True Highlands Blog
The legend of Whisky Galore, of resourceful wartime islanders in a time of austerity, opportunistically salvaging whisky from a crashed cargo boat, is an iconic and enduring image of the Hebrides. But how much of the story is actually based in truth, and how accurate is its portrayal of the islands?
The book, titled simply ‘Whisky Galore’ by Compton Mackenzie was published in 1947, but had it not been for its global success, the incident on which it was based may never have reached the wider world. So, first then, to the facts. In 1941 a ship, the SS Politician, was carrying a mixed cargo and heading for the West Indies when it ran aground in gale force winds not far from the island of Eriskay. The crew were all rescued, but when word got around that the ship had been carrying a large amount of whisky locals, having suffered from the effects of wartime rationing, decided to liberate some of the cargo for themselves. Poor weather hampered their efforts and eventually the wreck broke in two and sank, but not before a considerable quantity of the cargo was rescued. A local customs official, angry at what he perceived as theft, mobilised the police to act and a small number of arrests were made, although very little of the estimated 24,000 bottles that were salvaged were ever found. Eventually, the wreck was dynamited to stop further attempts at recovering the remainder of the whisky.
Up until the 1980’s, divers managed to occasionally retrieve a bottle or two, but the difficulties involved meant a large scale commercial salvage operation was unlikely to ever be cost effective.
This tale may have passed the world by, were it not for success of the book 6 years later by the writer Compton Mackenzie. He fictionalised Eriskay and Barra as ‘Great’ and ’Little Todday’ and the SS Politician as the ‘SS Cabinet Minister’ but was largely faithful to the original incident. His light hearted comic romp romanticises the difficulties of island life a little, but was generally sympathetic towards the locals. Rather than mock them, this upbeat tale gently allows us to be amused by their traditions.
The film, which was to follow a couple of years later, was equally well received, even if it did deviate from the truth a little further. It was filmed on location on Barra and featured some of the finest acting talent available. Released in America under the title “Tight Little Island”, due to a ban on alcohol promotion, it was a worldwide success and established Ealing studios as a major producer of comedy films. A sequel, ‘Rockets Galore’ (titled Mad Little Island in America) followed in 1958.
This story has, for generations, struck a chord with viewers. After the war, with people still feeling the effects of rationing, it was a pick me up, its appeal largely based on the idea of the cunning islanders getting one over on the authority figures trying to spoil their good fortune. In later years this piece of Scottish film history has endured as a favourite of many, mainly due to its gentle and whimsical representation of an isolated community. It is a history lesson, but one where the protagonists poke fun at themselves and their curious traditions, and that is why I think it has achieved the status of national treasure – one of these cherished classic postcards of a vanished era.
These days Eriskay now boasts its very own pub, named of course “Am Politician” where you can see some of the original bottles that were salvaged. Sadly, these bottles are empty, but would a whisky ever taste as sweet as one rescued from a sinking ship in a time of austerity anyway.Tags: am politician, barra, compton mackenzie, ealing studios, eriskay, hebrides, island history, rockets galore, scottish film, SS Politician, whisky, whisky galore