I didn't want to post this, because it's rather long, but this article does a fair job of putting the episode into context:
The Sunday Times - Scotland
March 27, 2005
Ecosse: Looting galore
Newly released documents reveal that the light-hearted popular recollection of the SS Politician’s whisky-soaked shipwreck hides a darker tale. Adrian Turpin reports
It is without doubt the most famous shipwreck Scotland has ever witnessed. On February 5, 1941, the SS Politician foundered on the tiny island of Calvay in the Outer Hebrides, two days out from Liverpool en route to Jamaica and New York. In the ship’s hold were 22,000 cases of quart bottles of whisky which, because they were for the export market, had not been subject to tax. On the neighbouring islands of Eriskay and South Uist were hundreds of thirsty locals, whose often excessive drinking habits had been curtailed by wartime rationing.
The rest is history — or at least literature. Published in 1947, Compton Mackenzie’s Whisky Galore rechristened the SS Politician the SS Cabinet Minister and renamed the islands of South Uist and Eriskay as Great and Little Todday.
The islanders were cast as lovable rogues and the officials who tried to stop their pilfering from the wreck and the subsequent trade in illegal spirits as killjoy bureaucrats. And that is generally how it has been perceived, until now.
Last week the National Archives in Kew finally released the government’s side of the SS Politician affair.
The files do not completely dispel the portrait of stuffy officialdom, but they do show that the men from the revenue had to contend with obstruction from Scottish police and law officers and threats of violence from the islanders.
In the light of the new documents, Mackenzie’s happy-go-lucky Hebridean idyll does not seem quite so light-hearted.
MANY details from the reports could nevertheless have come from the pages of Mackenzie’s comic novel, or from scenes played out in Alexander Mackendrick’s classic 1949 Ealing film.
On March 18, 1941, for example, Charles McColl, the local customs officer, and a constable in a motor launch intercepted three boats coming away from the SS Politician with 42 cases of whisky. On the second boat was John MacLean, 84. McColl could scarcely have been more mean-spirited than when he wrote in his file that “in view of his partially successful trip, authorities may wish to reassess his means under the Old Age Pensions Act”.
There are many other examples. A case of whisky was found in the croft garden of Mrs Flora MacIntyre, 81, who became “severely distressed” on being apprehended, while three cases and 100 loose bottles were discovered buried in Donald Cumming’s stockyard. He claimed they had been put there while he was away at sea — what’s known in Scottish law as the “big boy did it an’ ran away” defence.
When the Eriskay ferry was called on by customs to intercept a boat believed to have been involved in the looting, it mysteriously failed to appear. By the time the customs officials turned up the next day, the vessel had put to sea, supposedly on a fishing trip.
Unravelling the facts from Mackenzie’s fiction is a pleasant enough task, and many of the fictional characters undoubtedly have a basis in real people or their actions.
McColl himself is often taken to be the model for Captain Paul Waggett, the scourge of the whisky plunderers in Whisky Galore, who is portrayed by Mackenzie as a prig. In some ways, McColl — who took it upon himself almost single-handedly to protect the cargo of the SS Politician from looters — seems to have deserved Mackenzie’s unflattering portrait.
There is more than a suspicion that his campaign against the whisky pilferers was motivated by a puritan distaste for the high-spiritedness of island life, a fact that came racing to the fore with the sinking of the ship.
Wartime censorship of letters did not stop some islanders referring indiscreetly to their ill-gotten gains. “They didn’t come near us yet,” reads a letter of May 30, 1941, “we have everything up in the hills. I hope you will get your share of it yet.”
There was certainly enough whisky to go around: 232,000 bottles had been stacked in No 5 hold of the SS Politician — and it’s estimated that 24,000 of these were “liberated” by the islanders. “Salvagers” were said to have come from as far away as Lewis, Mull and the mainland.
This, however, does not quite give an idea of how greedy they were. When you learn what McColl and his colleagues faced from the islanders it is hard not to have some sympathy for them.
In the customs reports Edward Bootham White, McColl’s superior, wrote: “I visited the SS Politician. It is now an almost incredible scene of wanton destruction — everything movable has been taken and practically everything else splintered, slashed and hacked. The salvage officers estimate the cost of replacement of this damage to the ship’s fittings at not less than £10,000.”
Perhaps we should take Bootham White’s outrage with a pinch of salt. He was hardly neutral, having been charged with building a case for prosecution. Nevertheless, the list of articles removed from the ship shows that the islanders descended on the Politician like locusts.
Contraband included bicycle parts — bells, tyres and handlebars — polish, reels of printed cotton, washing soda, disinfectant, deckchairs, mattresses, a coal shovel, door mats, buckets, bedsprings, clay smoking pipes, tarpaulins, lamps, writing desks and a chest of drawers. There is no record of what happened to the kitchen sink, although for good measure somebody did make off with the ship’s compass.
The looting was anything but a secret on the islands. In her new book The Wreckers, a history of shipwrecks and those who have profited from them, Bella Bathurst interviewed John MacLeod, a former Royal National Lifeboat Institution coxswain, who as a 21-year-old took part in plundering the Politician.
