"I think it has become,” said Compton Mackenzie, “if I may say so, a kind of folk tale. Rather like Dick Whittington or Aladdin or something. Because it goes on and on… that’s the fantastic thing.” This was how the writer, whose novel Whisky Galore went a long way towards creating that folk tale and exporting it, via a classic Alexander Mackendrick Ealing comedy, to the world, described the story of the wrecking and plundering of the SS Politician when it was lost off Eriskay. 

It’s been 80 years since the vessel ran aground and spilled the contents of its Hold Number 5 – not just 28,000 bottles of whisky but also £290,000 Jamaican ten-shilling notes (worth around £3 million now) – and it’s a folk legend that keeps on growing and giving. 

Five years ago a new film adaptation, starring Eddie Izzard, Gregor Fisher and Sean Biggerstaff, was released and the story also endures in regular news stories. Last year, one featured the auctioning of a bottle pulled up from the wreck by diver George Currie 33 years previously, which fetched £9200, though its contents had been rendered sulphuric and undrinkable. 

Recalling the dive, all these years on, Currie said: “It was a beautiful day, at low tide. There wasn’t much of (the ship) left – one part of the hull standing and the other side had collapsed with sand right up to the top. There was a lot of glass, but in one wee pocket there were bottlenecks sticking up and there they were. We had scallop bags with us, and put the bottles we found in them.” 

Meanwhile, speculation is still rife over the destiny of the Jamaican shillings in Hold Number 5 and what they might tell us about Britain’s relationship with its then colonies. Historian, Gerry Burke, last year proposed in a newspaper article, having studied Cabinet records, that it was sent by the British government, following revelations in the then-buried Moyne Report, of the terrible conditions of starvation and oppression suffered by the people of the British Caribbean. 

The core story of the wrecking of the SS Politician and its plundering is there, of course, in Mackenzie’s Whisky Galore, though romanticised and transposed from the islands of South Uist and Eriskay to the author’s invented Great and Little Todday. It’s a farcical tale of war-time islanders in hard times taking the opportunity to raid a whisky-filled wreck, then doing their best to hide their haul from the excise men. But, of course, the SS Politician is the centre of much more than this simple farce of whisky salvaging – or as customs officers would have termed it, “looting”.

But the writer who has actually gone furthest in telling the real-life story around the wrecking of the SS Politician is Roger Hutchinson. In his 1990 book, Polly: The True Story Behind Whisky Galore, delved into just about every narrative entangled with the vessel and its contents.  Hutchinson had spent time as a journalist on Uist and had been hearing “first-hand stories about Polly” for over ten years, before he decided to write his book. A friend of his, Donald John Macdonald, would talk about how he had been brought up as a child using shillings notes, brought off the SS Politician, as Monopoly money. 

Hutchinson knew that there was a “parallel narrative” – a book that would be more than just about how the film got made and the novel got written. In his book he would look at the mesh of stories around the Polly, as the locals named the boat, and the events that followed later – the dynamiting of the vessel so that the whisky would be destroyed and the customs officers relieved of their tax worry, the mystery of the Jamaican shillings she carried and also the finer details of the campaign of raids waged, not by Captain Paul Waggett (a character partly based on Compton Mackenzie himself), but by real-life customs officers Charles McColl and Ivan Gledhill. 

Polly, the real-life tale, is a more complex story than the one told in Whisky Galore, but similar in its pleasures. Hutchinson seems to take joy in the mischief of the islanders. Describing the mobilisation of smacks from all over the islands to raid the vessel, he notes, “they congregated at the SS Politician like a regatta.” The weeks of whisky-drinking that followed, are summed up as “one big Rabelasian harvest”.

Part of the pleasure lies in the stories of ingenuity used by the islanders in both recovering and hiding their loot: whisky bottles concealed in peat stacks, rabbit burrows, holes dug in the ground under turf or buried below the sand.  Among those who described such concealments was Norman Macmillan, of South Uist, who said: “You dug a square hole somewhat as you would dig a grave, but with a little more care. You’d turn the turf back and carry the soil that you had taken out of the hole as far away from the scene as possible. Then you rolled the turf back and you put a mark on it.”

Macmillan also described the great long, alcoholic bender that followed. “It was just one long continuous booze for six weeks. You didn’t go to bed because as soon as you went to bed somebody would come hammering at the door that either had five bottles or he’d be asking for three.”

