On the 4th of February 1941 during an Atlantic gale the SS Politician ran aground just off the Island of Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides. The crew got ashore safely and the local’s took them in and gave them shelter.
Now this was wartime and there was rationing of all sorts of items including eggs, butter and somewhat crucially whisky.
When the folk of Eriskay learned from the crew of the “Polly” that the ship had 264,000 bottles of Best Highland Malt in its hold an unofficial salvage operation was launched. Word soon spread all across the Hebrides and soon fishing boats were heading to fishing grounds all around the wreck during the hours of darkness to liberate the contents of the ship’s hold before the winter storms broke up the hull and destroyed the cargo forever. It was all quite innocent and seemingly legitimate.
But this was not the view of the local customs officer, one Charles McColl, who was incensed at the outright thievery that he saw going on. None of the whisky had paid a penny of duty, and as he railed against this loss to the public purse, McColl whipped up a furore and made the police act.
Villages were raided and crofts turned upside down. Bottles were hidden, secreted, or simply drunk in order to hide the evidence.
The rest is history. The 1947 Compton Mackenzie novel Whisky Galore, which was made into an Ealing Comedy film in 1949, tells a good tale about the episode. In reality though many islanders went to jail for up to six weeks for offences ranging from theft to evasion of excise duty.
I can well understand the islander’s actions though. Faced with a gift from the sea of the water of life, known in the Gaelic as usqueba, what else were they to do?
Many years ago when I lived in an Aberdeenshire village, I met in with a man by the name of Ronnie who lived in the croft house left to him by his mother who had been a seer. He had two brothers who were men of the cloth and he, Ronnie, had a special relationship with the water of life.
In the winter of 1983 I think it was, Ronnie, who was an affable sort of chap ran out of funds and took in some lodgers in order to keep body and spirit alive. In the course of that most severe of winters when the temperature plummeted to around minus 26 degrees in neighbouring Braemar, resulting in the deer foraging in the streets in desperation for sustenance, Ronnie was faced with a stark choice.
Either heat the house or buy whisky.
Being a clever man he found a middle way. He burned the doors, floorboards and stairs for heating and using the income from his lodgers he bought whisky.
I drove past the scene today. The croft house is, somewhat surprisingly, still standing and looks just as it did all those years ago.
I have lost all contact with the man but wish him well.