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Regular blog readers will be aware that I like to have a little spooky fun at this time of year. Scotland’s distilleries are the backdrop to many strange and fascinating tales and one legend concerning Deanston distillery took me completely by surprise, linking it with one of Scotland’s most infamous murder trials.
The city of Edinburgh was a leading European centre of anatomical study in the first half of the 19th century. By 1827 however, the overwhelming demand for cadavers led to a shortfall in supply and encouraged some of the impoverished population to make money by working as Resurrection Men, or to use another term, Body Snatchers. As the public became more aware of the situation however some began to take steps to protect against it. The use of Mortsafes – metal cages that covered the burial site – became commonplace, but this only exacerbated the shortfall and created a scenario that caused some in the medical profession to become less careful in their dealings. No questions were asked so long as they got the specimens they required.
Living in the city at this time were two Irishmen by the names of William Burke and William Hare. When a lodger staying with William Burke passed away in his sleep before paying his bill, the enraged Burke consulted with his friend before the two decided to sell the body. They did business with Dr Robert Knox, a leading anatomist and fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons. At the conclusion of business the men were told that the university would be glad to see them again, should another situation arise.
A few months later, in January 1828, another lodger staying with Burke took ill and whilst the poor man was suffering from a fever and completely delirious, Burke and Hare smothered him, once again selling the corpse to Dr Knox. Thus began a series of murders that would continue for most of the year and etch the names of Burke and Hare into legend, as some of the worst serial killers ever to carry out their foul deeds in Scotland.
A total of 16 people were killed, the last of whom was a middle-aged woman called Margaret Docherty. A couple by the names of Ann and James Gray were lodging with Burke at the time, but he paid them to spend the night at Hare’s house before luring Margaret to his home with the promise of alcohol. When the woman was in a stupor, Burke and Hare murdered her and hid the body in a pile of straw. The next day when Burke was out, his lodgers returned and discovered the body. On their way to raise the alarm they ran into Burke’s wife, Helen McDougal, who attempted to buy their silence with the offer of £10 a week. They refused and soon the murderers and their wives were in police custody.
As was the custom at the time, one of the perpetrators was offered immunity from prosecution if they would testify against their accomplices. Said to be “illiterate and uncouth” and very likely led by his friend’s wily nature, Hare was chosen as the best option. He confessed to everything and whilst the charges against the two women were found “not proven”, Burke was found guilty and sentenced to death. On the morning of 28 January 1829 he was hanged in front of a large crowd, some 25,000 strong. Afterwards his body was publicly dissected and his skeleton donated to the Anatomical Museum of the Edinburgh Medical School, where it remains on display today.
Hare was released and advised to head for the English border. Despite being threatened and harassed by an angry mob, he eventually escaped into anonymity. So too his wife Margaret, who was commanded to make for Glasgow in order to find passage to Ireland.
Helen McDougal, wife of the executed William Burke was released and went home. The following morning she went out to buy a bottle of whisky only to find a baying mob waiting for her. She took refuge in a local police station but had to escape through a rear window when the crowd laid siege to the building. The next day she left Edinburgh forever.
Little is known about McDougal in her later years but there is an abiding rumour, given some credence by historians, that she later sought employment in the Cotton Mill at Deanston. When the mill workers recognised her, they became enraged and fell upon her, beating her until she lay dead in a heap beneath the vaulted ceilings that now form Deanston distillery’s warehouses.
No-one has ever been able to confirm the accuracy of the tale, but it is said that staff have reported strange happenings when left alone in the distillery at night. Doors slam, cold spots appear and looming figures are glimpsed in the dark. Could this be the spirit of Helen McDougal, doomed to haunt the place of her violent death for eternity as some sort of penance for her involvement in the Burke and Hare murders?
This Murray McDavid Deanston was distilled in 1996. Aged first in a bourbon barrel it was then transferred to a Koval* bourbon cask for a combined total of 21 years. Bottled at 46% it retailed for around £120.
*Koval bourbon is made with 51% corn with the rest of the mashbill being made up of millet, a unique grain crop used to make distilled spirits in Nepal.
Smell: Lots of bourbon. Caramel. Vanilla. Woody spices. Honey. Orange zest. Dark chocolate. Oak. Charcoal. Buttery pastry. Currants.
Taste: Big arrival and lovely silky texture. Honey. Apple juice. Gentle baking spices and caramel. Orange marmalade. Charred oak.
Value for money: £120 seems reasonable for a single malt of 21 years. In terms of the quality of experience, this is a lovely whisky but it is very, very cask-led. It comes across more like Bourbon than Scotch at times, which is fine, so long as you like Bourbon.
In truth, the dram settles down a little over time but it could so easily have become one-dimensionally woody. Whilst bourbon is undoubtedly the dominant feature, the whole experience is complex and layered enough to be worth it and there’s just enough honeyed Deanston character shining through as to make it interesting. It is also insanely drinkable at 46% – heaven help those who bought a bottle and then had to try and make it last.
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