Yet Nature's charms, the hills and woods,
The sweeping vales, and foaming floods,
Are free alike to all
Epistle to Davie, A Brother Poet
The flavour and quality of Ballantine's 17 Years Old set it apart from other whiskies. But even before the bottle is opened, something about it is undeniably unique.
Its most distinctive feature is the Ballantine's coat of arms on the label, an heraldic representation of the whisky-making process depicting our links with craftsmanship and tradition. The quarters of the central badge feature a sheaf of barley, pure running water, a pot still, and a barrel of maturing spirit - the four elements of Scotch whisky distilling.
Ballantine's is proud of its whisky-making heritage, interwoven with the tartan and the rich history of the clans. And so it was fitting that, in 1938, the company was awarded a grant of arms by the Lord Lyon, King of Arms, a Scottish institution which has also changed little over the centuries.
A coat of arms is a personal badge, dating from the colours worn by knights and royal warriors. Once a coat of arms was awarded, no one else was permitted to bear it, a rule which is still rigidly operated today.
'The misuse of a coat of arms is regarded as a "real injury" under the Common Law of Scotland and the owner of coats of arms can obtain judicial interdict in the Lyon Court to stop someone misusing his arms,' explains Ballantine's legal advisor Andrew McLean. 'The Lord Lyon is a judge of the realm before whom lawyers still appear dressed in wigs and gowns. He has the power to fine or imprison offenders under laws dating back to 1592. Fines are still used today.'
The full official title of the Lord Lyon, the Queen's Supreme Officer of Honour in Scotland, is 'King of her Maist Excellent Majesties Armes'. The origin of his office, which oversees a system of heraldry described as 'the purest and best regulated in existence', is lost in the mists of time and dates back to ancient Celtic kings of Scotland.
Traditionally, the Lord Lyon made up the sacred figure of 13 members of the Royal Court, which comprised six Heralds, or trusted royal messengers, and their six attendants, or Pursuivants. Heralds and Pursuivants are paid a fee fixed in the 17th century, which has not been adjusted with inflation. It amounts to the cost of a decent lunch, even though the position is regarded as one of great importance.
Today, assisted by three Heralds and three Pursuivants, the Lord Lyon ensures that coats of arms are correctly awarded and recorded and represents the Queen in matters of Scottish heraldry. Every detail of a coat of arms like Ballantine's is carefully registered in great parchment volumes stored in the Lord Lyon's office in Edinburgh. Even the colours of the crest must be specifically adhered to. When Ballantine's inadvertently used the wrong colour on notepaper and a whisky label some years ago, the Lord Lyon's office ordered the correct colours to be restored.
The coat of arms, with its shield, knight's helmet and white horses, was awarded 50 years ago at a time when crests issued to companies were elaborate.
'Only corporations created by Royal Charter or special Act of Parliament are granted Arms with supporters or knight's helmets nowadays,' Andrew McLean points out. 'Were we to apply today for a coat of arms, we would not be permitted anything as ornate or impressive as the current Ballantine's Arms.
'According to the Lyon Clerk, the heraldic artist who drew the Ballantine's coat of arms was one of the very best, and were the original to be destroyed, its replacement, drawn by hand by the current artist, is unlikely to be so finely detailed.'
Since 1672, everyone granted the right to use a coat of arms in Scotland has had to register it and have it recorded in 70 leather-bound volumes held by the Lyon Clerk, or Keeper of the Records, in Edinburgh. Included in this historic list are Peers of the Realm, Knights of the Thistle, Clan Chiefs, Knights Grand Cross and feudal barons whose tenure dates from before 1587 - all of whom have coats of arms.
The building housing the Lord Lyon's office and those of his Heralds and staff is suitably untouched by time. 'The offices of the Lord Lyon are extremely old-fashioned,' Andrew McLean recalls. 'The walls are oak-panelled with dusty bookcases full of leather-bound volumes of original artwork. Plaques and flags hang from the walls and ceiling and, last time I called, there were quill pens on the desks, with not a computer in sight.
'Even the telephone was an old-fashioned bakelite dial phone. The whole place had an air of gentle decay and a veneer of eccentricity. It is very definitely a unique part of Scottish tradition with a charm all of its own.
'The language used is archaic and formal. It is not unusual, for example, to receive letters signed "Your Obedient Servant". The Lord Lyon, Sir Malcolm Innes of Edingight, is referred to as "Lyon" and his three Heralds - Albany, Marchmont and Rothesay - are referred to by their titles, as in "Good morning, Albany".'
The coat of arms granted to Ballantine's, and reproduced on every bottle of 17 Years Old, consists of a quartered shield bearing four images of whisky-making: a stream of moss water, a sheaf of barley, a traditional pot still and a wooden cask. The principal colours on the shield - blue and gold - represent water and barley, the key natural elements of whisky.
The first quarter depicts a sheaf of newly-harvested barley, tied with rope, ready for malting at the distillery. In the second, the stream is white and blue in a rural setting, representing the purity of water used in making good whisky.
Below is the copper dome of the pot still, with its long neck to trap the rising vapours of alcohol before condensing them into the young spirit of malt whisky. To its right, the final stage of the process: a slumbering cask of maturing whisky, smoothing the edges of the raw spirit until it reaches the perfection demanded by Ballantine's Master Blender.
