British Isles Weird and wonderful

The true tale behind classic comedy caper Whisky Galore!

It’s a story that has passed into common lore in the Outer Hebrides.

In 1941, the 8,230-tonne cargo ship the SS Politician, bound for Jamaica and New Orleans, foundered on rocks just off the coast of Eriskay. Islanders rushed to assist the crew and passengers, and once all were safe they turned their attention to the cargo.

Their enthusiasm for doing so should be put in the context of wartime privations and food shortages: the cargo included nearly 300,000 Jamaican 10-shilling notes, but of greater interest were the 260,000 bottles of whisky. It is said that the island men, knowing that recovering the bottles was legally dubious, wore their wives’ dresses so as to avoid getting incriminating ship oil on their clothes.

Isle of Eriskay Whisky Galore! Outer Hebrides by Gillian McCubin Shutterstock
The view down to Eriskay beach © Gillian McCubin, Shutterstock

The government view was that since the duty on the whisky was to have been paid in the United States, laws of salvage did not apply: it wanted the whisky back. The tale of how the islanders unloaded the booty and then hid it when the customs men came knocking has passed into lore.

Inspectors tracked down most of the bottles, and a few people served short jail sentences for theft. Meanwhile, the Jamaican banknotes began turning up all over the world, from Benbecula to Liverpool, Switzerland and the United States.

The whisky saga was retold – with some panache and embellishment by Barra resident Compton Mackenzie – in his novel Whisky Galore (‘galore’, incidentally, is a corruption of the Gaelic ‘gu leòr’, meaning ‘plenty’).

Soon after, Ealing Studios realised the saga had rich material for a film, and Barra was chosen as the location for the (now classic) comedy Whisky Galore! starring Basil Radford, Joan Greenwood, James Robertson Justice and a young Gordon Jackson. Even Compton Mackenzie had a bit part as Captain Buncher. Whisky Galore! was a huge hit and was retitled Tight Little Island for the US audience.

In 1987, a professional diver, Donald MacPhee from South Uist, found eight bottles of whisky in the wreck. He sold them at auction and walked away with £4,000. A remake of the film, starring Eddie Izzard and Gregor Fisher (best known for his TV comedy character Rab C Nesbitt), was released in 2016 to some sympathetic but mixed reviews – given the superlative nature of the original, this was perhaps unsurprising.

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