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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

The Whisky:  Highland ParkDark Origins

The Book:  Winter TalesGeorge Mackay Brown


George Mackay Brown’s bleak mid-Winter Tales, set in Scotland’s Orkney Islands, many touching on the Yuletide season, has me wishing for a warming dram of Orkney spirit.


All-natural, dark amber, not-quite mahogany in colour. (Christmas) sherry on the nose, with smoke and spice and nuts. Lovely sweetish, smokey burn on the palate. The taste of sherried spice, with earthy tones of nuts and chocolate. All in fine balance. Lingering mellow, sweet peat. (46.8% abv, non-chillfiltered, no added colour)

Highland Park is the most northerly distillery in Scotland and a landmark of the Orkney Islands where the ancestry is more Norse than Scot and a distinct, independent character prevails.


Founded in 1798, Highland Park has followed a colourful path to its present status as producer of some of the most highly regarded whisky anywhere. The distillery was founded on property formerly owned by Magnus Eunson, said to be a preacher and butcher during the daylight hours, illicit distiller and smuggler when the sun went down, which it does quite early during much of the year on Orkney. Dark Origins is homage to the man, his ominously hooded, shadowy image covering much of the whisky’s presentation box.

Here Highland Park has gone to the darker side. Inside the black matte bottle is a no-age-statement spirit, 80% matured in first-fill sherry casks (twice as many as its standard 12-year-old). It is a denser, peatier HP whisky, strongly influenced by the sherried European oak.

Yet it is Highland Park still. No ex-bourbon casks. Warehouses that use the traditional, labour-intensive dunnage method of maturation. And peat gathered from Hobbister Moor — a sweeter peat, distinctive to treeless Orkney, derived from heather and other low vegetation, rather than from trees as in Islay.

It is an experimental, range-extending, market-savvy Highland Park, but still one where quality itself is never in the dark.


George Mackay Brown is Orkney’s most famous literary figure. He was born in the town of Stromness and, except for a brief period at college on mainland Scotland, lived there until his death in 1996. He was never a well man, physically constrained by tuberculosis during much of his life. Yet, working within the solitude forced on him, he produced some of the most admired Scottish literature of the 20th century.


The collection of short stories, Winter Tales, published the year before his death, brings together some of his best short fiction. As an admiring Seamus Heaney wrote, his poetry and prose passed “through the eye of the needle of Orkney.” In these stories, some drawing on the history of the place, more confronting the impact of modern life on its traditional ways, we are immersed in the scent, the moodiness, the aura of the Islands. Hardly surprising, the stories have a folkloric, mystical, ageless quality. It is as if an Orcadian stone mason had crafted the prose, surrounded as he would be by ancient standing stones, Norse ruins, and the great fortress of the North Atlantic.

George Mackay BrownLight and darkness are major elements of the stories, as are the reoccurring rituals of the calendar year. Several of them draw to an end at Yuletide, referencing the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church, to which the author converted during the second half of his life. A favourite story is Ikey, with its 12 monthly segments that follow a tinker lad and his various encounters as he tramps about Orkney, culminating in the discovery among alehouse ruins of a shed, and from it a mother’s song and “the hidden sweet cry of the child.”

Through the 18 stories the reader turns from a recruiting visit to Orkney by Captain Bligh, to shipwrecked Scandinavians, to a wood carver escaping a nagging wife only to become a celebrated folk artist. Mackay Brown captures the timeless rhythms of human tenure on the islands, entwining his intimate knowledge of its past and present.

They are the stuff of hearthside tales, ones for which a dram of fine island spirit would only add to their telling.


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