Thursday, 10 March 2016

Is Scotland running out of whisky?

Nationwide panic sets in as the terrible truth is revealed!

Jings, crivens, help ma boab! Whit's this? The amber nectar, the uisge beatha, the aqua vitae, the water of life is rinnin' oot? Whit's a mon tae dae on a Setirday efter the gemme? Ye cannae droon yer sorries at yet anither mingin' show by yon showir o' numpties ye ca' a fitba' team wi a gless o' watter! No even ''Scotland's ither national drink'' will dae. Am tellin' ye it's a richt scunner so it is!

A glass of Scotch whisky
Photo by Guinnog/Wikimedia
CC-BY-SA 3.0
OK, that may be a slight over-dramatisation but Scotch whisky is a major export earner for, not just Scotland, but the UK as a whole accounting as it does for about 25% (financially speaking) of all food and drink exports from the UK and anything which has the potential to reduce exports of Scotch - not to mention affect its availability in its native land - is bad news indeed!

Two stories which came to light recently have sent shivers up and down the spines of Scotch whisky lovers worldwide. The most worrying one concerns the Inner Hebridean island of Islay and the amount of peat to be found there.

Whisky buffs will know that those malt whiskys produced on Islay are noted for their distinctive smoky, peaty character - a feature of the water and peat to be found on the island. Any whisky enthusiast will also be able to tell you that Islay is regarded as the ''jewel in the crown'' of whisky production in Scotland. It's nine distilleries lie in one of the five whisky distilling areas of Scotland which have their identity protected by law - only malt whiskys produced on Islay are entitled to be called ''Islay malts''. Even using exactly the same methods and processes if it isn't distilled on Islay it isn't a genuine ''Islay malt''.

So what's the problem with Islay?

Well, it's to do with the amount of peat which lies on the island. In the 1980s there was a report published on the amount of peat available for distilleries to use in the distilling of whisky but, apparently, the report got it wrong! There was a serious overestimation of the amount of peat on the island which lulled everyone into a false sense of security over whisky production on Islay.

Recent work on the feasibility of building a new distillery on Islay revealed that the amount of peat there is far less than originally estimated. In fact, some authorities believe that the peat stocks on Islay will run out well within the next ten years putting an end to the smoky, peaty whiskys distilled on the island. ''So what,'' you may say. ''Get peat from elsewhere and use that''. Unfortunately, that one probably won't work. There is indeed plenty of peat elsewhere in Scotland (and worldwide come to that) but peat isn't the same from locality to locality and it is the distinctiveness of Islay's peat which makes whisky distilled there so unique.

A pile of peat which has been dug out of the ground
Photo by Wojsyl at the Polish Language Wikipedia CC-BY-SA 3.0
Technically, it would be possible to add flavourings to a malt to match the original distinctive flavour of an Islay malt whisky but there is one big snag about that idea. The Scotch Whisky Regulations state that to qualify as Scotch Whisky a whisky must contain barley, water and no other ingredient (with the sole exception of E105a caramel colouring) so adding anything to replicate the original would result in a whisky which couldn't be called Scotch!

This potential problem has been known about by the distillers for some years now and a couple of the more forward-looking ones have started to move away from using peat in the distilling process so it will still be possible to buy an Islay malt into the foreseeable future and of course there are many other fine whiskys produced in Scotland so we aren't really ''rinnin' oot'' of the uisge beatha at all - thank heavens for that! Still, the wise Islay malt devotee may want to consider stocking up on Laphroaig while we still can.

More whisky misery!

I don't wish to pile even more misery onto worried whisky enthusiasts but there is another problem about Scotch whisky which is looming on the horizon involving a shortage of the older and rarer single malt whiskys from all over Scotland (not just those from Islay). All Scotch whiskys take at least three years to produce (this is the law in Scotland) and, of course, the older, more mature (and more expensive) whiskys, almost all of which are single malts, can take considerably longer - they are matured for up to 20 years or more for some.

A row of copper whisky still at the Glenfiddich distillery
Photograph by Oyoyoy/Wikimedia CC-BY-SA 3.0

Demand worldwide is growing for Scotch whisky and that demand is greatest for the top-of-the-range aged products but because these take so long to mature distilleries can't simply ''open the taps'' and distill more to meet this demand. Experts say that this shortage is already being felt and as a result availability is becoming restricted and prices are shooting upwards.

Fortunately, this situation will not last forever. In 10-15 years the problem will be solved when those aged malts currently maturing in barrels all over Scotland will be ready to be bottled and exported (which most Scotch whisky is) to customers all over the world. Let's hope they hold some back for a thirsty hillwalker in his dotage!

Sources: Wikipedia, in-text links

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Mountain rescue in Scotland

We all hope we don't need it but it's there if we do

All those who go to wild and remote places to enjoy the freedom of the great outdoors take responsibility for themselves and their own safety, but outdoor enthusiasts are aware that their safety cannot be guaranteed. Every year in Scotland there are incidents and accidents involving people who get into trouble on the hills, lochs, moors and inshore waters often in areas which are hard to reach. What would you do if this happened to you? You would reach for your phone and dial 999 (or 112 - more about this below). That call will go through to a call handing centre who will take it from there and alert the appropriate emergency service - and one of those could be a mountain rescue team.

But who exactly are these mountain rescue teams? In the UK they fall into three categories - civilian mountain rescue teams, police mountain rescue teams and - until recently - the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy Search and Rescue helicopters (more about this below).

