Whisky Galore and the SS Politician
One of the most well known events in the
recent history of the Western Isles was
the wreck of the SS
Politician on the 5th February 1941
and the story was used by Compton Mackenzie for his book
Whisky Galore, and later for the
Ealing Studio comedy by the same name. Relics and images
can be seen at the
Politician pub and restaurant on Eriskay.
Politician was an 8000-tonne cargo ship which
left Liverpool on the 3rd February 1941 laden
with amongst other things 260,000 bottles of
whisky, bound for Kingston in Jamaica and New
Orleans. The whisky was for the American market
and therefore no duty had been paid. She sailed
up past the Isle of Man towards the Hebrides
where the winds increased to gale force.
On the morning
of 5th February a young man was combing a beach
in South Uist when he saw the ship in trouble
and beginning to list. After a valiant struggle
by the Captain, Beaconsfield Worthington, to
keep his ship on course, the SS Politician
eventually ran aground in the storm onto
sandbanks off the Isle of Eriskay where she
began to flood. Unfortunately as the ship had
veered off course an incorrect location was
given to the lifeboat crew on Barra. Local
islanders were roused and they set forth in a
sailing boat to offer assistance to the crew.
The lifeboat finally reached the ship and all
the crew were rescued.
the locals learned from the crew exactly what
the ship was carrying, a series of illegal
salvage operations took place at night, before
the customs and excise officials arrived. The
islands supplies of whisky had dried up due to
war-time rationing, so the islanders
periodically helped themselves to some of the
260,000 bottles of whisky before winter weather
broke up the ship. Boats came from as far away
as Lewis as news of the whisky travelled across
the Outer Hebrides. No islander regarded it as
stealing, as for them the rules of salvage meant
that once the bounty was in the sea, it was
theirs to rescue.
of course was not the view of the local customs officer, Charles McColl,
who was incensed at the blatant thievery that was going
on. Not a penny had been paid in duty for this whisky so Mr
McColl whipped up a furore and made an official complaint to the police. Villages were raided and crofts
were turned upside down. Bottles were hidden, secreted, or
drunk in order to hide the evidence.
On 26 April at Lochmaddy
Sheriff Court a group of men from Barra pleaded guilty to theft
and were charged between three and five pounds. Mr McColl was
furious at the leniency of the men's sentences, but the police,
being mainly locals themselves, were tired of the bothering the
locals who had not, in their minds, done such a bad thing.
However. Mr McColl continued his crusade against these illegal
salvagers and some of the men were sentenced to up to six weeks
in prison in Inverness and Peterhead.
at sea, the official salvage attempts were not going too well, and it was
eventually decided to let the Politician remain where she was.
Mr McColl, who had already estimated that the islanders had
stolen 24,000 bottles of whisky, ensured that there would be no
more temptation. He applied for, and was granted, permission to
explode her hull and as one islander, Angus John Campbell,
commented: "Dynamiting whisky. You wouldn’t think there’d be men
in the world so crazy as that!"
In 1987 Donald MacPhee, a
local South Uist man, found eight bottles of whisky in the
wreck. He sold them at auction for £4,000.
The wreck of
the SS Politician still lies off the coast of
Eriskay, although it is below the water line as
winter gales have destroyed the deck and cabins.
In 1988 the island got its own ‘legitimate’ pub,