Tradition of the Atholl Brose

How the Society created a Scottish tradition out of thin air

A Tribute to the Society's Tradition of the Atholl Brose

Ian Ross, April 2, 2021

Atholl Brose is consumed at any number of events worldwide, but the St. Andrew's Society of Winnipeg has the distinction of being the only group in the world to develop a formal ceremony of it … in effect creating a Scottish tradition out of thin air.

This tradition developed along with this annual ball, starting in the late 1960's. Dr. Ian Grant first provided a formula for this mystical elixir, ensuring that it was properly concocted and served out. He was followed by George Inkster for many years… and then Ed Campbell. Les Archibald evolved the ceremony by reciting a toast to the Barley Bree. In 1990, Eldon Ross formally established the post of Keeper of the Atholl Brose through the donation of this marvelous chain of office. It was worn for many years by Rod McRae, and most recently by Dr. Glen Lowther.

All of our Scottish traditions...even a "home-made" one such as this...should be treasured, and my thanks and respect go out to all of my predecessors.

Most of you are quite familiar with the story of the Atholl Brose, as fantasized upon by Dr. Lowther. The Duke of Atholl, chief of Clan Murray … his castle under siege by the Earl of Ross … dumped his stores of oats, whisky, honey and cream straight down his well, so that they could not be carried away by the Ross. The Earl of Ross drank deeply from this well and, in the gospel according to Lowther, got royally pissed and passed out.

That story has never rung true for me. I have personal knowledge of the Ross capacity for strong drink. Even on an off day, an average Ross can readily manage a well-full!

So I did my own research. I discovered that John, 10th Earl of Ross and 4th Lord of the Isles, was an unruly and ambitious troublemaker… a typical Ross. He and his wild northern clansmen rebelled against the Scottish King James II, capturing the royal castle at Inverness, then Urquhart castle and, according to my highly reliable sources, successfully storming the Castle of Blair Atholl … dragging Lord Murray off to Islay as prisoner. Admittedly, there are other historical accounts … very questionable ones, indeed … that the King dispatched Lord Murray into the Highlands to put down the Earl of Ross's rebellion, where the Murray successfully used the ruse of putting this beguiling and intoxicating brew in the Ross's favourite well.

This last version may, just possibly, be true...because I discovered yet another very important fact. At that time the Earl of Ross was not really a Ross by birth. He was, in fact, a MacDonald. I could see this happening to a MacDonald.

With all due apologies to MacGilbert and O'Sullivan, I will conclude with a tribute to the Society's very own tradition of the Keeper of the Atholl Brose.