Memories of ‘The Craetur’ Comfort

By Bernie Bell

I started this in response to Charles L. Gallagher commenting in Meet The Orkney News Team about us having tales to share about The Craetur’, and then it got long, and I thought it might make a separate  item for TON.  All very in-correct, but…..well, happy times, I don’t care how incorrect they were!

Shall I begin at the beginning?

I was born at about 10 o’clock at night – at home – this was 1955 and that happened more often then.  I cried and cried and was keeping the house awake.  I was the youngest of five children, so that meant I was keeping 4 children, my Mum and Dad and my Auntie Ann who had come to help with the birth, awake. So, my Dad put a tiny bit of ‘The Craetur’ in with some warm water, and fed it to me. I went out like a light – peace descended on the household. Of course this would be very much frowned on today, but…it worked, and the family needed to be able to function, next day.  I don’t know if it did me any harm – who knows? I don’t think so!

After that, it really was the cure for everything – if you had a cold, it was off to bed, with a ‘hot one’ – drink it hot as you can. It would knock you out, and you’d have a night’s sleep, which you wouldn’t have had otherwise.  Dad would say that it might not cure you, but you’d feel a hell of a lot better when you’d drunk it!  If you had a toothache, you held a bit of ‘The Craetur’ over the tooth, to ease it.  Seriously, it was a cure for all ills, and I don’t know if it did any harm.  Dad had a cup of it, before bed, for his cough – the cough which had been produced by the fact that he’d smoked Woodbines, un-tipped, from the age of 11!  Different times – he was born in 1911, so, he was 11 in 1922 – different times.  That’s what killed him, though, eventually – lung cancer.

When we’d go over to Ireland to visit the family on holiday, we’d always bring back a bottle of the good stuff.  Dad’s policy was to ‘hide in clear view’. He’d put the bottle on the back shelf of the car, and, his plan was, if asked what it was, he’d say it was holy water from Knock ( a place of religious pilgrimage, in Ireland). Then, if the customs people opened it, smelt it, and called  his bluff, he planned to say “Glory be to God – it’s a miracle!”

I don’t remember it giving a hang–over, well not to us children, anyway – I suppose we never had enough of it, to do that. Strong stuff, though, right enough – did blow your head off, raw – best in a ‘hot one’, with hot water and sugar.  Writing this brings back a vivid memory of that smell, and taste, and the good feel of smelling the steam, when it’s still just too hot to sip.

illicit still B Bell

Patience is needed, while the magical process takes place!

The other story to do with ‘The Craetur’ is…..going back a generation, there was an arrangement that my Grandpa would walk over to a neighbour’s house, with a chicken for them.  Grandpa didn’t come  home that night, but Grandma was used to him and his ways,  and didn’t worry about it – she knew he’d turn up, sometime.

So, the story goes, what happen was….he got to the neighbour’s house with the chicken. The neighbour–man said to have a drop ( of the good stuff), meanwhile the wife of the house, cooked the chicken. They all then proceeded to eat the chicken, and have a few more ‘drops’. Grandpa got polluted!  Next morning, being Sunday, Grandma and the family were on their way to church, when they met Grandpa coming home, with his lantern extinguished, and a head on him like a pig had shat in it!

This sounds like Grandpa was a wrong ‘un and that Grandma had a lot to put up with. He wasn’t a wrong ‘un – but he could be a bad-tempered old so-and-so. His nick-name was Musso, after Mussolini, as he tended to ‘give out’ like Musso, with much waving of arms and carry-on.  He was OK otherwise – just liked to drink, sometimes, to excess!  I don’t really know what Granny made of it all – I was too young to notice or be told. My memory is of a warm, friendly home.

My Auntie Bridie and Uncle Anthony  stayed home to take care of the old ones, and raised their family there too.  A two room thatched cottage with no running water or electricity. I suppose you had to get along with each other, and muddle through, in those circumstances. Though, having said that….nothing to do with drink or my family, but ………the church at Lough Talt, was small, and didn’t have confessionals, so, the priest heard confession by sitting in a pew, while the person confessing, sat by him. Mum remembers one man, who, every time he went to confession, began with “Bless me, Father, but I hate the livin’ sight o’ Biddy.”  Biddy was his wife! I suppose that was his only outlet for how he felt. Different times.

