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Issue 12 - Searching for Scotland's true spirit

Scotland Magazine Issue 12
January 2004

 

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Searching for Scotland's true spirit

Iain Banks' new book is a personal journey into Scotland's distillery hearland. Paul Schoonenberg reports

Iain Banks, the relentlessly inventive novelist, famous for his speed writing (he penned his last novel Dead Air in just six weeks), is finally taking a more leisurely approach to his work with his first piece of non fiction, Raw Spirit: In search of the perfect dram, a layman’s guide to whisky and Scotland’s distilleries.

The author travels by train, plane and automobile, meeting friends and family and exploring Scotland from the Orkney Islands to Wick on the northern seaboard and back down to his home in Fife. The research for the book took Banks nine months to complete.

You can forgive Banks his indulgence. This was his chance to relax and enjoy all his favourite aspects of Scotland – the landscapes, the empty roads and surprisingly the climate – “I’m not good in high temperatures,” he says with a touch of humour. The subject moves onto whisky rather swiftly.

It was in the mid-60s while still at school that Banks had his first taste of a dram. “I think quite a lot of people of my generation were introduced to whisky at a fairly young age. Once a year, usually around Hogmanay, the tradition was for your dad or uncle to say ‘Have a wee drop.’

“Being a kid, you’d take one taste and go ‘horrible, this is not even remotely sweet. Nothing like Irn Bru’.”

His tastes have since matured. By the end of his Scottish tour, he must have been something of an expert? He laughs. “It got to the stage when I could correct all the tour guides which obviously didn’t go down very well.”

He estimates that of the one hundred or so distilleries in Scotland, he visited about 70, quite an achievement, even for a whisky lover.

He seems slightly miffed that he hasn’t visited them all but he has a full explanation at hand when asked.

“Apart from anything else, they don’t all accept visitors”, he explains.

Highland Park in Orkney was the most northerly distillery he visited and Banks adds that if he had done the same tour next year, he would have been able to explore a new distillery even further north in Shetland.

Iain Banks was born in Dunfermline, Fife where he lived until he was nine before the family moved to Gourock on the Clyde in 1963. He worked as a clerk for IBM in Greenock and then for a year as a ‘non-destructive testing technician’ for British Steel, spending time at the Nigg Bay construction site near Invergordon, an area that was to provide him with inspiration for his 1984 bestseller The Wasp Factory.

In 1978 he travelled to America where he drove from Washington DC all the way to LA. On his return in 1980, he spent a period in London working as a costing clerk in a Chancery Lane law firm. It was there that he met his wife Annie.

“I saw this glorious blonde, round about my age, and it started off in that office way, chatting at the photocopier.”

By then, he had found his true calling as a novelist. After moving back to Scotland in 1988, Iain and Annie were married in 1992 and now live in North Queensferry, Fife.

Banks is clearly at his happiest in Scotland. “I don’t think I’d ever move now. Something very horrible would have to happen. Scotland would have to become a fascist state, in which case I’d go and live in Berwick (an English town close to the Scottish border) where you can go and watch Scottish football – it’s a beautiful area as well,” he says.

Talking about politics, Banks becomes even more animated. Politics is important to him. He recently appeared on British political debate programme Question Time.

He modestly describes his performance as “not very good” but in reality, he was eloquent and robust in his views on subjects close to his heart – namely redistribution of wealth around Britain and the Iraq War.

“Politics interests me at the one end of a barge pole. I rejoiced in 1997 when Labour came to power but I think the rot started to set in when Blair invited Mrs Thatcher round for tea...,” he jokes.

You sense that if he ever decided to take a back seat from writing, Banks would make a very good politician, following in the footsteps of other ‘second career’ politicians such as Glenda Jackson and Martin Bell.

His stance on devolution has remained positive though, despite what he sees as glitches such as the cost of building the Scottish parliament to the taxpayer.

“Other than that, it has been a good thing. It will be cumulative.

Apart from anything else, we now have to take responsibility for our own mistakes and we can’t blame the English for anything anymore,” he jokes.

After our interlude putting the world to rights, we get back to the subject that is currently consuming him – whisky.

I ask Banks which are his favourite distilleries:“ That would be Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig.

“However, the one that impressed me most in the course of the research for the book was the Glenfiddich Havana Reserve.”

Banks is starting to sound like a true expert by now as he starts to explain to me the reason for the special taste of the Havana Reserve and I feel humble and uninformed in comparison.

“It tasted very different, still like whisky but because it had been matured for about three years in a Cuban rum cask, it had a completely different taste compared to most whiskies,” he adds.

“The thing about whisky is that it takes on this character of other drinks.

“I mean if you mix sherry and whisky together, it tastes nothing like as good as whisky that has matured in a sherry cask. The same with port.”

At this point, I realise that Banks has become more of a whisky expert than even he might have realised.

As someone who has sampled the odd dram – I certainly appreciate the taste of Orkney’s famous Highland Park – I am beginning to get slightly lost as Banks explores the subtleties of his favourites and I start to see why the tour has left him filled with such enthusiasm.

I ask him whether there is any truth in the story that he penned his 1989 novel Canal Dream ‘under the influence’ of a dram?

“Yes, that’s the only book I’ve ever written under the influence.

“Whisky did come into it! I’d give up at 10pm and have a wee whisky and would keep on drinking the stuff and would end up finishing work at four in the morning.

Then I’d look at it the next morning and end up completely rewriting it! I’m still proud of it but I think it could have been better.”

Since many of his novels have been described as highly complex, he admits that by default, he will attract a different type of reader with his latest offering.

Banks accepts that this new departure into non-fiction might in fact open him up to new readers.

“The book is not just about whisky of course. It’s about me travelling around Scotland, meeting up with my friends. “I mention geographical connections as well to my friends and family.” The book is topical too.

“It was written in real time since I started it when the Iraq War began,” he says.

I ask Banks whether his travels gave him a different perspective on Scotland? He was often surprised by the warm greeting in places as far afield as Wick, on the far northern seaboard where he visited the Old Pulteney distillery.

“The people were very nice up there and very helpful. I think that working in a distillery is a job that people like doing because it is so rewarding. And there were some surprisingly good whiskies there.”

Despite being a bestselling novelist, Banks keeps a low profile;

“Although I did get mistaken for Ian Rankin once. I went to Macallan and they said “You should have one of your murder mysteries set here,” he says.

“I used to get mistaken for Irving Welsh all the time as well.”

Banks is always thinking one step ahead and some of his recent experiences will form the basis for his next or a future novel.

“The ideas usually take a long time to bed in. But on my travels, I did have this idea about an Inspector from Edinburgh who finds a body at the bottom of a stairwell...,” he says.

He then pauses for a moment and laughs: “Only joking!”