AN ARCHAEOLOGIST recently recreated a neolithic brew based on ingredients excavated in Perthshire. The resulting ale tasted unpleasant, but clearly those who drank it originally were not put off. Ever since, the production and consumption of alcohol has been central to Scotland’s culture.
It wasn’t just home-produced brew for which Scots developed a taste. Scotland did brisk international trade exporting a wide range of goods in exchange for claret, imported from France to Leith as early as the 12th century. Subsequently, wines from Spain were landed in Dumbarton, bound for Glasgow. In the other direction, export ales were developed from the late 18th century so they remained drinkable on arrival in the colonies.
Alcohol was consumed in large quantities in Scotland until the early 20th century, when we were drinking with a gusto unmatched even today. For a long time alcoholic beverages, beer in particular, were safer to consume than drinking water, particularly in the towns, and it was often not much more expensive. Alcohol was drunk by people of all social classes and ages, including children. Drinking was an important part of Scottish life, it oiled the wheels of commerce and as well as being a crucial source of much-needed calories, alcohol was used to mark almost every ceremony imaginable; births, deaths, taking up apprenticeships and starting work. Getting drunk was a major recreational activity enjoyed in its own right. Whilst drunkenness might be frowned upon, it was still tolerated to a large degree.
Although drunken disinhibition was seen as a threat to godliness, order and decency, alcohol was also viewed as a gift from God and religious orders were involved in its production and consumption. Until the 16th century, the Archbishop appointed Glasgow’s baillies and provosts, who fixed the prices and quality of wine and ales.
This dichotomy between the pleasures and evils of drink is the faultline which runs through the history of alcohol in Scotland. Nowhere is it more apparent than in the poetry of Burns. In Tam O’Shanter, we are told of great tales of drunkenness; in Holy Willie’s Prayer there is a strong "anti- drink" sentiment;
By the end of the 18th century, the social changes arising from the industrial revolution affected the role and importance of alcohol in Scottish society. Large numbers of people moved from rural to urban settings to become part of the new industrial workforce. As a result, the traditional, informal controls which small rural communities exerted over their members’ behaviour were broken. The growing import trade and burgeoning brewing and distilling industries - early examples of entrepreneurial capitalism - meant cheap alcohol became very readily available.
Yet in an industrial environment, drunkenness became less acceptable - because it might inhibit the generation of profit as well as influence social unrest - and by the early 19th century, there was a reaction against widespread drunkenness, particularly in towns and cities where industry was forging ahead. In 1804, Thomas Trotter published part of his doctoral thesis, which was submitted to the University of Edinburgh and entitled An Essay, Medical, Philosophical and Chemical on Drunkenness. He proposed that habitual drunkenness was a "disease of the mind" and was one of the first to recognise the concept of addiction. His contribution was seized upon by the growing Temperance Movement, providing it with a rationale for publicising and tackling the evils of drink.
The Temperance Movement, an umbrella term for several different groupings, was essentially an American import and made its entry to Scotland though the ports of Greenock and Glasgow which regularly traded with the United States. John Dunlop, a Greenock magistrate and temperance reformer, described a world in which the middle classes vied with working people to create occasions for another glass. "In no other country does spirituous liquor seem to have assumed so much the attitude of the authorised instrument of compliment and kindness as in North Britain," he wrote in 1839. Around the same time, the publisher William Collins was spearheading the temperance cause in Glasgow.
Many commentators at the time regarded drink, rather than the prevailing social conditions, as the primary cause of the abject poverty they witnessed when visiting industrial towns. One visitor to Glasgow noted: "When the drunkards of Glasgow become too poor to satiate their appetite for spirits, they now resort to laudanum, which in an adulterated state is consumed in considerable quantities." Laudanum, a tincture of alcohol and opium, was widely available as a cure-all in a population which almost never consulted a qualified medical practitioner. It would have been used as a form of self-medication to cure hangovers as well as withdrawal symptoms from alcohol dependence.