When we lived in Bradford, secrecy was needed, so….Dad made his ‘still’ from a metal bread-bin, with a hole in it ( sealed with putty), from this hole, passed a length of copper pipe, which then passed through a baby’s bath of cold water ( holes again sealed with putty), and out the other end, where there was a bit of a matchstick, to direct the flow.
The mash was made in the bread-bin, then placed in the airing cupboard until ready. Then, when ready, the bread-bin was placed on the cooker, on a low heat. Then Dad left it to nature/the laws of physics/magic, whatever, and the evaporation/distillation occurred. The strongly laden ‘steam’ passed through the copper tube, through the cold water in the baby’s bath, where it cooled, and condensed and, out of the end , came ……the creature. Mum was the taster – it was only when Mum said it was ready, that it was ready.
The whole contraption could be completely dismantled, in minutes. When Mum and Dad retired, and went ‘home’ to Ireland, he sold it to a young man, who took on the responsibility of providing the cure-all for the people of Bradford.

Rare Old Mountain Dew: The Dublinners

I could also tell of where my Aunt and Uncle used to hide their illicit hooch, which was just as ingenious as Dad’s way of making a still, but I won’t, as, well, what’s the point of tipping off the coppers?

There are also tales of illicit stills and smuggling of spirits here, on Orkney, in the old days. Including one about a Minister, hiding the barrels under his pulpit!

Dark Side of the Malt. Highland Park Dark Origins.

Magnus Eunson

Ingenuity – where there’s a will, there’s a way!


Tom Forrest [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


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7 replies »

  1. It always played a big role on growing up in Ireland, with a bottle usually appearing at family gatherings. The best stuff was from the Glens of Antrim, usually around Cushendall and Glenariff, where they’d been making it for centuries.
    Interesting to know that the American word ‘crittur’ probably comes from it too, as moonshining was transplanted to Virginia and Tennessee. I’ve head that ‘hillbillies’ is also of Irish origin. Irish Protestants who went to the Appalachians. Literally the ‘billy-boys in the hills’ which is also where redneck cane from- the Irish immigrants whose skin couldn’t tan and just went red- like my own!

    • Hi Eamonn
      As a music-man, you probably have heard of a song by The Bhundu Boys of Zimbabwe, called ‘Shabini’ – in the play list for the cd, this is described as “A drinking den.”
      And, an Irish illicit drinking den is ….a Shebeen. The good stuff, spreads.

      • I know the band, but not the song, unfortunately.
        I played in many shebeens in the 70s and 80s!

  2. Addendum – another tale of The Craetur.
    When he was a young man, my Uncle Bartley left his home in Ireland, to try to make his way in America, as many folk from Ireland and Scotland needed to ( see He worked hard, did well for himself, and opened a restaurant in Chicago. The front part of this restaurant, right enough, was a restaurant, but the back part was a Speakeasy, serving ….Poteen! Uncle Bartley’s family recipe – home-made-Craetur. Compared to some of the rot-gut concoctions served in a lot of other places, Uncle Bartley’s Proper Poteen must have seemed like nectar!
    He did well, didn’t get caught (canny Uncle Bartley), married an American lass, and went home to Ireland. He bought a big house, where he sat in the window, watching his cattle get fat on the good, rich grass. On those mizzly days you get so often in Ireland, he’d look out the window, approvingly, and say “It’s a fine, soft day, thanks be to God.” As it all helped to make the grass grow, and the cows fatten.
    Then , come the ‘Fair Day’ in Aclare, he’d put on his Zoot Suit – dark brown pin-stripe – with his kipper tie with a parrot painted on it, and head to the Mart. to buy and sell, looking sharp as a box o’ knives.
    And all from the proceeds of knowing how to make good, Good Stuff.

    • Yes! We still refer to those days as soft days. As Poitín is made from potatoes, I wonder what they used during the Famine?

  3. To paraphrase………….”Potatoes can get you through times of no Poitin, but Poitin can’t get you through times of no potatoes”. Do you recognize that one?
    To answer your question- I can’t think how they’d get round it, as sugar is another option, and they wouldn’t have the money for that. Where there’s a will, there’s a way though, and I bet they thought of something.
    Does anyone know?

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