1759 – 1796
Burns life was intertwined with whisky, going from being one of Kilbagie’s best customers to the other extreme of becoming an excise man.
Burns poem ‘The Jolly Beggars’ (1785) mentions “that dear Kilbagie” and vividly depicts the revelries of the lower orders at Poosie Nansies Tavern and Brothel. He described the establishment as “the favoured resort of lame sailors, maimed soldiers and vagabonds of that description”.
He goes on to describe Kilbagie’s whisky as “most rascally liquor and in consequence only drunk by the most rascally part of the inhabitants” and the happiness of getting ‘blin fou for four pence‘. A fair description of Kilbagie’s whisky would be fire water that was drunk for effect not quality.
Burns yardstick for a good whisky was that it could bear dilution by five times its bulk of water for a strong toddy or six times for an ordinary toddy. It is thought he visited Kilbagie on several occasions in 1787 during the brief period that he lived near Kennetpans.
Burns poem ‘The Author’s Earnest Cry and Prayer’ was in response to the 1786 Scottish Distillery Act ended with the famous line
“Freedom an’ whisky gang thegither! Take aff your dram!”
It is believed Burn’s inspiration for the beautiful witch ‘Nannie’ in ‘Tam O Shanter’ was a friend of the bard called Katie Stein who was related to the Stein Whisky Dynasty. The story line is based on an old Scottish legend that a drunk ‘Tam‘ witnesses a group of witches dancing around a fire in a church yard.
Tam notices a young beautiful witch amongst the dancers as they strip off their clothes until dressed only in a short shirts, the ’Cutty Sark’. The witches pursue Tam, now on horseback, as he approaches a river. Nannie grabs the horse’s tail which comes off in her hand. Tam makes his escape.
His poem ‘Scotch Drink’ was composed to celebrate the “juices of the barley” meaning whisky and her fermented sister, ale. Burns mentions one of the most famous whiskies of this period – Ferintosh. The verse starting with “thee Ferintosh o sadly lost” is a referral to the 1784 Wash Act that withdrew the duty free distilling privilege granted to Duncan Forbes of Culloden for his loyalty to the government and as compensation for the burning down of his distillery in a Jacobite attack. This withdrawal of duty free distilling lead to the closure of Ferintosh.
Burns ill-fated ventures as a farmer left him disillusioned and just before his twenty ninth birthday he started his new career as an exciseman or gauger. In September 1789 he was appointed Excise Officer for Dumfries and in February 1792 he was promoted to the Dumfries Port Division. This appointment carried a salary of £50 per annum – twice the average wage. There is some evidence to suggest he was not 100% comfortable in his profession as illustrated in his poem
‘The Deil’s awa wi’ the Exciseman’ (The Devils away with the Exciseman).