By Fraser Campbell
It is truly amazing how a few invisible lines on a map can cause belligerent arguments at the pub, or you know, full-scale invasions with swords and muskets. Whisky regionality has not only lumped entire swathes of land with a singular whisky-producing style but has also created debate around the true origins and location of the Scottish Highlands and Lowlands, with the true borders and origins of Speyside sitting at the heart of it all.
Despite a long-fabled history of illicit distilling since the 16th century and a reputation as one of the most prominent whisky-producing regions in Scotland, Speyside has only been classified as such since 2014 by the Scotch Whisky Association. Distilleries such as Glenfarclas and Macallan have, however, clung to their historic whisky-making roots proclaiming themselves as a ‘Highland Single Malt’ on their labels. So, going by that rationale, Speyside in its entirety originally should belong to the Highlands, right? Or shall we pull the rug from under you and tell you that much of Speyside is originally rooted in the Scottish Lowlands.
One of the most prominent decisions in the history of Scottish whisky was, without question, the Wash Act of 1784. An invisible line cutting across the Central Belt from the mouth of the river Clyde over to the mouth of the River Tay, for the purposes of leveraging excise on distilleries and the amount of spirit they could produce. A taxation border dividing the North (Highlands) and South (Lowlands), gave birth to whisky regionality as we know it today. However, the maps that came before 1784 tell an entirely different story of the Highland and Lowland divide.
The first mapping of Scotland occurred in the mid-1700s, after the Jacobites had repeatedly trounced the Redcoats due to their superior knowledge of the Scottish Highland terrain. The British government decided to map out the whole country to try to give them the upper hand, which took a very modest 13 years to complete (no drones in those days!) Roy’s Military Map of Scotland was the first iteration of the Ordnance Survey maps we all know and use today when trying not to get lost in the hills.
The early versions of these maps show a distinct divide called ‘The Boundary of the Highlands’, which cuts up and around the Grampian mountains, dividing the NortNortheasth east coast from the central highlands, and even as far north as Caithness. This invisible line separated the more coastal parts of Murray’ (Morayshire) and ‘Bamf’shire’ (Banffshire) from its more mountainous southern regions. Ultimately, Speyside as we know it today was born of both the Highlands and the Lowlands.
Following this division of high-land and low-land from a military perspective, it made it easier for the British troops to strategise when staging the infamous Highland Clearances from 1750 to 1860. This resulted in the Western Gaelic-speaking Highland populous decreasing vastly, many migrating to America or to the Scottish Lowlands as the employment prospects that came with Industrialisation and, by that stage, legalised whisky making increased.
So depending on who you are talking to the next time you visit Elgin to go and see Glen Moray distillery, you will be in either the Highlands, the Lowlands, or Speyside. As long as you’ve got a tasty dram in hand and you end up in the pub with good company, you’ll be in the right place either way.