Throughout the build of the distillery we had to do a great deal of archaeological work to ensure that we were not going disrupt anything under the soil.
A very thorough dig took place and we were delighted that for the first time in over 500 years we had a far greater understanding of the layout of the Abbey as we uncovered several walls that no one knew existed.
The findings were meticulously recorded, and we filled in the trenches with sand to preserve the walls for a further 500 years.
The oldest whisky still in the world?
Once we had finished the initial dig we still needed to create a SUDs pond, and very soon after we broke ground we discovered what on first sight looked like a well as it had water in it, but once it was cleaned out we could see it was a clay lined bowl 4 foot across and 3 ft deep. The archaeologists present at the dig confirmed that the structure’s features are characteristic of traditional kiln stills of the medieval era, and that the residue found within is certainly in keeping with brewing and distilling practices of the time.
The stone structure has now been excavated and found to contain traces of charcoal, barley, oats, wheat and pottery that have been dated back to the medieval times, when the monks first began to distil their bols of malt, the product that we now know as Scotch whisky. The structure was unearthed next to the site of the original grain store, suggesting that grain was essential for its function.
Distilling at Lindores Abbey
Douglas Speirs – Head Archaeologist for Fife Council, said that this added to the other archaeological features and environmental deposits uncovered at Lindores are commensurate with light industrial activity and indicate burning, heating, drains and water management. Such remains are associated with a whole host of medieval activities and in the context of an outer monastic precinct (where the remains were found), they could indicate distilling, as well as a brewhouse, baking, smithing, washing or a whole host of cooking or processing activities. Without further exploration we cannot definitively say what was being distilled and why but the well-known 1494 reference certainly indicates that distilling was being practised at Lindores on a semi-industrial scale.
“To Brother John Cor, by order of the King, to make aqua vitae VIII bolls of malt” (Rotuli scaccarii regum scotorum Vol X, p. 487)
8 Bolls amounts to almost 500kg of malt and would have been enough to make 350 litres or more of spirits. We do need to inject a little caution here. The reference doesn’t say where Brother John Cor was distilling. Historical evidence from several sources suggests he was a member of the chapter of Lindores and the reference clearly indicates he was a professed monk (fratri Johanni Cor = brother John Cor), but it doesn’t say where he was doing his distilling, although Lindores Abbey would seem the logical place.*
Given that John Cor appears to have been a Tironensian monk of Lindores Abbey, and that Lindores Abbey Appears to have been distilling on an industrial scale in the late medieval period, a potential connection is entirely plausible.
What Douglas Speirs found interesting about the 1494 reference to aqua vitae, is its historical context. The date, the royal interest and the quantity of spirit involved all suggests that this liquor was being produced as part of the victualing of the royal army in the King’s campaign to bring the Western Isles under royal control. This is of interest as it suggests that the aqua vitae distilled (probably a brandy wine or a fruit flavoured spirit rather than bond-matured whisky – Lindores was famed for its orchards, particularly its pears and plums) was for drinking/celebrating/Dutch courage rather than for the more common medieval use, particularly at monasteries, which was as a health tonic for the sick.
So perhaps the real interest of the 1494 reference is that it tells us something about changes in society and culture and the growth of recreational spirit drinking in Scotland, rather than just telling us that late 15th century monks understood distilling technology, something we already know given that monks had been distilling on the Continent since the 11th century and probably in Britain since at least the 14th century.Aqua Vitae today
So do we have enough archaeological evidence for medieval spirit distillation at Lindores?
We certainly have historical records of it, but as things stand, we cannot yet marry up the archaeological and historical records to a degree that allows us to say, without question, that we have definitive evidence of distilling of aqua vitae; but we certainly have something that looks very like it. And that is why we want to continue to unearth the secrets of Lindores with further archaeological exploration!How can I help?
Who was Friar John Cor?
In The Exchequer Roll of 1494 it reads:
“Et per liberacionem factam fratri Johanni Cor per preceptum compotorum rotulatoris, ut asserit, de mandato domini regis ad faciendum aquavite infra hoc compotum, viii bolle brasii”
Which translates as;
“And by payment made to Brother John Cor by precept of the comptroller, as he asserts, by the Kings command, to make aquavite within the period of the account, 8 bolls of malt.”
