The S.S. ‘Politician’ ran aground on Eriskay, on the 4th of February, 1941.
There’s a traditional Scottish song about a loch that includes the lines, “how nice it would be if the whisky were free and the loch was full up to the brim.” For the inhabitants of Eriskay in 1941, the whisky did come for free and although there wasn’t a brim full loch, there was a ship whose hold was nearly full to the rim with ‘uisge beatha’. That boat was the S.S. ‘Policitian’ and she ran aground on Eriskay in gale force winds on the night of the 4th of February, 1941. You might not recognise the name of the boat, but you’ll surely ken the story. Of course, it hit the headlines at the time, although the authorities liked to have kept it quiet, and when Sir Compton MacKenzie’s novel was published in 1947, it became an international best seller. MacKenzie’s novel was entitled ‘Whisky Galore’ and it brought the Hebrides to the attention of the world. Soon after, in 1949, it spawned an ‘Ealing Comedy’ of the same name. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll have an idea of what happened, but there’s far more to the story than the events portrayed in the novel or by Basil Radford and Gordon Jackson.
The S.S. ‘Politician’ was an 8000-ton cargo vessel that was owned by T & J Harrison of Liverpool, from whence it sailed on the 3rd of February, 1941. She was bound for Kingston, Jamaica, then New Orleans, Louisiana, and her cargo included 28,000 cases of malt Scotch whisky, largely from the Edradour Distillery. If there were twelve bottles per case, that’s 336,000 bottles; if eight, then that’s 224,000 bottles – funny then, that most all of the ‘totals’ you can find on t’Internet are intermediate numbers that don’t equate to a whole number of bottles. It’s as if the crew of fifty-two had each helped themselves to the odd bottle – or ten. Maybe that’s why the ship, which should never have been sailing near Eriskay in the first place, ran aground? The vessel was on route to a rendezvous further north with a wartime transatlantic convoy, but ended up miles off course and buffeted by gales, before foundering on the Hebridean Island.
By the morning of the 5th of February, all the sailors aboard, drunken or not, had been rescued by the Islanders, but as soon as those thirsty folks realised what was in the hold, pandemonium broke loose. The locals swarmed over the vessel, liberating as much as a fifth of the whisky from its captivity, in an impromptu salvage operation. Word quickly spread and men from adjacent Barra, and from as far as Mull and Harris, arrived to claim their share of the spoils. No man could see beyond the liquid godsend, but they weren’t so heidless as to rush in like fools. Nae fear, they trod all over the ship. Cunningly, they dressed up in their womenfolks’ clothing to avoid leaving incriminating oil stains on their own togs. Juisht imagine what those women would have thought the priorities should have been, when there were far more practical items, food, cloth, crockery and furniture, amongst the cargo. For a time, Eriskay became Treasure Island as common sense prevailed and some practical items were indeed purloined, including bales of calico, which for decades afterwards were used for curtains and cushions.
The villain of the piece wasn’t the pompous, English, Home Guard Captain Paul Waggett played by Rathbone. The Islanders’ real life nemesis was a Customs Officer from Mull called Charles McColl, who stands out like a demonic Presbyterian amidst the energetically celebrating, massed Catholic souls of Eriskay, Barra and South Uist. It’s easy to see McColl as a vindictive zealot, but his officious outrage sure whipped up a furore. He had villages raided and crofts turned out, and you can imagine the ingenuity employed to hide the bottled booty. No ploy was off limits and even a coffin was used, with its occupant temporarily stowed under the nearest cot. Dispairingly, McColl the Crusader and the Police brought some forty Islanders to justice. On the 26th of April, at Lochmaddy Sherrif Court, a group of men from Barra were fined between three and five pounds, and amazingly, nineteen were actually jailed for theft; being sentenced to up to six weeks in Peterhead or Inverness. Nevertheless, deservedly or not, McColl gets a decent treatment in the book that tells the true story of ‘Whisky Galore’.
That book was researched and written by former Army Officer Arthur Swinson from St. Albans in Hertfordshire. When his ‘Scotch On The Rocks’ appeared in 1963, it got rave reviews and was even serialised in ‘The Scotsman’. The London Evening Standard called it “a rattling good read,” but Swinson had uncovered a far more intriguing story than MacKenzie’s hilarious novel. Amazingly, aboard the ship that should’ve been called S.S. ‘Political Intrigue’, there several tin boxes of Jamaican ten shilling notes. There are unsubstantiated rumours that up to £3M in cash was intended as a wartime escape fund for the Royal Windsors, should Hitler have invaded. But over the years, despite the ‘Freedom of Information Act’, there has never been a full explanation for the presence of a fortune in legal foreign currency. Allan MacDonald, a native of Eriskay, and Ray Burnett, Director of the Dicuil Institute for Island Studies, more recently spent some time investigating the cash, which MacDonald says is the real story behind ‘Whisky Galore’. Their theories are that the money was either intended to shore up the Jamaican economy, which was bankrupt at the time, or to finance dirty tricks by the colonial regime.
The total value of notes in circulation in the colony, in March of 1941, was £254,000. Compare that with the sum of £360,000, which salvor Percy Holden told Swinson he’d recovered from the ‘Politician’ before she was abandoned and sent to the authorities via the Post Office at Lochboisdale. MacDonald and Burnett uncovered evidence that Sir Arthur Richards, the Governor of Jamaica, was desperately papering over the economic cracks with ‘cash funds’. They also found evidence of a more sinister purpose, which seems to have been a deal between Richards and Alexander Bustamante, a vociferous local opponent of colonial rule, to silence his propaganda campaign. Couple that with the fact that the ship, whisky and all, was ultimately scuppered in the Sound of Eriskay and you’ve got as nice a conspiracy theory as you might want.
Who’d be crazy enough to dynamite a ship’s hold full of whisky? No Scotsman, that’s for sure. Seems like a whole lotta trouble to go to in order to prevent a few cases of Scotch from falling into the hands of a few thirsty Scots. Today, in Eriskay’s only pub, the ‘Am Politician’, one of the original bottles is on display. However, if you want to sample a wee dram, you’ll have to find for yourself one of the bottles hidden by somebody’s grandfather and long forgotten in the Machair.