Whisky Galore

Gavin D. Smith looks at the event that inspired the world-famous whisky novel by Compton Mackenzie
By Gavin D. Smith
Whisky Galore! The expression is familiar the world over, and conjures up images of cunning Hebrideans ‘liberating’ whisky from a wrecked ship, and subsequently hiding bottles in a variety of ingenious places, including babies’ cots, lobster creels, haystacks, peat bogs and even rabbit warrens around their beautiful island home.These images come courtesy of the eponymous 1949 film, one of the most enduring of the Ealing comedies, starring Joan Greenwood, Basil Radford and Gordon Jackson. It introduced a somewhat caricatured version of the Outer Hebrides to a generation of cinema-goers and is still regularly shown on television, as well as being widely available on video.The film was itself based on Compton Mackenzie’s highly-successful humorous novel of the same name, which had been published two years earlier, and sold 33,500 hardback copies by the end of 1949. It was inspired by the real life wrecking of the SS Politician off the Hebridean island of Eriskay in February 1941.The vessel was sailing from Liverpool to New Orleans by way of Kingston, Jamaica, carrying £3 million-worth of new Jamaican bank notes due to enter circulation, and an array of other goods needed in the West Indies or due to be sold in the USA.Then there was the whisky.This crucial element of the cargo was being exported partly in an attempt to raise much-needed funds to support the British war effort. It has been estimated that the spirit on board the SS Politician might have fetched up to half a million pounds in the US markets.Additionally however, the whisky was being removed from the United Kingdom because German bomber raids during 1940 to ‘41 had already destroyed large quantities of maturing spirit in two warehouses in Leith and Glasgow, and Britain’s coalition government was keen to avoid a similar fate for more of the precious liquid.Accordingly, some 22,000 cases, or 264,000 bottles-worth, of duty-free whisky was stowed on the SS Politician. Most of it consisted of high-quality, high-proof blends, intended to attract premium prices, and it came from the likes of Walker, Buchanan, Haig, Ballantine, Peter Mackenzie and James Martin.According to Roger Hutchinson in his book Polly – The True Story Behind Whisky Galore, the cargo included cases of “The Antiquary, Haig’s Pinch, VVO Gold Bar, Ballantine’s Amber Concave, White Horse, King’s Ransom, Victoria Vat, Johnnie Walker Red and Black Label, Mountain Dew, King William IV, MacCallum’s Perfection, King George IV, PD Special, Old Curio and Spey Royal.”When it came to fictionalising the events surrounding the wrecking of the SS Politician, Compton Mackenzie – who was living on the nearby island of Barra at the time – clearly had some fun inventing names for the “many blends of the finest quality” which made up the ship’s cargo, alongside “the famous names known all over the world by ruthless and persistent advertising for many years”. Tartan Milk, Deirdre’s Farewell and Glen Gloming were but three in a lengthy list.“The glass of every bottle”, he wrote, “was stamped with a notice which made it clear that whisky like this was intended to be drunk in the United States of America and not by the natives of the land where it was distilled, matured and blended.”Drunk by the natives it was, however, as the wreck was enthusiastically looted. Desperate for a dram during the drought of war, they found all their prayers answered at once.The islanders did not have everything their own way though, with the offensive against them being led by local customs officer Charles McColl, who was stationed in Lochmaddy, South Uist, and his superior, the Portree-based surveyor Ivan Gedhill.Acting in concert with the local police, many crofts were searched, but very little smuggled whisky was discovered.It was all much too well hidden, though McColl estimated that a grand total of around 2,000 cases had been illegally removed.Although personal consumption accounted for most of the salvaged spirit, some whisky was sold to construction workers building an RAF station at Balivanich on Benbecula, while amounts were even posted to friends and family on the mainland.On one occasion an RAF lorry filled with ‘Polly’ whisky was pursued towards Balivanich by a police car, only for the RAF driver to swerve sharply onto the newly-constructed runway, causing the entire cargo of whisky to fall in front of a bulldozer that was levelling fresh tar. Conveniently, the evidence was duly lost.A number of the islanders who were caught smuggling whisky ashore from the wrecked vessel made appearances at Lochmaddy Sheriff Court, with fine ranging from £3 to £10. A number, however, were sent to prison in Inverness for two months.Bottles of whisky from the SS Politician have been discovered from time to time over the years, with four bottles of White Horse being found under a neatly adapted floorboard hatch in a Barra croft in 1990.Three years earlier, eight bottles of recently salvaged ‘Polly’ whisky were auctioned by Christie’s in Edinburgh, and such was the enduring fascination with the subject that they fetched a total of £4,000.In 1990, Jeremy Bough of SS Politician plc led a salvage operation, funded by a £400,000 share issue.Only three intact bottles were discovered, however, and a Whisky Galore Atlantic Blend was subsequently produced by SS Politician plc, each individually numbered in a limited edition of 480 bottles containing an unspecified amount of the salvaged whisky.Most recently, in January of this year, a wooden panel from one of the cases of Whisky Galore spirit was auctioned at Bonhams in London by the Liverpool based Harrison Line, owners of the SS Politician.The stencilled panel was estimated at £500, but actually sold for more than £1,500.On Eriskay, the legacy of Whisky Galore lives on in a few treasured bottles preserved for posterity in croft houses, while the island also boasts a bar called Am (the) Politician, which has framed Jamaican £5 notes and newspaper cuttings relating to salvage attempts as decoration on its walls. According to staff at the nearest Tourist Information Centre in Castlebay on Barra, the whole subject of ‘Whisky Galore’ continues to have a fascination for tourists.A spokeswoman noted:“There’s still a great deal of interest from visitors from Britain and all over the world. We get asked about it a lot, and people want to see the old buildings on the main street here in Castlebay where some of the filming was done”.Commercially, too, there remains an international cachet to the expression coined by Compton Mackenzie. Duncan Taylor & Co. Ltd of Huntly in Aberdeenshire has recently started to bottle ‘Rare aged single malt Scotch whiskies’ under the ‘Whisky Galore’ label, claiming in their advertising literature that “‘Whisky Galore’ is known as ‘The Legendary Scotch’...”Roger Hutchinson observed that,“Whisky Galore was Compton Mackenzie’s legacy to the southern isles, and unlike many another literary offering, it was welcomed by the legatees. The story which he loosely based on some occasionally grim incidents is free from malice and condescension. Unlike other comic writers on the Highlands and Islands, Mackenzie attempted no cheap laughs at the expense of the native people.”On the strength of Whisky Galore, Mackenzie developed a lucrative sideline advertising the Grant’s Standfast blend for many years.The novel made Mackenzie “rich, famous, and a Knight”, wrote Hutchinson. Not bad for a book which its author always felt was of far less importance than his now rarely-read ‘serious’ novels, such as Sinister Street and The Four Winds of Love.As the character Norman Macleod says in Whisky Galore,“Love makes the world go round? Not at all. Whisky makes it go round twice as fast.”Polly – The True Story of Whisky Galore, by Roger Hutchinson, Mainstream Publishing, 1990Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie, Chatto & Windus 1947, available as a Penguin paperback