Six Scottish whisky legends and stories

The world of Scotch whisky is one filled with mystery, rich history, romance and sometimes mild peril.

Published 19th May 2015
Updated 21 st Sep 2023

So, it'll come as no surprise to find that there are some great stories, myths and legends surrounding the uisge beatha.

Here are six of the best:

Byeway the Glenrothes distillery ghost

As an orphaned child found under a bush on a track in Africa during the Boer War, Biawa "Byeway" Makalaga was rescued at the turn of the 20th Century by Colonel Grant of Rothes who took him back to Scotland. When he grew up, he became the Colonel's helper and was a well known and loved figure in Rothes, at one stage playing for the village football team.

Seven years after his death in 1972, following the installation of a new pair of stills at the distillery, the ghost of Byeway was said to have appeared on two separate occasions in the still room. Nothing sinister happened but sufficient concern was caused, which in turn encouraged the calling upon of Cedric Wilson, a university professor to investigate.

Wilson arrived and stood for some minutes outside the distillery's neighbouring cemetery in silent contemplation. He then went straight to a single gravestone some 70 yards from the distillery. He appeared to be talking to the deceased. After a few minutes he returned announcing that the issue could be amicably resolved by the correction of the placing of the stills. Apparently Wilson had discussed the matter with Byeway at his grave and found that his restlessness was down to the misalignment of the stills. Byeway apparently feared this would affect the spirit produced.

The stills were duly fixed and the ghost of Byeway has not been seen since and as a sign of respect it has become a tradition at the distillery to 'Toast to the Ghost' with a dram of The Glenrothes. (Source: Glenrothes distillery)

Picture: Yves Cosentino\Flickr

The White Stag of Arran

The story of the white stag is also well known to the inhabitants of Arran. Standing proud and tall, this almost ghostly creature has been spotted throughout the island down the centuries. Whether it is the same stag or not is impossible for people to say, but many say that it is.

It has long been recognised that good fortune and luck come to those who spy the white stag and many look for it when they visit. The white stag is the king of all the deer that live on the island - of which there are many - and young stags compete to challenge this monarch during rutting season.

As yet undefeated the white stag retains first choice of the island’s hinds and is often spotted with four or five doe in its company. On the morning that Arran Distillery opened, the white stag was spotted in the meadow in Lochranza overlooking the new distillery building. It was seen by the distillery manager and head distiller and has brought them good fortune ever since. (Source: Arran whisky)

Picture: Flickr

Picture: Bill Hinton\Flickr

Dougal and the Giant of Atholl

A long time ago, a great giant was said to terrorise the land of Atholl (what is now the upper parts of Perthshire). The giant – creatures that were apparently a common problem in those days – had nothing but contempt for humans and would often steal cattle. Worse, the giant would empty any grain stores he found, filling his great sack and leaving entire communities to struggle to survive through winter.

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Fed up with the constant predations of this bothersome giant, Dougal, a young hunter from one of the many clachans surrounding the giant’s glen, hatched a daring plot to rid the lands of this nuisance.

Dougal was smart enough to know that to fight the creature head on would be foolish, as many had tried and their bodies were by now scattered across the glens.

Instead, Dougal sneaked down to where the giant kept his ill-gotten gains, finding there sacks of oats, jars of honey and incredibly, several small casks of whisky.  It was then he began to formulate a plan.

Using his knife he cut open the sack of oats, he poured them into what was clearly the giant’s drinking cup (a hollowed out boulder that rested before a stone well), before adding the honey and both of the casks of whisky.

Coming across this bountiful surprise the giant drank his fill, and eventually fell asleep beneath an ancient oak tree. Seeing his chance, Dougal slipped out from his hiding place beneath the sacks of oats and slew the giant as he slept.

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Dougal returned to his homestead as a hero and his recipe for the Atholl Brose was passed on from generation to generation.

The Highlander and the Devil

A few centuries ago a young Highlander called Tom Campbell left his home in Wester Ross to become a sailor as many of his kinsmen did in those days.  Joining a ship in Ullapool, Campbell travelled far and wide before returning home to Wigtown where, falling in love with a local girl, he decided to settle down and raise a family.

Tom took a job with the local blacksmith and soon, he and his wife had three lovely bairns. Now Tom, being a Highlander and all, was fond of the usige beatha and would often take in a nip or two when he had finished a hard day of work.

And hard work it was, for the town had become besieged by a plague and Tom was one of the few able bodied men left who hadn't succumbed to the sickness. Following a late shift Tom stopped at the local tavern and purchased a bottle of the finest whisky he could afford, in fear that he would have to spend more time at home should the plague worsen.

Before he left he held a toast saying: "The plague is devil's work right enough! But he'll not get the better of me!"

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On his way home, the way was dark and only the light of the full moon gave him any bearing. Suddenly, he heard a coarse laugh and turned to find himself facing what he had at first mistook for a Highland coo but in fact out to be the devil himself.

"Tom! I hear you have been having a laugh at my expense! Now it is time to pay." He let out a huge roar, intended to cow the young man. However, he had misjudged the Highlander.

"Och it's you," Tom said,"I expected more to be honest. Will you take a drink?"

With that Tom pulled from his coat his fine bottle of whisky and offered it to the Devil. Tom didn't know what sort of spirit the devil was used to but the young Highlander could tell he'd never drank anything like what he was currently tasting. Before Tom knew the devil had sunk nearly half the bottle.

"Save some for me!" Tom cried and took back the bottle to sup some of the whisky himself. The devil staggered slightly and Tom thought to himself that the devil was clearly not used to imbibing the good stuff.

