Water of Life

03 17 james iv of scotlandToday, I get to mention James IV of Scotland again, which is lovely because he’s one of my favourite kings. Amongst his revenues and expenses is a small entry for June 1st 1495. It is written in Latin, but translates as:

“To brother John Cor, by order of the King, to make aqua vitae VIII bols of malt.”

This might not sound very significant, but it is cited as the first ever historical mention of Scotch Whisky. ‘Aqua vitae’ is a Latin translation of the Gaelic ‘uisge beatha’ and both mean water of life. It is easy to see how the word ‘uisge’ has become ‘whisky’.

There is relatively little to know about Friar John. He was a monk at a monastery in Fife called Lindores Abbey. We know that in 1488 the king had given him fourteen shillings on Christmas day and that at Christmas in 1495, he was given black cloth to make livery clothes as he was a clerk in royal service. He was probably an apothecary.

06 01When I tried to find out how much a boll weighed, the answer seemed rather vague. A boll was a dry weight measure. You could measure in chalders, bolls, firlots, pecks and lippies. How much it was depended on what you were measuring, but most reckon a boll of malt was around 140 lbs. So that’s quite a lot. The amount of whisky today’s distillers could make from eight bolls of malt is anything up to 1500 bottles. So we can conclude firstly that, to use such a large quantity, the monks knew what they were about and had already been making it for quite some time. Secondly, we can conclude that James IV really needed a lot of it.

Of course he probably didn’t drink it all himself. It could have been used to disinfect wounds. James had an interesting sideline as an amateur dentist, so perhaps he gave his patients a swig before he pulled out their teeth for them. It may even have been used as embalming fluid. But another thing we know about James IV was that he was very keen on alchemy. Alchemists were extremely fond of distilling. In their quest to get at the essence of things, they distilled pretty much everything they could get their hands on. Aside from turning lead into gold, one of the their most important goals was the secret of prolonging life, perhaps indefinitely. Distilled alcohol was great for preserving herbs, fruit and meat, so maybe it could do the same thing for the living tissue of the human body. It was a magical fluid. A cold substance that made you warm. It seemed to combine the two elements of fire and water and it definitely had a seemingly magical effect on both the body and the mind.

We don’t know what happened to Friar John, but in 1505 King James granted the Barber Surgeons of Edinburgh a monopoly on the production of Whisky. As a drink for humans it was thought to be medicinal and useful against all sorts of things from colic to smallpox.

Incidentally, the first mention of whiskey in Ireland is earlier, in 1405. It involves a chieftain named Richard Magrannell who died one Christmas after he drank too much of it. So clearly, the water of life wasn’t for everyone. Aqua Vitae turns up in some alchemical recipes as one of the main ingredients for making a ‘quintessence’, the fifth element that would cure all ills and make us immortal. And we definitely know that King James and his unusual friend John Damien were working on that between 1501 and 1508. The other key addition seems to have been horse dung, so I think maybe I won’t bother.


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