The word - 'whisky' - derives from uisge, which is an abbreviation of uisge beatha, the Scots Gaelic for 'Water of Life'. It was first used in the 18th century. Prior to that writers referred to usquebaugh or aqua vitae (the Latin for 'Water of Life').
Tradition has it that the secrets of distilling came to Scotland from Ireland, and were introduced there by St. Patrick in the 400s A.D. He had travelled on the Continent and may possibly have learned about distilling there - although it is not at all certain whether anyone in Europe knew how to distil until 500 years later.
Distilling was first done in monasteries, to produce medicine. Irish records remark on this in the late 1100s, and the earliest Scottish record - in the Royal Exchequer Rolls of 1494 - is of the sale of 500 kgs (1, 120 lbs) of malt to one Friar John Corr 'wherewith to make aqua vitae'. In 1505 the Guild of Surgeon Barbers in Edinburgh was granted a monopoly in that town for the distillation of aqua vitae.
Easing the lives
Although a handful of 'industrial' distilleries sprang up during the 17th and 18th centuries malt whisky distilling was essentially a domestic activity until the 1820s. Just as most rural households brewed beer, so, especially in the Highlands, did they distil uisge beatha. Indeed, it was as essential to the rural economy - paid rents, used up surplus grain and provided cattle feed from spent grains - as it was to rural society, easing the hard lives of poor people in a chill northern country with an inclement climate.
Even in our own times, malt whisky distilling was an extension of the farming year, part of the natural cycle of the seasons. The season began in August or September, when the barley had been taken in, and continued through the winter until late April. In May and June many distillery workers helped to cut peats for next season, but production ceased for the summer and maintenance work was done. Today, the length of the summer 'silent season' depends on demand.