Duncan MacInnes, a boy at the time, recalled that on one trip to the boat, he and his companions recovered “nine bottles of McCallum whisky, a number of sandals or leather slippers and an electric iron – which was useless to us as there was no electricity on the island.”

The bottles on the SS Politician were of no cheap hooch. They were bound for the American “millionaire market” with brands including The Antiquary, Haig’s Pinch, VVO Gold Bar, Ballantine’s Amber Concave, White Horse, King’s Ransom, Victoria Vat, Johnnie Walker Red and Black Label, King William IB, and McCallum’s Perfection, to name a few.  Locals also pilfered not just from the ship, but from each other – and had to guard their bottles as much against their neighbours as the excise men.  Hutchinson relates a tale, told by renowned storyteller John MacPherson about a man named Ronald, who took his stash out to hide in a rabbit warren, but found when he got there that he had struck a hole with a bottle already in it. He tried another burrow.  “The same thing happened, and for six occasions in succession: Ronald could not get his bottle into a burrow because there was one there before him. So he gave up the ghost and returned to the dump, and he was admiring the bottles there and was going to bid them good night forever, because tomorrow they would belong to someone else. Then he saw on the side of the bottle, The King’s Ransom, and thought: ‘Well, I will see no more of those bottles, and I think I will take a dram out of the King’s Ransom – so that Ronald did.”

Needless to say, Ronald took more than a few drams before he went home, and when he returned whatever he hadn’t drunk was no longer there. So goes the tale.

By gathering together wider tales of people’s lives, Hutchinson also gives a sense of the privations of the period and its challenges for the islanders.  “It was pretty grim times,” he tells me. “Of the type that you and I can’t imagine. We’ve got Covid. They had a world war. But it was a pretty grim time. Particularly the men who were in the 51st Highland division, who got captured or killed, in St Valéry-en-Caux and taken off to POW camps for the rest of the war.”

In such times – the arrival of such bounty would have felt like magic, a gift from God. One woman told him, the SS Politician brought her the “best year of my life. We had so much fun out of her.”

Among the stories Hutchinson tells is of one Neil Campbell, a member of that 51st Highland division, who was caught at St Valéry-en-Caux. As he was being marched south, he escaped the line by ducking out with a comrade through the front door of a house, before leaving through the back window and hiding out in fields.  “They made their way to Dieppe,” says Hutchinson, “and commandeered a little sailing boat and rowed out in it and when the guns opened fire on them, they still sailed on, even though the mast was struck. They fixed it in this skiff that they had stolen and got back all the way to England.”  Campbell returned home to find a vessel containing whisky just off his home island and joined the locals helping themselves to it.  Though arrested, notably he wasn’t charged – though some of those he was caught alongside were. Soberingly, Hutchinson notes, “Neil, who had this extraordinary adventure sadly drowned in Lochboisdale in the 1950s. He was a fisherman.”

At the heart of Hutchinson’s narrative is the campaign waged by Charles McColl at Lochboisdale, and his superior, Ivan Gledhill in Portree, to bring the salvagers, or “looters” as they saw them, to justice.  The way he came upon some of the details of this tale is itself in the spirit of Whisky Galore. The author had gone down to Petty France in London to try to access some customs and excise files. He was, he says, “accidentally allowed into the pile” of information which was not yet due for release.  “It was one of those happy mistakes,” he recalls. “They were supposed to be sealed because there were people named – and I don’t see how anyone was hurt by it.”

What Hutchinson found, in that dive down into the papers at Petty France, was a treasure trove of information, including letters and notes from Gledhill and McColl.  Clear in these correspondences was that McColl was keen that those caught with whisky should be tried not under common law but under the more punitive Customs and Excise act. In a letter to his head office in London, he wrote: “Penalties should be called for if and when proceedings are institute in these cases of deliberate and organised theft; and it is further respectfully suggested that the conduct of these cases should not be left in the hands of the Procurator Fiscal at Lochmaddy.”

Hutchinson describes it as, “a wrathful campaign to send men from South Uist and Eriskay to prison for as long as possible.”  Houses were raided. Boats, on which islanders were dependent for livelihoods, were seized. In the end 19 people were imprisoned at Inverness Prison for terms ranging between 20 days and two months.

