that is what few things can do.”

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