By the 1840s, the Temperance Movement was gaining considerable momentum and the characteristic Scottish teetotaller would have been working class and quite possibly involved in radical social change movements such as the Chartists. It is also likely that teetotalism was worn as a badge of respectability and as a mark of trustworthiness in a time of aspiration and entrepreneurial activity. It was not until later in the 19th century that the middle classes joined the movement.
Temperance campaigners scored numerous successes in the political arena. In 1834, a Select Committee on "the extent, causes and consequences of the prevailing intemperance among the labouring classes of the United Kingdom," recommended that workers’ wages should not be paid at public houses, that duties on tea, coffee and sugar should be reduced and that alternatives to drinking alcohol should be introduced. This led to the provision of open spaces, parks and libraries by social reformers eager to improve the lot of the less well-off in addition to providing alternatives to drinking.
The Temperance Movement had its strongest links to the Protestant churches, although in 1842, Father Matthew, an Irish priest, attracted a crowd of 50,000 to Glasgow Green for a temperance rally.
Alcohol consumption decreased slightly as a consequence of the Temperance Movement’s stance, which encouraged individuals to "pledge" abstinence. This was not good news for the freshly-industrialised brewers and distillers, who had emerged from the amalgamation of many smaller cottage industries, and were beginning to exert considerable political influence.
In the mining villages of Fife, the drink trade was taken into municipal ownership, an idea borrowed from the Gothenburg Temperance Movement in Sweden. Pubs were called "Goths" and the profits derived from them provided funds to establish libraries and employ district nurses. The Forbes-Mackenzie Act of 1853 resulted in the closure of public houses at 11pm on weekdays and all day on Sundays. Two years later, the Methylated Spirit Act regulated the manufacture of meths for consumption.
While these changes were considerable victories for the Temperance Movement and evangelical Sabbatarians allied to it, reformers were open to accusations of curbing working-class enjoyment while the middle and upper classes continued to consume claret.
As the 20th century dawned, the Temperance Movement was running out of steam. Its early charismatic leadership had gone and a clearer understanding was emerging that society’s ills could not be blamed solely on alcohol. Even so, in 1913 "veto polls" were approved to allow local communities to vote for prohibition or to limit the availability of alcohol. These local referenda resulted in 41, out of 584 areas, opting for prohibition or limitation by 1920. Towns such as Kirkintilloch and Lerwick, as well as the Glasgow suburbs Cathcart, Pollokshields and Kelvinside, were "dry" for decades. The areas with the highest number of licensed premises and greatest problems were unaffected, reflecting the Temperance Movement’s failure to influence the masses in the long term.
One of the last major interventions by the Temperance Moment was the election of the only Prohibition Party MP in the general election of 1922, when Edwin Scrymgeour defeated Winston Churchill. It has been suggested the votes of newly enfranchised working-class women were crucial to the outcome although a proposed national prohibition act was soundly defeated in parliament.
For nearly a century, the Temperance Movement had been hugely influential, particularly regarding legislation and policy. By the time of the First World War, alcohol consumption had fallen, although this could be attributed to economic reasons (taxation had risen) as well as spiritual ones. Alcohol was becoming a luxury product; there was an upward blip in the roaring 20s, but alcohol consumption remained below 5 litres per head per year for most of 1916-1968.
By 1952, the British Medical Journal had consigned alcoholism to the past. The Temperance Movement had succeeded, it claimed. Half a century on, that statement looks decidedly intemperate.
• Ken Barrie is director of the University of Paisley Centre for Alcohol & Drug Studies.
It took the edge off husband's violence
MY DRINKING goes back quite a while. In between my two children, I had a miscarriage. In those days you didn’t get counselling. It was a case of: "It’s happened. Go home and try again." My second pregnancy was very difficult. Then they discovered I had cancer of the womb. I was only 32. I wasn’t even involved in the decision to have a hysterectomy. Everything was out of my control. Plus I had a violent husband.
