• Tom Morton

The Swilchie. A whisky cocktail to calm the raging sea...and appease two giant goddesses...

Listen to 'The Swilchie' read by Tom Morton on the Slorach podcast

I have a friend, a keen kayaker, who once stood on the back of a basking shark.

It was lazily sucking plankton into its huge mouth, floating on the surface of the sea as David paddled off Arnisdale in the West Highlands. He managed only a few precarious seconds, admittedly, before he was thrown into the sea, and the great, harmless beast dived.

David had canoe surfed the standing wave formed during certain tides at the Falls of Lora, beneath the Connel Bridge near Oban. But he had never tackled the legendary whirlpool called Corryvreckan, north of Jura, the tidal race named The Gray Dog off Lunga, and most fearsome of all, the destructive, raging Pentland Firth between Orkney and Caithness, where it forms the legendary Swilchie.

This ship-swallowing whirlpool, one of the most severe in the world, occurs when the waters of the Atlantic and the North Sea collide, squeezed between the two landmasses in Scotland’s far north. But the Norse story is that two giantesses are to blame, sitting at the bottom the firth, grinding out salt to render the sea salilne, using massive hand-operated mills. They are The Swilchies.

There is a story that the only way for any mariner to appease these giantesses is to drink a toast to them, and this is most effective in what is clearly a magical mixture, a cocktail of the goddesses. You take a generous measure of whisky, made locally, in this case Old Pulteney from Wick, not far away, though Wolfburn, also made in Caithness would also work, I think. Scapa or Highland Park from Orkney are other possibilities.

Add another magical ingredient, the Scottish sweetmeat known as tablet. This is the single sweetest substance on the planet, and it is made by boiling sugar, butter and condensed milk, then letting the mix solidify. Every country has its version of tablet - sucre del la creme in Quebec, Confiture du lait in France, Dulce De Leche in Spain. Even fudge, and there is an Orkney Fudge which is tablet by another name. But in my opinion Scottish tablet is sweeter than all of them. And it is the only substance which

will appease the Swilchie giantesses.You can place a one-centimetre cube in the whisky glass and wait for it to dissolve, but I would not advise this as, from experience, it takes too long.

Instead, take the cube of tablet, place it in the mouth, and chew it into a paste. Take one measure of whisky, and hold it in your mouth with the melted tablet, swilling, mixing and masticating until it is one compound. Pour a pinch of salt onto your hand, and add it to the mix, the salt a tribute to the saline environment those giantesses inhabit. Then swallow.

The result is immediate, gratifying and somewhat disturbing. Magical.

This is the Swilchie. Not so much a cocktail, more a whirlpool of the senses, a tidal race of the soul, And having drunk it, you can, after a suitable period of reflection, safely set sail along the Pentland Firth, even in a kayak or on the back of a basking shark, in the sure and certain knowledge that you will arrive safely at your destination, unravaged by submerged giantesses.

Or you could just mix yourself another Swilchie, and remain, comfortably, on dry land.

The Swilchie's Song

If you wonder why the sea is salt

I’ll tell you. It’s the Swilchies’ fault

Off Stroma, where the Pentland rages

Beneath the waves all down the ages

Two women work a giant mill

If you go there you will see them still

As they’ve been from the dawn of time

Singing a song which seems sublime

At first, but quickly turns to dread

And raises visions in your head

Of ships sucked to a dreadful plight

Of storms that shriek through endless night

Waves higher than the highest mast

Breaking and shearing in the blast.

To cease their grinding, to halt the mill

To render the sea quiet and still

You must partake of Scotland’s treasure

A sweetmeat, which, while giving pleasure

On its own, will be increased

Be multiplied, become a feast

For soul and senses; so add a dram

The raging sea will duly calm

If a pinch of salt be added too

Savour then, this glorious brew

Swallow, and stop the stormy song

Drink deeply, savour the sweetness long

And soon a silence will descend

The Swilchies’ power is at an end

So rest and feel the spirit’s burn

But remember: that Pentland tide will turn...


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