This entry in the Exchequer Rolls is recognised as the first written evidence of the production of Aqua Vitae, or Water of Life (Uisge Beatha) or we call it today, whisky, in Scotland.
Most whisky literature asserts that Brother/Friar John Cor was a Tironensian monk based at Lindores Abbey in Fife, but Historians and whisky enthusiasts alike have spent many years trying to unearth how this link was made and when.
After over 20 years of research by Drew McKenzie Smith, we believe we have a weight of evidence to support the common assumption that he was indeed based at Lindores Abbey.
The earliest written record that Drew found mentioning John Cor is from a company report of Newtons of Bonthrone in 1950, who were brewers and distillers from nearby Falkland.
This predates by over forty years the authoritative book “The Scotch Whisky Industry Record” by H Charles Craig in 1994, which begins by repeating the assertion that Friar john Cor was from Lindores Abbey, and this has been repeated in a great many books by leading whisky writers across the world as well as hundreds of whisky websites and blogs.
Drew worked with the National Archives of Scotland, The Special Records Department at St Andrew’s University Library and The National Library of Scotland to compile information that supports the assumption that Friar john Cor was the same person as one John Kawe, Baillie of Newburgh (the small town established around the abbey) and who can be placed at the Abbey of Lindores on a number of occasions over the period (1494/5) in question.
Taken from “The Chartluary of Lindores Abbey” produced by the Scottish History Society in 1903 and repeated in “Lindores Abbey and its burgh of Newburgh” by Dr Alexander Laing in 1876.
‘No.6 Instrument of Sasine in favour of Sir John Malcoumsone of an annual rent of three shillings, from a tenemaent in the burgh of Newburgh. 24 September 1511
…whereupon the said JOHN KAWE, bailie foresaid, gave heritable state and seisin thereof to the said Sir John Malcumsone. Done at the Monastery of Londoris near the stone dial, Eleven O’Clock forenoon, or thereby….
This entry in the Chartulary was written in the vernacular and it is an established fact that names were often spelt in several ways, usually phonetically, hence Cor/Kawe.
The Abbot of Lindores (at this time, Andrew Cavers) appointed the Baillies of Newburgh and they were the Abbot’s “Money Men”, people of learning , whom he could trust with the financial affairs of the Monastery. For instance Abbot Henry Orme had been a Bailie, so it is reasonable to assume that John Cor/John Kawe would be mentioned in a financial transaction with the crown that would then be recorded in the Exchequer Roll.
‘The Bailies counsale and communite quhen thai (are) requisite to the kingis were said pas company with the said abbotis bailie….
On 25th February 1510 “Michael Anderson and JOHN KAWE bailyies of the burcht of Newburcht bewest Lundoris”, constitute their “Weill-belovit nychbour James Philpe, their procurator for the resignation of two roods of land in excambion “ for four shillings yearly to be tane up be us, our successouris, factoris, assignais, or chaplainis of our kirk”
In August 1513 JOHN KAWE, Baillie, gave sasine of the image of St Katherine at a tenement of Archibald Carno in Newburgh which also mentions Andrew Caureris (Cavers), formerly Abbot of Lindoris and Sir John Malcumsone.
The Exchequer Roll itself is a long parchment, recording all the financial transactions over a period of time. The entries are sectioned into areas i.e. all the transactions from the Highlands are recorded together, then another district and so on. The Friar John Cor entry is in the middle of the Fife section, this discredits any claims from elsewhere, such as Edinburgh.
The Exchequer Roll of 1494-95 was written by Wm Scott of Flawcrag, Chamberlain of the county of Fife. It is Scotts computum (account) of all transactions of brasii (malt) during the period. His residence “Flawcrag” exists today. Flawcrag, near Kilspindie is across the Tay from Lindores, which then had a pier on the south bank, so it would be natural for Scott to cross the Tay by boat to Lindores, where he might meet “Brother Cor” the monk or Baillie who made aqua vitae.