The early days of civilian mountain rescue teams

A party of mountaineers on a snow-covered mountainside
Public domain image from The British Library
Those hardy souls who pioneered walking and climbing in the UK in the early part of the 20th century knew well that if they had an accident they were on their own. If the worst were to happen, the best they could hope for was that their companions would either carry them off the hill or raise the alarm amongst friends and fellow-climbers and organise a rescue party. If they were on their own or badly injured they probably didn't make it to safety. The first mountain rescue teams weren't actually called that. They simply consisted of committed mountaineers and enthusiastic members of climbing clubs who banded together and did what they had to do to rescue club members in dire need on the hills - a culture of helping a fellow climber in need prevailed.

Over time there grew a realisation that this system was inadequate and the first ''proper'' civilian mountain rescue teams began to come into existence. The first official one was set up in the Lake District in England in 1947 - the Conniston Fells Rescue Party (now the Conniston MRT). Others soon followed.

In Scotland, a similar process occurred until the entire country was served by volunteer mountain rescue teams. Currently, there are 24 civilian mountain rescue teams in Scotland plus two Search and Rescue Dog Association teams and one specialist cave rescue team and every single one of the 1000 or so members is an enthusiastic mountaineer and climber - and an unpaid volunteer. They all come under the auspices of Scottish Mountain Rescue which is a registered charity.

Money being donated to a mountain rescue team
CC0 image from Pixabay
All of the civilian mountain rescue teams are self-funded by public donations (you will find collection tins in many pubs, shops, cafes and businesses all through the mountainous areas of Scotland) or through sponsorship by various companies who will supply either equipment or funding. Some local garages will service and repair civilian mountain rescue team vehicles free of charge. If you ever see such a collection tin in any pub or cafe you are in please donate a few coins. You never know - the next call-out a mountain rescue team receives may be to rescue you!

Police mountain rescue teams

Search and rescue helicopter in flight
Free image from Gary Watt/Wikipedia
The Police Service of Scotland has three mountain rescue teams: Grampian, Tayside and Strathclyde. All of the members are serving officers who will give up their free time, if necessary, to aid those in need. The police also have the responsibility for organising mountain rescue operations in Scotland. They have the ability to request assistance from the civilian mountain rescue teams and, until recently, the RAF Mountain Rescue Service and the Royal Navy Search and Rescue helicopters based at HMS Gannet at Prestwick Airport near Glasgow although these two resources have now been withdrawn by the UK government (after 70 years of successful service) and handed over to a private contractor with the new SAR-H service due to become fully operational in the summer of 2017 (until then the Maritime and Coastguard Agency will provide a temporary rescue helicopter service). There has been much controversy over this decision and how well it will work but it's a done deal and only time will tell.

Royal Air Force Mountain Rescue Service

This article is not intended as a history of rescue services in the Scottish hills but it is interesting to understand how and why the RAF Mountain Rescue Service came into being. Ever since the Wright brothers first took to the air in a powered aircraft there have been accidents and, given the nature of aircraft which can go anywhere over land or water, many of these crashes happened in remote places particularly in poor weather conditions over mountains 

Obviously, military authorities had a responsibility to their aircrew and were duty bound to seek out and rescue survivors of any aircraft crash. At first this was an ad hoc affair - a rescue party would be cobbled together from medical personnel and knowledgeable servicemen from the nearest RAF station and a rescue attempt would be made. This was soon recognised to be inadequate. Mountain rescue, especially in poor weather conditions, requires well-trained, well-equipped and highly-motivated personnel and one incident in particular brought these facts home to the military authorities, the mountaineering community and the general public - the crash of Avro Lancaster TX264 in the early hours of 14th March 1951 on the 3310-feet Wester Ross mountain Beinn Eighe.

Avro Lancaster similar to the one which crashed on Beinn Eighe
Photograph by Ronnie Macdonald/Wikipedia CC-BY-SA 2.0
TX264 crashed just below the summit of Beinn Eighe in atrocious winter weather conditions. Beinn Eighe is a notoriously complex mountain of many ridges and gullies and it was two days before the crash site was pinpointed. Due to continuing bad weather and deep snow it took several more days before any rescuers (two Royal Marines Commandos) reached the crash site and recovered one body but it wasn't until nearly six months later that the last remains of the eight aircrew who died were recovered.

At the time there were rumours of some of the crew surviving the actual crash but succumbing to the elements before they could be rescued. The public outcry over this delay (especially from the mountaineering community many of whom had offered their services and been refused) led directly to the establishment of the modern Royal Air Force Mountain Rescue Service which has served both military and civilian victims of accidents on the hills for 70 years until recently withdrawn to be replaced by a civilian contractor.

If you need to call mountain rescue

In the UK the dedicated emergency number is 999 which will connect you with all of the emergency services (ambulance, coastguard, fire service and, of course, the police who are responsible for co-ordinating mountain rescue) there is also another number you can use - 112. That number not only works in the UK but will also work all over Europe and further afield. In the UK it is also possible to register your mobile phone to send a text message to the emergency services instead of a voice call.

This ability could come in very handy if you are in an area where there is poor reception - a text message stands a better chance of getting through than a voice call. It is also a great way for someone who is speech or hearing impaired to communicate their needs to the emergency services. This short video will explain further and gives more information and handy tips you may not have thought of:

Author's note: This video is incorrect in one minor detail. It states that in the UK it is possible to call the emergency services from a mobile phone even if the phone does not have a SIM card installed. This is not the case. Since it is the SIM card which stores the necessary information to make an emergency call one must be present in the phone or it won't work.

Sources: Wikipedia, in-text links