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12 Mar 2021

‘Go fetch to me a pint o’ wine’

Written by Derek Alexander, Head of Archaeology
A 17th- or 18th-century mallet-shaped wine bottle in a person's hands.
A late 17th- or early 18th-century mallet-shaped wine bottle found during ploughing at Threave Estate
The Trust has recently entered into a partnership with Naked Wines, the online wine retailer, who are supporting us by raising valuable funds to help protect our 8 National Nature Reserves. It’s also given us the perfect excuse to delve into our collections and share some of the fascinating stories and artefacts in our care. We’ll drink to that!

Across Scotland, our places have a deep connection with the wine industry – from the many glasses, bottles and decanters in our collections, to the land itself and the stories of the people who worked on it.

Archaeology is the study of the past through the recovery and interpretation of material culture – the things that people have left behind. Unfortunately, few of our collections contain actual wine as it usually gets consumed or evaporates! One exception is a bottle of 1978 Château Latour at Fyvie Castle. However, most of the evidence for wine consumption is from empty vessels – bottles and glasses, either complete or broken into hundreds of shards.

We have a number of complete early 17th- and 18th-century bottles, including one from a shipwreck that’s in our collection at Brodick Castle, one that was stuffed into the yew hedge at Crathes Castle and another found after ploughing at Threave. Wine bottles changed in shape over time and can be used to help date archaeological deposits. But it’s even better when they are stamped with a date, and we have also found several glass seals. One bottle has ‘Culzean 1741’ stamped on it, while another has the family crest of the Burnetts of Crathes Castle. Our excavations frequently recover shards of both wine bottles and glasses.

Several Trust gardens grow vines in glasshouses, including Harmony, Malleny and Crathes, and indeed some even grow outside – at the Pineapple and Culross. Perhaps the most successful growing of grapes is in the reconstructed 19th-century vinery in the walled garden at Culzean. The rebuild was based on archaeological evidence recovered from the site, which confirmed the use of horse carcases (bones) as fertiliser. We now grow six varieties of grapes there and a previous Head Gardener at Culzean did make some wine with them!

Aerial view of an archaeological excavation of a vinery, showing pipes and ducts where hot air would have been piped.
Vinery excavation at Culzean walled garden showing the complex arrangement of warm air vents

We have some very nice examples of wine glasses in our collections, including a number of early 1700s Jacobite glasses – some are on display at Culloden and others at Kellie Castle.

A long-stemmed wine goblet from the 1700s. The stem has a twisted glass pattern and there are flowers and leaves etched onto the bowl of the glass.
1700s wine glass from Kellie Castle

We have a wealth of information in the historical records, as well as some of the stories that relate to wine importing, storage and drinking at Trust properties. They follow the general history of this topic for which Billy Kay’s book Knee Deep in Claret: A celebration of wine and Scotland is a great source of information.

Of course, wine was probably first imported into Scotland with the arrival of the Roman army to the British Isles from the 1st century BC onwards. Initially transported in amphorae, by the medieval period wooden barrels, which were less fragile and easier to move, had become the norm. At Crarae Garden, a number of sherds of 12th-century Spanish amphorae were found during our archaeological investigations there.

In the high medieval period, we have references to James IV and James V importing and consuming large quantities of wine at Falkland Palace. At Culzean Castle, in the 17th and 18th centuries the Kennedys imported wine legally through local wine merchants, but they were also heavily involved in the illegal smuggling of a range of goods (but mostly alcohol).

In 1733 John McIlvane, a local merchant, sold Sir John Kennedy ‘thirty pints of claret, eight pints of genever, three dozen bottles of claret and white wine, and seven pints of brandy’. In 1735 it was ‘two dozen bottles of white wine, six dozen claret’. In 1753 Irish smugglers/pirates intercepted a boat from the Isle of Man that included ‘two hogsheads of wine’ which were meant for Sir Thomas Kennedy. He was offered a dozen bottles of ‘best Lisbon or claret’ in compensation.

In addition to the artefacts such as bottles and glasses, the importance of wine drinking is reflected in the built fabric of many of our castles and country houses. There are a wide range of wine cellars across the Trust, for example in Brodick Castle and at Broughton House. Perhaps the most impressive example is the cellar in the basement of Culzean Castle built by Robert Adam in the 1780s. Here there are racks for hundreds of bottles on the walls of a circular room, with a vaulted ceiling held up by a central stone pillar. Although dark, on closer examination it’s easy to see, disappointingly, that the racks are all empty!

A wall of a wine cellar with empty metal wine racks, which would have held hundreds of bottles.
Some of the wine racks in the cellar at Culzean Castle

But what does survive for Culzean is a copy of the Cellar Book, which lists the numbers and types of bottles that were kept in these wine racks and sitting on the cellar floor. There was a lot of claret, but also hundreds of bottles of sherry and port.

An open ledger book from 1810, which shows what is held in Culzean's wine cellar.
The Culzean Castle cellar book, 1810

Wine certainly played an important part in Scottish history and features quite a lot in poems and songs by Robert Burns. The opening lines of one song, My Bonnie Mary, reads ‘Go fetch to me a pint o’ wine, And fill it in a silver tassie’. If it was being consumed or served in such quantities, this might explain why such large numbers of bottles were kept and why we find so many glass shards on archaeological excavations.

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