Above the shield, the mantling which hangs from the wreath on either side of the helmet, is in the same principal 'whisky' colours of blue and gold. Originally, this was a curtain of material hung over the back of the necks of knights to protect them from the sun's rays. The mantling was often cut by sword slashes in combat - hence the magnificent swirls which give artists of royal grants much scope for design.
On each side of the shield a horse - sometimes depicted as a unicorn in the royal symbolism of Britain - holds up the National Arms of Scotland, the silver saltire (or cross) of St Andrew on a blue background. Below, is the Latin motto Amicus Humani Generis which, according to the Lyon Clerk, is best translated as 'A Friend to Everyman', 'A Friend to Mankind' or 'A Friend To All'.
Latin is commonly used in heraldry as it was the universal language of the church and, quite often, priests and monks were the only people able to read and write. French mottoes and descriptions are also found in heraldry (the motto of the British Royal Family is in French). It was the common language of many European royal courts, including that of Scotland, as royals and aristocrats were often educated in France.
Whichever translation of Ballantine's motto you select, (we prefer 'A Friend To All Mankind'), it is an appropriate inscription for a whisky representing the best in Scottish tradition and achievement.
In 1938, the company was allowed to make suggestions regarding the design and content of the Badge, but it was up to the discretion of the Lord Lyon whether or not to grant the arms at all and, if so, what they would look like.
Eventually, 'Letters Patent' were issued on parchment, signed by the Lord Lyon, a document held in the company archives. It certified that Arms had been granted to Ballantine's and described them in precise heraldic language, enabling any heraldic artist in the future to faithfully reproduce them in the correct colours.
The blazon, or detailed description of the Arms, is stored for safekeeping in the Lord Lyon's office. Providing the Arms are drawn closely following the written description, the style is left very much to the artist. Anyone skilled in the language of the blazon, which has its roots in Norman French, would have no difficulty reproducing the most complicated heraldic arms from the description alone.
In Ballantine's blazon, which begins with a description of the shield divided into four, Or is gold, Argent, silver, and Azure, blue; the 'saltire' referred to is a cross. The blazon, or official definition of Ballantine's crest, reads:
Above the shield is placed a helmet befitting their Degree with Mantling Azure doubled Or and on a wreath of the Liveries is set for Crest: a demi-griffin holding aloft a sword proper.
On a Compartment below the shield with this Motto: Amicus Humani Generis, are set for supporters - two horses proper, collared and there from chains affixed passing between their forelegs and reflexed over their back Gules, and each bearing up a banner Azure charged with a saltire Argent.
The banner is the flag of Scotland - a white diagonal cross on a blue background - in memory of St Andrew, patron saint of Scotland, who was crucified on a diagonal cross.
A griffin - the mythological creature brandishing the sword above the helmet - has the head of an eagle and the body of a lion. The demi-griffin mentioned in the blazon is simply a griffin of which only half is visible. It sits on 'a wreath of the Liveries', the decorative wreath around the top of the helmet in the owners' distinctive style and colours.
According to the Lord Lyon's office, there are no authentic heraldic colours.
'Any red is red to a Herald, providing it is clearly red and does not verge on purple, orange or pink,' says a spokesman. 'Crimson and vermilion are both red heraldically, so a great deal of latitude is allowed to the owner of a coat of arms in the tints he uses to colour it. In general, the strongest, brightest tints of any colour will be found the most suitable. This sounds as though it would produce a garish result, but in practice it turns out otherwise. Heraldic rules about juxtaposition of colours usually prevent garish effects.'
The Grant allows Ballantine's to use its coat of arms in various ways - on its products, notepaper, company uniforms, carpets, furniture and other accessories. The rules are very strict and the Lord Lyon's office always encourages using coats of arms, providing the regulations are adhered to properly.
Once granted a coat of arms, you can have your own flag and fly it on your car, if you wish. Though the Lord Lyon's office is not unaware of how some practices can sail close to pomposity.
'In Britain, the use of motor car flags is apt to attract a deal of leg-pulling,' the spokesman admits, 'but this is never free of envy and is easily countered where the flag and its use are both legal and correct.'
Technically, the managing director of Ballantine's could fly a flag on his car, if the fancy took him; but the rules are extremely precise.
'Motor car pennants should take the form of miniature flags,' the Lord Lyon's office advises. 'They may be flown on the radiator cap - or where radiator caps used to be - on the front wings, or on the centre of the front of the roof.' The latter is unusual and, so far as is known, is only practised by the Royal Family who have a special need for the flag to be visible in motor processions among crowds.
'Motor car pennants - strictly, "banners", as a pennant is a triangular-shaped flag - signify that the car contains the person entitled to fly the flag. In that person's absence from his motor car, the flag should be cased or removed.'
Ballantine's coat of arms which, incidentally, the M.D. does not fly on his car, is distinctively designed to celebrate the history of whisky-making.
The magnificent Grant of Heraldic Arms given to George Ballantine and Son Ltd is an official statement of the company's honourable status within Scotland. In granting the Arms, the Lord Lyon recognised Ballantine's as 'an incorporation noble in the Noblesse of Scotland'.And anyone who appreciates its greatest achievement, 17 Years Old, would raise a glass to that.