Weekends were the worst, and I discovered that if I had a drink before my husband came home and was violent, I didn’t feel it so much. At first you don’t notice what’s happening. As an alcoholic, you are in the middle of it before you realise you have a problem. Then the guilt hits.
At my worst, I would get up in the morning and have a couple of drinks which steadied me enough to allow me to do everything. I had a phase of three hours when I was able to function. I would do the housework, washing, prepare the meal, shop and then the rest of the day was mine. I would hide bottles around the house. I started off drinking lager, but I ended up drinking vodka.
I had about 13 years of really heavy drinking. I left my husband. My children knew about my drinking but didn’t know what to do. They were very protective, tried to make sure I was OK, that I didn’t hurt myself. I did lose my youngest son for about five years, after I left home. He went to live with my parents. He didn’t cut me off altogether but there was very little contact.
At my worst, I was drinking a litre of vodka a day. I ended up in hospital and I damaged my liver. I still attend a clinic but, touch wood, it is repairing itself.
I had a very good doctor. Some doctors are very unsympathetic, mine was very helpful. Five years ago, he recommended the Tayside Alcohol Problems Service. I would go for counselling but still be drinking and I would tell a load of stories. They knew I was lying.
One day, I went to see them and things were really spiralling out of control. I worked in quality control at a factory and I’d taken voluntary redundancy. I was my usual cocky self but half way through I just broke down and said: "I need help and I need it now." I was very lucky. My counsellor lifted the phone and there was a bed available for me within a week. I did an 18-day programme and that changed everything.
I hadn’t looked back until a couple of months ago, when I had a relapse. It was triggered by family concerns. I have elderly parents and they’d both been in hospital. But by using the skills I’d learned, the relapse only lasted a week. One of the biggest issues is the guilt. It can be absolutely destroying because a part of you knows what you are doing is wrong and that you are hurting those closest to you. Most women who are alcoholics are also depressed, so it puts you on a downward spiral.
Stopping can bring its own problems. People you socialise with don’t like it when you admit you have a problem. These are people who have been matching you drink for drink and it makes them feel uncomfortable. People tend to drift away because they don’t want to face it themselves.
There wasn’t any single thing that made me face up to my drinking. It was just like a switch going off. I knew if I sank any lower I wasn’t going to get through it. Once I had sobered up and been sober for about a year, I sat and did a lot of serious talking with my sons. They felt bad they hadn’t stopped their father from hitting me so we were able to talk about that. We are close as a family. My parents have also been very supportive. I’d like to see TV advertising banned and I think the law should be stricter on the positioning of alcohol in supermarkets. I still don’t go down the aisles where alcohol is sold. It would be so easy just to put it in with your shopping.
• Patricia Sneddon is 51, divorced with two sons. Her name has been changed.
Alcohol and you
DO THE personal testimonies of alcoholics bring back painful personal experiences? Have you had a problem with alcohol or seen a close friend or relative affected by it? Have you had experience of alcohol programmes in Scotland and was your experience good or bad?
Should alcohol be made more expensive or more accessible? What is your thinking on introducing young people to alcohol? Do you work in the drinks industry or advertising industry or do you have a view on the way alcohol is promoted? Are our politicians taking the issue of alcohol seriously? Should they be doing more?
We are interested in your views. Write to Alcohol: A National Excuse, The Scotsman, 108 Holyrood Road, Edinburgh, EH8 8AS or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you want help and advice with an alcohol problem, contact:
• Alcohol Focus Scotland, 2nd Floor, 166 Buchanan St, Glasgow, 0141 572 6700 or email@example.com
• Alcoholics Anonymous Tel: 0845 76 97 555, website: www.aa-uk.org.uk
• NHS 24 Tel: 08454 24 24 24
• Down Your Drink, online programme to cut drinking: www.downyourdrink.org