The Scotch

Chapter 12


But keek thro' ev'ry other man,
Wi' sharpen'd, sly inspection
Epistle to a Young Friend
Robert Burns


The four aspects of distilling depicted on Ballantine's coat of arms have now run their course, bringing the whisky-making process full circle. Ripe barley has been malted and mashed with pure spring water, distilled in traditional copper pots and, finally, left to mature for a minimum of 17 years.

What remains is to keep millions of pounds' worth of matured whisky safe and secure, ready for the final stage of its journey - the highly skilled art of blending malt and grain into Ballantine's 17 Years Old.

While our spirit awaits the expert nose of Master Blender Robert Hicks, it is important to keep it undisturbed. Guarding stocks of whisky as precious as 17 Years Old is a weighty responsibility. Ballantine's warehouse complex at Dumbuck, overlooking the River Clyde at Dumbarton, is protected by state-of-the-art electronic devices, security men on round-the-clock duty - and a line of defence effective since at least 390 BC.

Ballantine's famous gaggle of ferocious white geese - the Scotch Watch - has featured in international TV documentaries, magazine articles, even record covers.

The security value of geese has been well known since Roman times. The best-known story of their efficiency dates from when enemy Gauls stealthily advanced towards Roman soldiers as they slept in their hilltop fortress, the Capitol. The first invader was almost over the ramparts when the geese, kept by Romans as sacred birds, began screeching to alert their masters to the imminent attack.

It was this legend that sprang to mind when Dumbuck's security arrangements were being drafted in the late 1950s. The civil engineer in charge of the new 14-acre site was Brigadier Ronald Cowan, who happened to be a keen ornithologist. He suggested to Ballantine's Managing Director Tom Scott that geese, with their acute hearing and eyesight, would make a perfect second line of defence against intruders; and prove cheaper to feed than guard dogs, too.

Soon afterwards, Ballantine's employees were greeted by the strange sight of senior executives carrying cardboard boxes of live geese through the gates at Dumbuck. The original core of the now famous Scotch Watch fed off the grass surrounding the maturation houses with a little grain to supplement their diet. Since then, the lawns have remained immaculately trimmed and the West of Scotland Agricultural College has organised a breeding programme to keep up the flock's numbers.

'At first there were problems,' says Goosekeeper Arthur Carroll. 'The females turned out to be excellent sentries, but were not as attentive to their nesting duties as they might have been. For a time, we had to recruit some ordinary chicken hens as egg-sitters and they seemed to take to their role as surrogate mothers very well.'


The original goosekeeper was Alex Malcolm, who retired after 30 years tending his noisy regiment. In a ceremony attended by a bagpiper and the entire flock of geese, Alex passed on the baton by handing over his herding stick to Arthur's safekeeping.

'As geese have a lifespan of 60 years, I've known many of them since I started the job,' Alex said at the time. 'Even though I've had the odd nip or clout from their wings, I'm really going to miss them.'

The flock is made up of Chinese White Geese and some Roman Geese, which have a characteristic strutting walk - all noted for their skill at sentry duty.

'The flock currently numbers around 70,' Arthur says. 'We are trying to build up the numbers after losing more than 40 in the past five years to a marauding fox. I have laid traps, stayed up all night and he still manages to get in.

'It's remarkable because this must be the most secure place in Britain, yet he always slips through the smallest gap. I have actually seen him in daylight running across the fields. We are not allowed to kill foxes, so the traps take the form of cages put down by the local authority. So far, however, the biggest thing they have captured has been a hedgehog.

'The geese have been here so long, guarding 17 Years Old and other Ballantine's products, that they don't have the urge to fly away. There is a definite pecking order and certain birds leave no doubt who is in charge.'

Arthur's day begins by raising the flag on the lawn in front of Dumbuck's maturation warehouses, watched by the geese who trim the grass and keep a watchful eye out for strangers. Chinese White Geese have such a talent for horticulture that they are known as Weeder Geese in the southern states of America, where they are employed to nibble weeds between plant rows in the tobacco fields.

Arthur feeds his charges on grain used in the whisky-making process and they usually follow him around as he checks the nesting boxes for freshly-laid eggs and the heated incubators in his office, to see if any goslings have hatched.

'They certainly know when it's feeding time,' Arthur says. 'Some of the older ones are aged around 35 years and there are real characters among them - some short-tempered, others aloof or friendly. They all make a terrible noise if a stranger approaches and wouldn't hesitate to challenge anyone.'

The Scotch Watch has become famous worldwide and is constantly sought by TV crews making wildlife documentaries, tourists and journalists. The geese's latest claim to fame was featuring on the cover of an album by an English rock band.

Swan Geese, as they are also known, still live in the wild in Asia, where they breed at the side of large lakes and rivers and migrate to coasts and estuaries in the winter. They have been domesticated for two or three thousand years and have found their way to many parts of the world.

In the wild, Swan Geese make their nests during April or May. Domesticated varieties, such as those at Dumbuck, use nesting boxes lined with shredded paper for insulation. They lay between five and eight white eggs, incubated by the mother, while the male, or gander, stands guard nearby. As adults they are ferocious, but when danger faces the downy brown goslings, they freeze in an attempt to conceal themselves. On the water, they dive to escape danger.


Geese feature in the mythology of many countries. The goose is commonly regarded as the bird that lays the golden egg, possibly because every part of it, right down to the feathers, can be put to good use. Indeed, George Ballantine's original indenture papers, preserved at Allied Domecq, are laboriously written and signed in goose-quill pen.

Aesop was one of many storytellers who related the golden egg tale. The biggest egg was the sun, laid by Seb, father of Osiris. How a gander managed to lay an egg was a point Aesop overlooked, but the great storyteller was never one to allow detail to stand in the way of a good tale.

The Egyptian version had the gander laying the golden egg, too, while in India, Brahma, the god of life, was depicted riding a goose.

The moral of the Greek version of the golden egg story was that the greedy man who owned the goose with the Midas touch killed the bird in order to get all the eggs at once, but lost everything.

In Britain, geese have been eaten at the Christian festival of Michaelmas, for as long as anyone can remember. The popular explanation is that it was to celebrate the destruction of the Spanish Armada, or that tenants used to present their landlords with a fat goose at Michaelmas to keep in their good graces. An older story, however, says that St Martin was tormented by a goose until he could stand no more and killed and ate it. As a result, he died, and geese have been eaten ever since in his memory.

All these legends serve to underline how importantly the goose is regarded around the world. Indeed, folklorists have collected no less than 67 proverbs about geese from around Europe alone. All emphasise how vital they were in daily life, providing food, fat, writing materials, stuffing for quilts and pillows, eggs and, of course, sharp-eyed security guards.

The services of the Scotch Watch are highly valued at Ballantine's and, since the geese have set up home, there has not been one major break-in at the maturation warehouses, where millions of pounds' worth of whisky are stored - except, of course, for the wily fox.

They have provided an emblem for Ballantine's which signifies the watchfulness of our craftsmen at all stages of the whisky-making process. The ancient symbol of the Swan Goose is synonymous with the quality maintained in 17 Years Old.
| Previous | Index | Next |

original copyright (c) Allied Distillers Limited, 1996