Later, Hutchinson tells me, Gledhill tried to shift the blame and responsibility for the ferocity of that campaign to McColl – and this, he says, may have had some truth.  “Gledhill was from Yorkshire and I think there is a pretty fair chance that he did let McColl dictate to him what should be done. McColl was on the ground, at Lochboisdale in South Uist, but he was also from Mull.  “He was a Gaelic-speaking Highlander, so he knew all the local people and he knew the ground and the territory. He had all that over Gledhill and I suspect that Gledhill just kowtowed to him.”  Why does he think McColl pursued the pilferers so fiercely?  “There were a couple of things. He was very active in the Church of Scotland in South Uist where the professional classes tended to be protestant, but the vast majority of the local people are Roman Catholic and still to this day. I think there was probably a bit of that going on. The protestants keeping the catholics in order, to the resentment of all the crofters.”

That there was tension between the officer and the community is clear from some of the local behaviour. “Some boys,” says Hutchinson, “even climbed up on the roof of his garage and poured petrol down onto his car and set fire to it. It was that personal. There probably was a bit of animosity between McColl and the islanders.”

McColl retired in 1949, at the age of 60, and died two years later of a coronary thrombosis. “His wife,” writes Hutchinson, “was to claim the affair of the Politican killed him.”

The Herald: Profile: Whisky Galore

He and Gledhill were also behind the drive to blow up what was left of the SS Politician after the last attempt to salvage it – a piecemeal effort that, to their frustration, left the part of the boat containing Hold Number 5 still there in the water.  “I am informed,” wrote Gledhill, “that it may be impracticable to remove all the bottles and glass from the bottom of Number Five, but in this event a sufficient number of charges of explosives of sufficient size will be detonated there to ensure that there will be no possibility of any unbroken bottles remaining.”

After the SS Politician was dynamited, the only people able to retrieve any remaining whisky bottles from the vessel have been divers and the Glasgow-based company SS Politician Plc, which was formed in 1989 to raise £500,000 for a salvage operation, and which uncovered  24 bottles.

But mysteries still remain. The question of what those Jamaican banknotes were doing on the vessel and where they were bound is still debated.  Among the papers uncovered by Gerry Burke, which he believes may be linked to this cargo and also the buried Moyne Report, was one from the Colonial Secretary of the West Indies to the War Cabinet.  In it, the secretary said: “We have reached agreement with the Treasury on a short-term plan by which a sum of £350,000 would be made immediately available for relief in the West Indies. If it found a place in the White Paper, it might have the appearance of a panic measure or a bribe.”

Answers therefore are still needed on whether the SS Politician was linked to a colonial cover-up. If that is the case then it is connected to a story of a a much darker shame. Its missing notes, played with as Monopoly money, the symbols of something shocking.  We know for sure that some of these shilling notes ended up on the islands but also in other places. By 1958 Crown Agents reported that 211,267 notes had been recovered by the salvage company or Scottish police and had been destroyed.  A further 2,329 had been presented in banks in England, Scotland, Ireland, Switzerland, Malta, Canada, the US and Jamaica – leaving 76,404 notes not accounted for.

The stuck-insider guide to a Whisky Galore tour of Barra and the isles Despite these shadows, the world remains charmed by Whisky Galore, the folktale. It’s still one of the best adverts for whisky, and perhaps Scotland, harking as it does back to a time when life was much less complicated and connected. The creation of this image, this brand, is owed for the most part to Compton Mackenzie himself.  As Hutchinson writes in Polly, “Mackenzie embroidered a world which, like the one created by his friend and admirer PG Wodehouse, is only recognisable in our dreams.  “Its characters flit easily along the sunlit edges of reality, enchanting, untouchable and innocent of any mundane misdeed. Their lives and their aspirations are uncomplicated, easy to grasp and even easier to wish upon oneself.”

The stuck-insider guide to a Whisky Galore tour of Barra and the isles

But the real story of the SS Politician is not an enchanting dream. Rather it is a tale of events and their connections that is mired in complexity. No man is an island, but also no island is an island.  A tiny patch of land at the edge of the Atlantic, even in the 1940s, was connected, by ship and its cargoes, as well as by its own people caught up in a world war, to the rest of the world.