In order to fully understand the historical background of this story read ‘The Royal Connection’ article.
When does legend become history, and history become legend?
Captain John McKinnon of the Clan McKinnon certainly wasn’t bothering himself with history or legend while he was struggling to decipher the latin on a yellowed piece of paper. Perhaps he was making history or creating a legend, but most importantly he was trying to make a liqueur; one that would satisfy the tastes of his distinguished guest and his company.
Some of the words scribbled on this aged parchment were a complete mystery to him, though he would not dare ask the Young Pretender what their meaning was. Asking any of his French-speaking Polish companions didn’t seem like a good idea either, if he wanted to avoid the coarsest of public ridicule.
This is not to say that John McKinnon of the Clan McKinnon was thinking ill of any of those curiously dressed men with their bizarre hair-styles. No, they were good enough company, amusing and sincere. They devoured any food put in front of them with the appetite of hungry wolves and they could drink the finest single malt till the break of dawn – they could drink more than any man Captain McKinnon had ever seen. And when they were drunk they would burst into song, their voices unbelievably powerful, booming straight from their impressive bellies. They would go on and on about their country, miles to the East, and John McKinnon could not help but imagine it as a wonderful land of milk and honey – or rather steak and mead. The Young Pretender’s mother hailed from this country, even though she was born in Italy; legend had it she raised him to admire greatly the country of his ancestors, of which his great-grandfather Jan Sobieski was once a king. A great warrior he was, according to the Polish noblemen, called the Lion of Lechistan by the Turks, whom he’d beaten in the Battle of Vienna, a hundred years before.
Captain McKinnon was glad they were speaking French, for it was easier to understand than the rustling mother tongue of theirs. It was even less comprehensible when they were singing from the top of their lungs. They were singing when they arrived on the Isle of Skye alongside the Young Pretender, dressed as a maid, after the defeat at Culloden. ‘Nic się nie stało, Karolku, nic się nie stało!’ their chant went and as they explained to Captain McKinnon it meant ‘Nothing has happened, Charlie, nothing has happened’. Certainly that was a peculiar sense of humour, because for all Captain McKinnon knew a tragedy had indeed happened and everything was lost. Two thousand people killed, hundreds captured. The case was lost. The Prince had only one chance of saving his own skin and that was fleeing to France. But before he boarded the French frigate he asked Captain McKinnon to fix him this one last drink on Scottish soil. The recipe was old, the Young Pretender inherited it from his mother, and she in turn inherited it from her father, and him, well, probably from the Lion of Lechistan himself.
What Captain John McKinnon did not know was that the recipe originally came from the town of Nieśwież in the Lithuanian part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It was created in the 16th century by a Benedictine monk, in a monastery founded by a famous Polish nobleman, Grand Marshal of Lithuania, voivode of the Troki Voivodeship and Wilno Voivodeship, Prince Mikołaj Krzysztof “the Orphan” Radziwiłł, from the powerful noble family the Radziwiłłs. Said monk, in an attempt to satisfy the particular taste of the monastery’s founder, created a drink made of the strongest grain spirit in his possession, mixed with honey and numerous different herbs. He called the drink ‘krupnik’.
What Captain McKinnon knew though was that he didn’t have any grain spirit, nor half of the herbs listed on that yellowed paper handed to him by the Young Pretender. Yet he wanted to deliver this last drink to the Prince. So he took a bottle of his best single malt and mixed it with honey and the herbs of his choosing. The time was nigh, the enemy was at the gates and the French frigate was waiting.
The Young Pretender wrinkled his nose when he smelled the drink – still the bouquet was alluring. He sipped a little and had to admit the flavour surprised him in the most pleasing way. It had a Scottish feel to it; it wasn’t as strong as he remembered, but it definitely tasted delightfully.
‘Is the beverage to Your Majesty’s satisfaction?’ Captain McKinnon asked.
‘Most certainly” the Young Pretender replied. Captain McKinnon could not help but think that he had found a name for this new drink, based on Bonnie Prince Charlie’s eastern recipe. He decided to call it an dram buidheach, “the drink that satisfies”.
This story is a work of fiction, based on a legend and an educated guess. The legend has it that it was the Young Pretender who gave Captain McKinnon the Drambuie recipe and since Prince Charlie’s roots were Polish and Polish noblemen had been drinking a very similar honey and herb-based beverage since the 16th century – well, here comes the educated guess that it was indeed the same drink. I found the idea that Poles and Scots could develop a taste for a similar drink exciting and fun for our common heritage. The Drambuie Liqueur Company Ltd can thank me later with a life supply of their gorgeous drink.
Readers may have guessed that there’s a lot of poetic licence in my story; even though Bonnie Prince Charlie did have Polish noblemen in his court it’s arguable they’d join him when he was escaping from Culloden. The chant in the story is a reference to a song chanted by Polish football supporters after their team suffered numerous defeats in the European Cup of 2012 (held in Poland and Ukraine). So the whole story is pretty much a work of my own imagination, but, oh boy, would I wish it were true.
Words: Kasia Kokowska,
co-ordinator of Interactive Writing Salon in Scotland
Polish writing project