Douglas and the Giant of Atholl

The Scottish drink Atholl Brose, has a story to tell. Steeped in history and a dash of Scottish folklore, much of it exists in the realm where facts bleed into fiction and reality into imagination. Scottish legends can take a number of turns - romantic or gory, charming or frightening, playful or cautionary. The Scottish legend of Douglas who had slayed the Giant of Atholl is a bit of this and a tad of that.

Fact or Fiction?

By the pages of history, the drink was named after John Stewart, the 1st Earl of Atholl. In 1475, King James III of Scotland sent the 1st Earl of Atholl to squash a rebellion led by John of Inlay, the chief of Clan Donald. Brave fighting ensued on both sides and the Lord of Isles was defeated by the Earl of Atholl.

Legend has it, (and this is where things turn more interesting than just historical facts), that some unscrupulous and perhaps even downright crafty methods of gain were employed to win ground. It was noticed that the soldiers deployed by John of Inlay drank from a nearby well (one does tend to turn thirsty after a robust battle) and the Earl of Atholl hatched a plot. He sent his men in the cover of night to spike the well-water with Scotch whisky, honey and oats. The plan worked and the soldiers who drank from the well thereafter reached an advanced state of inebriation. This effectively rendered them ineffective, they were too merry to fight and the battle ended in a whimper. The Earl of Atholl quelled the chieftain’s rebellion and was hailed a hero. A daring tale of subterfuge, the Scots have it nailed!

Stuff that Legends are Made Of

The other story which circulates on the theme involves a giant. And a hunter. And a whisky-laced drink. The northern reaches of Scotland were covered by forests - the perfect home for the giants who roamed the land. Now this great giant in question was not a friendly fellow. He was given to stealing and bullying. He terrorised the local lot, robbed them of their grains, killed their cattle and made a general nuisance of himself. Not the poster-boy for good manners, one could say. With their food grains stolen, the communities of Atholl needed urgent help to survive the harsh winters of upper Perthshire. This is where Douglas, a strapping lad and hunter stepped up.

Douglas came up with a plan to rid the land of this terrible menace. Early on he realised that the giant was too brawny to be taken down physically. He would have to be tricked into submission. Douglas followed the giant to his cavern, where he had piled up his ill-gotten goods. After sticking around for three days, he found that the giant had the habit of drinking off a hollowed-out boulder, his cup for all practical purposes, each evening. Douglas stirred up a thick porridge out of the oats, honey and whisky he recovered from the cave-store. The honey must have neutralized the smell of alcohol and sweetened the drink. Upon returning, the giant guzzled it down without a thought. Now this was obviously not a very smart thing to do. One has to be spectacularly dull to have any drink that lies around, without sparing a thought to how it came to be. It should have set off the alarm bells in his head, but the giant clearly did not rate prudence as a veritable virtue. What happened next is fairly predictable. The giant fell into deep slumber, Douglas sneaked up on him and the giant was slayed in the his sleep - a textbook case of the good triumphing over evil, of light obliterating darkness, of another Scottish legend finding its way to the annals of history.

The Scotts love anything sweet and an alcoholic beverage that is as sweet as nectar ticks all the boxes. The classic ingredients that go into making the Atholl Brose are easy to come by. With generous portions of whisky, honey and heavy cream, you cannot go wrong. Avoid using peaty whisky so that it does not distract from the sweet flavour of the drink. Egg whites also feature in some recipes. The ground oatmeal needs must be soaked in whisky ( for several hours ) and strained before being added to the potent potion. As per tradition, the final mixture is stirred with a silver spoon -  perhaps the only component of the recipe less-than-convenient to source. Balance the flavours depending upon how heavy or sweet you like it. Had on festive occasions, the Atholl Brose is as Scottish as it gets. Raise a toast and tip your hat. You are in good company.