THE amazing archaeological discoveries made at Tap O’Noth hill fort near Rhynie in Aberdeenshire have shown that as well as being a cultured and ordered society, the Picts enjoyed the taste of wine from somewhere in the Mediterranean area.

Contrary to what was previously thought, the fort was constructed in the fifth to sixth centuries AD, while the hill settlement may date back as far back as the third century AD.

The archaeological team led by Professor Gordon Noble of Aberdeen University found evidence of more than 800 huts, meaning that as many as 4000 people could have lived there. The team worked in the valley below the fort and discovered evidence for the drinking of Mediterranean wine and the use of glass vessels from western France.


PREVIOUS finds at Tap O’Noth included part of a Roman amphora – a large pottery vessel from the eastern Mediterranean used to hold wine or oil – plus a fragment of 6th-century blue glass drinking bowl, Roman pottery and other drinking vessels.

All the finds indicate strong links with cultures beyond Britain, and it is likely that since there is no evidence of viniculture in ancient Scotland, the Picts imported their wine, most likely from France. The site shows plenty evidence of the sort of intricate metalwork which the Picts could have traded to other countries in barter for wine.

The Museum of Scotland has a Pictish design dating from the early 9th century which shows a warrior drinking from a horn with an eagle’s head, eagles being powerfully symbolic to the Picts.


BEARING in mind that “Scotland” only came into being with the merger of the Scots and Picts in the ninth century, our first national drink was a sort of mead which the Picts brewed from heather honey. Robert Louis Stevenson once researched the subject and wrote a poem called Heather Ale about it.

It goes like this: “From the bonny bells of heather, they brewed a drink lang syne, was sweeter far than honey, was stronger far than wine. They brewed it and they drank it, and lay in a blessed swound, for says and days together in their dwellings underground.”

Interestingly, RLS felt it necessary to attach a note to his poem when it was first published as he felt the Picts did not get the respect they deserve: “It is needless to remind the reader that the Picts were never exterminated and form to this day a large proportion of the folk of Scotland, occupying the eastern and the central parts.”

The recent finds show RLS may not have been too fanciful after all. Until beer, ale and whisky came along, most early Scots drank mead almost without exemption. The ancient Celts and Vikings loved it, too, and so it can be reasonably argued that mead was Scotland’s first national drink.


BEFORE whisky began to be distilled legally, ale and wine were Scotland’s main alcoholic drinks. Alehouses were common sights in towns and villages and many a gallon was brewed more or less on the spot.

It is wine, however – and particularly the red wines of France and especially Claret from Bordeaux – that really did become Scotland’s national drink. After the Auld Alliance was signed in 1295, Scotland and France traded as they could, with English pirates always waiting to interrupt such trade.

Scottish wool was highly prized in France and Claret was equally highly prized in Scotland, so the trade in both items developed. Wine was expensive at first but by the 17th and 18th centuries, Scotland was “knee deep in Claret” as Billy Kay’s excellent book on the subject is called.

There are plenty of records that show how Scotland went mad for Claret. The Auld Alliance gave trading privileges to Scottish merchants, who were able to get the pick of the vintages of Bordeaux while English importers were stuck without passports.

The port of Leith became the most important destination for Claret, which came in barrels and was taken in so-called Claret carts to merchants cellars. From there it was sold mainly by women who trod the streets of Edinburgh and elsewhere, dispensing the wine from small barrels into buckets – glass was very expensive for a long time.

During the Enlightenment period, leading figures in Scottish society would meet in taverns in Edinburgh and Glasgow and elsewhere where they would consume large quantities of Claret, sometimes two or three bottles each at a sitting. It was only in the 19th century, when French vines were attacked by diseases, that people switched to whisky as our national drink.

Kay is in no doubt about Claret’s importance to Scotland. He once said: “The red wine of Bordeaux Claret had such a strong claim to be Scotland’s national drink over the centuries that it was called ‘the bloodstream of the Auld Alliance’.

“Even after the Union with England, when the British government tried to ban French wine, people smuggled it in great quantities.”


INDEED we do, and with the growth of the global market, Scottish drinkers have been able to sample wines from Australia, New Zealand and the Americas as well as the traditional suppliers in France and Italy. In the UK, the top brands in no order are Hardys, Yellowtail and McGuigan from Australia and Barefoot from California. Chile’s Casillero Del Diablo is said to be the nation’s favourite Cabernet Sauvignon. There are other wines we could mention, but Buckfast and Eldorado are “fortified” and therefore disqualified from the competition to be the national wine.