Wilyam Scott of Flaw-crag was also listed as being present at ‘Lundoris’ on the “ffyffteiene day of the moneth of januarrr the yere of God a thousand four hundredth nynte and thre yeris”
The Tironensians originated from Tiron, in France and were well known for their horticultural skills. Unlike other religious orders they were often involved in manual and agricultural labour as they believed it cleansed the soul, whereas the Dominicans for instance, believed in Scholarly and religious study and would not have been involved in any physical pursuits such as animal husbandry, farming, fishing, brewing or distilling. In “The Benedictine Monasteries of North East Fife” by James Wilkie, it reads “In the den through which the stream (the Holy Burn) from the loch (Lindores Loch/Magnus Lacus) rushes bounding on its way down to the monastery was the monks’ first mill. The brew-house of the Grange figures on a rental of date about 1480. There, no doubt, like the monks of Faill, they brewed good ale,”
Geographically the Abbey of Lindores is situated only seven miles from the Royal Hunting Lodge of Falkland Palace, much favoured by King James IV, and there are numerous important historical links between the Abbey and the Palace, both prior to and after 1494.
In 1494 a “Frere Cor” is mentioned in The Lord High Treasurer’s Accounts (in Latin), it records that he received 6 ells (three yards) of “Rissillis blak”, this was a woollen cloth from Rijsel, the Flemish name for Lille and it cost £10 .16 shillings, which is quite a significant amount of money for the time and it is recorded that the monks of Lindores traded with Flanders the salmon caught in the Tay, for cloth.
As a monk, John Cor would be forbidden worldly colours, but black was one of the hardest shades to achieve in dying and it therefore would have been a costly purchase for King James IV. The Tironensian monks of Lindores were often referred to as “The Black Monks” (most notably by John Knox himself) due to the colour of their cloaks and caps, which they had received dispensation from Pope Nicholas to wear, due to the cold weather in Scotland.
It is often the case that a “title” is added as an identifier, for instance “Fratri” could be added where now it could be “Mr” or “Sir”.
As the information in the Exchequer Roll entry is so sparse, one can only speculate about John Cor. For example, as he was involved in the manual labour of making aqua vitae, he may have been a “lay brother”; someone excused from some religious attendance to help with practical tasks.
On 15th August 1507 Abbot Cavers appears again in the history books when it is recorded that he sent his man to FALKLAND PALACE, “With Plowmyss (plums) for the King” (James IV), for which the King gave the messenger three shillings, this is recorded in the “Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer” and establishes that there was trade between Lindores and Falkland, the ‘mans’ name is not recorded but of course it could have been John Kawe.
Finally it is worth mentioning that after the entry of 1511 there are no further references to a Kawe/Cor at Lindores or Newburgh or indeed anywhere, confirming that he did not marry or have children, befitting a Catholic man of the (black) cloth.
The association of Friar John Cor (of 1494) to Lindores Abbey has been made in print by
Michael Jackson in “Scotland and it’s Whiskies”. Michael visited the Abbey and kindly signed his book.
The Earl of Elgin and Kincardine KT in his forward to Charles MacLean’s “Malt Whisky the Complete Guide”
Charles MacLean in “Malt Whisky the Complete Guide”
Dr David Wishart “Whisky Classified”
John KV Eunson “Caledonia Dreaming”
F Paul Pacult “Double Scotch”
Alan Castle “The Speyside way”
The Newton of Bonthrone Brochure, published approx 1950.
GN Bathgate “History of the development of whisky distillation” London Academic Press.
The Spiritual Home of Scotch Whisky
So, whilst it can never be absolutely proven that ‘Brother John Cor’ was the same person as John Kawe, it can also never be proven that any other person of the same, or similar name that existed at the time, could be authenticated as the person named in the Exchequer Roll over five hundred years ago.
What is certain is that the Tironensian monks of Lindores were involved in brewing and distilling prior to 1494 and my intention to create a distillery whereby we can once more create the water of life at Lindores, using the same water supply, using malting Barley from the same fields, grown under the same sun can only be a good thing.
As the Custodians for Lindores Abbey we choose to firmly believe that Lindores is the spiritual home of Scotch whisky, and we hope you’ll agree!
You are most welcome to come and visit us at any time, as whatever your views on Scotch Whisky and its provenance are, Lindores Abbey is a very special place in the history of aqua vitae and we would be delighted to talk about the distillery and our long and fascinating history.Visit Us