IN the Scottish cultural imagination, the work of whisky production invokes images of time-rich, work-shy highlanders. “We’ll mak our maut, we’ll brew our drink/We’ll dance and sing and rejoice, man,” is how Burns imagined the maltmen celebrating when the Deil took off with the exciseman.

“The true reason why Highlanders are so fond of distillation,” said Sir George Steuart Mackenzie in 1810, “is that it costs them little labour, and brings them what they conceive to be profit.”

The stereotype helped lairds such as Mackenzie to justify their Clearances of Highland townships, forcing families south to join the Clydeside labour force.

A century later, many of their descendants were among thousands of workers employed in the lowland distilleries and warehouses producing one of Britain’s most profitable exports.

Then as now, far more whisky production took place on the banks of the Clyde than by the springs of Speyside or the inlets of Islay.

While the Highland potstills worked according to a weekly rhythm, and workers often had a whole month off in summer, there was no “silent period” in the Lowland distilleries.

One of Scotland’s biggest sites of whisky production was in Dumbarton. For most of the 20th century, a huge grain whisky distillery stood on the site of a former shipyard where the River Leven meets the Clyde. From the iconic red distilling tower flowed the amber beads of Ballantine’s blend.

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There are two chief kinds of distilleries, pot still and grain whisky. The latter, produced mostly at industrial scale in the central belt, lacks the characteristic flavours of malts made in pot stills in rural nooks and crannies of the highlands and islands.

The gradual expansion of Lowland grain whisky production had serious consequences above the Highland line. When export opportunities drove a blended whisky boom in the 1890s, smaller producers strove to compete. The bubble soon collapsed, bringing ruin to small-scale distilleries.

Two decades after these whisky clearances, the First World War brought temperance movements and the high tax of total war, putting even more pressure on surviving distilleries. Conglomerates bought up and shut down many remaining producers, and by the time the American market re-opened after prohibition ended in the 1930s, most Scotch came from distilleries owned by cartels.

Ships, coal, and textile are the holy trinity of Clydeside industries, and whisky has always been left out. Perhaps spirits are too devilish to be given such a halo. But one historian of the industry, Macon St Hilaire, a PhD researcher at the University of Glasgow, is working to bring the industry back into focus.

She has traced the improving fortunes of the whisky barons in the 1930s in company reports. In the 1933 AGM report from Seagar Evans, which owned an operating stake in the Scottish Grain Distilling Company, the chairman, Mr Thornton-Smith boasted to his shareholders in London: “I am glad to tell you that the company is doing well. We are a British industry. We are financed entirely by British capital."

The company’s investors were British but its fortunes depended on American buyers. British producers jealously guarded their control of the industry but such was the demand for Scotch that the Canadian company Hiram Walker acquired Ballantine’s in 1937.

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Some 600 construction workers laboured hard for a year and the following September, Lord Nigel Douglas-Hamilton, a Tory peer and commissioner for areas of high unemployment in Scotland, opened the massive new factory in Dumbarton. “Of all the commodities produced in Scotland,” he said, “there are none for which the country is more famous than ships and whisky.”

THE Second World War brought new challenges for the industry but in the following decades it enjoyed another period of export-driven growth. According to one study of the industry, whisky exports grew as a proportion of total production from 50% 1939 to 75% by 1954. By the 1960s, Scotch whisky accounted for an enormous 28% of total UK exports by value.

The easy lucre still earned by the great cartels from the Clydeside workers makes it all too tempting to rework the baronet’s adage about the Highlanders: “The true reason why capitalists are so fond of distillation is that it costs them little labour and brings them what they conceive to be profit.”

Macon’s research reveals that whisky companies were well aware of the stark contrast between the romantic notions of easy highland living reflected in American adverts and the realities of constant production and technological innovation that they presented to shareholders.

This shift to a 24/7 work process was reflected in Ballantine’s own most famous marketing image. In 1959, an engineer and bird enthusiast named Ronald Cowan proposed that a flock of geese be enlisted to guard the plant. Soon dubbed the “Scotch watch”, they were the subject of adverts that compared the timeless processes of whisky production with their “unchanging security guard”:

“This efficient force patrols our grounds around the clock to guard our precious liquid assets.”

In the decades after the geese were introduced, the rising work pressures that they symbolised brought increasing resistance from workers who responded with a series of strikes. While much of the unrest concerned hours and pay, one dispute concerned the risk of fires in the warehouse.

In 1971, a union leader faced summary dismissal for smoking in the building, in breach of the health and safety policy. Workers accepted the decision but the next day a manager was likewise found to be lighting up. Unlike the union leader, he was not dismissed. The workers, accusing hypocrisy, appealed to a simple principle: what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

After centuries of myths peddled by the whisky industry, historians such as Macon, Niall MacKenzie, and Andrew Perchard are pulling back the tartan curtain to reveal the cartels that owned this behemoth of British trade.

Now big companies own the lion’s share of distilleries, wrap their barrels with cling film to stop the evaporation of whisky from barrels known as the angels’ share, and hone their management techniques to stop the evaporation of wages from company profits.

Whether the angels want their lot restored is a question best left to heaven. Here on Earth, Clydeside workers surely deserve a better share.