"Well now," boomed the devil "We will fight for your soul by the code of the cothrom na feinne, the fair play of the Fianna."

By this he meant the ancient Highland code of fair combat. Tom nodded and the devil continued, "If I win, your soul will be mine."

"And if I win?" Tom asked, to which the devil smiled, confident that the Highlander would lose.

"Unlikely, but name your prize."

Tom continued: "If I win, you will remove the plague and leave the people of this area alone."

The devil agreed and the two squared up to wrestle. Tom had a few inches on his nefarious opponent but the devil had the greater bulk. The two wrestled for hours and Tom took strength from the sips of whisky he had consumed, while the devil seemed to be struggling with the effects of drinking so much of the powerful spirit.

Finally, as the dawn's light began to shine and the two wrestled on the beach, the devil's foot slipped and Tom tossed him onto his back. The Highlander let out a loud whoop of celebration and the devil cursed before disappearing.

Exhausted, Tom slumped to the ground and, taking a final swig from his bottle, he passed out. He was awoken hours later by the local priest who had been searching for him with Tom's wife. The priest tried to raise him as his wife approached.

"This is a double boon indeed," the priest cried, "for we have found your husband!"

"Double boon?" Tom asked groggily, as his wife hugged him.

"The plague, my dear man, it lifted this morning, the people are no longer sick!"

Though none believed him, Tom knew that, with the help of the uisge beatha, he had bested the devil that night and saved the people of Wigtown. (Source: Stuart McHardy)

A fateful meeting on Islay 

An unnamed  ileach (resident of Islay) who had been known to make whisky for years, had become tired of avoiding the gaugers (excise men) and decided to give up his life of illicit distilling.

The man carried out his distilling in the hills which abound the Glen Road on the south east side of the island. His hideout was also a cave right in the heart of the hills from whence he carried his whisky and sold it to local buyers on the quiet.

One day he took the last lot of whisky which was in a hidden keg under his arm, crossed through the hills and was stepping on to the road when he was apprehended.

The carriage had come on him unaware and he had no chance to run and hide, so he decided to brazen it out.

He knew an excise officer when he saw one and went boldly forward to meet him. The officer, clearly surprised to see him, asked him where he was going and why he was carrying a keg of whisky under his arm?

The man replied that a few years ago he made his own whisky but since the new distilling laws came to force, the time had come for him to destroy his still and do away with the whisky he had in hand. "I am now," he says, "on my way to the village of Bowmore to hand over this keg to the Excise Officer and to inform him that I shall never make any more whisky again."

The officer congratulated him on his honesty and informed him that indeed he was the Excise Officer from Bowmore.

The Ileach put on an act of surprise and was going to hand over the keg with great reluctance when the following words stopped him.

"Well, my honest man, you have said that you are going to Bowmore. Would you kindly go to my house and deliver that keg to my wife and put it under the bed beside the other one I have there."

He received a tip and kindly gesture from the officer, so off he went to Bowmore and sold the keg of whisky to a buyer he knew well.

Next he went to the Excise house where he knocked at the door and humbly told the good lady that he met her husband on the road and that he told him to collect the keg of whisky for him that was upstairs under the bed.

"My good man, come in and go upstairs, for the keg will be too heavy for me to handle." He went upstairs, collected the keg and was warmly thanked by the good lady who graciously handed him a tip for all his trouble.

Disbelieving of his luck, he promptly sold the keg of whisky and disappeared into the hills where he came from. Of course, the exciseman tried to trace he was nowhere to be found. (Source: The Islay blog)

The open moors and rugged hills.  Picture: Becky Williamson\

Being late for one's own funeral

In Scotland, it is customary for a fair amount of whisky to be consumed at a funeral, which often leads to quite spirited services.  Indeed, the custom has even led to the saying 'A Scottish funeral is often merrier than an English wedding.'

In the years before motorised transport, the recently deceased would be carried from their homes to the local kirk, and funerals would often involve the entire community, who would share drams and stories of the recently departed as the coffin was carried along on its fateful journey.

One such funeral was that of Miss Jessy Colquhoun of Angus. The community had gathered to see her off and the men had raised her coffin to carry her to the kirkyard.

Led by her brother Jamie, the men set off on the four mile journey to the kirk. In those days, it was customary for the men to stop at each inn they passed to toast the deceased and to take a rest before resuming the journey.

At each stop the coffin would be laid upon Lecker stanes, flat stones designed for just such a job. The funeral party set off at just after noon and made a stop at each of the three inns on the way to the kirk.

Arriving at the kirkyard and now nearing sunset, Jamie apologised to Auld Tam the gravedigger for being late, swaying slightly as he did so.

Auld Tam nodded before saying: "That's aw very well but where's Miss Jessy?"

Jamie turned to look at the party, which by now had swelled to almost a hundred strong, only to realise they'd left the coffin at the last inn. Six of the youngest (and soberest) boys were dispatched with haste to retrieve her.

It is from this story that many believe the phrase 'being late for one's own funeral' arose. (Source: Stuart McHardy)

Driven by a passion for all things drinks-related, Sean writes for The Scotsman extensively on the subject. He can also sometimes be found behind the bar at the world famous Potstill bar in Glasgow where he continues to enhance his whisky knowledge built up over 10 years advising customers from all over the world on the wonders of our national drink. Recently, his first book was published. Dubbed Gin Galore, it explores Scotland's best gins and the stories behind those that make them.
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