Monday, 11 November 2013

The Landscape and Drink

I'm not claiming that in Dumfries and Galloway more drink is taken than in any other part of Scotland because in truth we are a nation that likes it's drink and our region just forms part of the great liquid heritage that is Scotland's history. However, as befits a frontier area,  we've done more than our bit. After all wasn't it at the Mull of Galloway that the last Pict with the secret of heather ale jumped into the sea rather than give the secret to the Romans? And what resulted from that? Drinking heather ale the Roman Legions would surely have been able to gub the Goths and the Vandals and all these other tribes over the Danube and perhaps we would all still be Romans, eating quail and rubbing our chins with pumice stones. Would that be good? Let me have another pint and think about it.

Carting booze around the region especially without paying duty was a popular and life threatening pastime for many years, and the proliferation of unlicensed drinking establishments gave a ready market. When Burns was an exciseman he visited Penpont which now doesn't even have a single pub but then had 9. He was beaten up for his snooping, quite rightly. In 1716 there were no less than 91 brewers in Dumfries. An early 19th century street plan of Dumfries shows more than 30 pubs or premises selling booze in Queensberry St alone.

Though the number of pubs declined the regions love affair with alcohol continued. Even after the Defence of the Realm Act in 1915 when pub opening hours were restricted to stop munitions workers falling steaming in the cordite, folk found a way round it. England's more relaxed licensing laws, at least until the 1970s, meant that people in some parts of the region were well placed to slip across the border for that vital last half hour's boozing. And not in small numbers. The Gretna munitionettes, there in huge numbers to save the nation during World War One, took to the train to Carlisle for a drink on a Friday or Saturday night. Trouble was the train arrived 5 minutes before closing time.  Sometimes the  train drivers were bribed to leave early but the barmen of Bousted's Bar in Carlisle knew to start    pouring and lining up a thousand whiskies on the bar before all these thirsty women arrived.

Where the workers boarded the train at Eastriggs
Others were prepared to risk their lives. After the giant Solway viaduct was shut to rail traffic, a guardhouse and gates had to be constructed to stop folk running the mile and a half across the Firth to more liberal drinking hours. People dying for a drink.

Although the pubs are fewer the thirst remains. Of course alcohol abuse is a terrible curse and drain on the NHS but human beings and drink are involved in a historical romance which continues to this day. Last night in Thornhill we were drinking our way through some of the gantry in the historic Farmers Arms, and swapping some drinking anecdotes but most were either litigious or not very savoury.
 My favourite story involves a visitor to Dumfries who was staying at the house of a resident and who set off on his own one October evening to explore. The next morning when he surfaced he told a story of the pub he ended the night in. He couldn't recall the name he said but there was a horse on the sign, there was a folk band, a beautiful girl, a roaring fire and he'd won £30 worth of tokens all of which he'd spent on drink and his new friend. He couldn't wait to go back and meet her. Of course, he couldn't find it because no such pub existed. Was it drink conflating three separate pubs together? Or was it a supernatural experience? Or was he just raving drunk? The friend and resident, from whom I gathered this tale, said he had persisted stubbornly in this delusion, even sending in an envelope a small silver fruit machine token he'd found at the bottom of his pocket. Needless to say it didn't fit any of the fruit machines his friend could find in the town.

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