“We got such a lot (of the whisky) we were giving it away. There were people giving it out on the mainland as a Christmas present,” he says. “The boat was full of oil, she was holed . . . So everyone who went down to look got covered in the oil. So people knew when you’d been down to her, because you were covered in the stuff.”
For MacLeod, it seems to have been a bit of youthful fun (he didn’t even drink whisky). Yet the customs reports suggest there was a darker side to the affair.
Bootham White wrote that: “Threats and warnings of bodily injury have been conveyed to Mr McColl but he makes light of them — I would, however, request that he be not concerned in any further general search (for contraband).
“On the night of June 10, the day after the first sentencing at Lochmaddy, the garage in which Mr McColl’s car was housed at Lochboisdale had a hole burst in the roof and burning petrol and paraffin were poured through. One car was destroyed, but Mr McColl’s was extracted with merely paint damage to the roof.”
For some reason this incident failed to make it into either Mackenzie’s book or Mackendrick’s film.One thing the documents from the National Archives show is the amount of conflict between the islands’ authorities and the men from the revenue.
In a letter of July 9, 1941, Bootham White hints that the police may have been less than diligent. According to him, a search for spirits on South Uist and Eriskay in June was “comparatively ineffective” because “on the first day inspector of police Frazer of Lochmaddy refused to continue the search after lunchtime”.
He went on: “That day, while the element of surprise continued, was the only day on which really satisfactory results could have been expected. It is certain on that night there was a general conveyance of spirits to the moors and hills by the looters and the discovery is now a matter of extreme difficulty — it is probable that there will not be attempts to remove them from their present positions until darker weather or until the population is satisfied the searching is over . . .
“In my opinion little or no help will be received from the police, and the officers in Lochboisdale are far too well known to be given any information sufficiently definite to act upon. The only way to secure detections would be to send special staff in the guise of being attached to the air ministry.”
If the excise men were suspicious of the police, they were no less wary of John Gray, the acting procurator fiscal at Lochmaddy. McColl and Bootham White feared he would be reluctant to press charges. “On the mail steamer returning this morning, the sheriff quite unofficially told me that Mr Gray was increasingly reluctant to take any further proceedings against those persons charged with theft,” Bootham White wrote on May 17. He pleaded that any prosecutions should be brought on the mainland.
1. The sheriff’s assessment appears to have been right. Gray did refuse to prosecute looters under the more serious Customs Consolidation Act or the Merchant Shipping Act. Although 19 men were eventually given short jail sentences for theft, many were fined £2 (about £200 today). Bootham White inevitably complained that such penalties were “quite inadequate to act as a general deterrent to the population of these islands who would promptly seize their next opportunity for further looting and damage”.
Sixty-four years later it is easy to see the position of both sides: the frustration of the revenue men faced with each “tight little island” (as the film was called in America) and the fiscal’s understandable desire to preserve harmony within the far from prosperous island communities.
Undoubtedly the men from the revenue were overzealous, digging up crofts throughout Eriskay and South Uist and harassing the locals. McColl, in particular, was so concerned that the islanders should not benefit from the wreck of the Politician that, after two salvage attempts managed to recover 13,500 cases of whisky, he had the ship dynamited.
Many of the customs men’s actions should, however, be seen in the context of the second world war. Britain was making sacrifices. The black market was frowned upon. To many on Eriskay and South Uist, Edinburgh and London must have seemed like foreign capitals; what did their red tape matter? But the war of national survival needed to be paid for — even if that meant wringing out every last penny in whisky duties. In this case the last penny turned out to be substantially more than that: today the duty on the pilfered whisky would have been about £500,000.
In his book Highlanders: A History of the Gaels, John Macleod (no relation to the lifeboatman) raises questions about the destination of the SS Politician and her cargo, hinting at some kind of conspiracy.
“The episode was a great embarrassment to the government,” he writes, “and to this day certain papers on the Politician affair remain classified. It has been suggested that the assorted goodies were for a very important person — an American statesman whose support was vital in Washington or President Roosevelt himself; even the Duke of Windsor has been named as a recipient.”
It makes a good conspiracy theory. But the simpler possibility is that the Politician’s cargo was intended to bring in much-needed money from America. That would, directly or indirectly, have gone towards fighting Hitler. And, in the unlikely case that Roosevelt did need to be bribed, a few thousand bottles of whisky might seem a fair exchange for American entry into the war.
Hardly surprisingly, Mackenzie skates over any consequences of the islanders’ actions. Whisky Galore is, after all, a comedy and in 1947 many people simply wanted to forget the hardships of the conflict and remember the camaraderie. When the link between whisky and the war effort is made it is by Waggett, condescendingly lecturing the dry-mouthed regulars of the Snorvig hotel.
In Great and Little Todday everything is for the good. The greatest disaster that befalls anyone is the loss of 18 cases of best “Stalker’s Joy” scotch, poured away by Joseph Macroon’s daughters for fear of the constable.
Whether the wreck of the SS Politician was so happy for the real islanders is more debatable. John Macleod, the writer, suggests not: “In truth, the bounty triggered much drunkenness and suffering, and envy over other spoils caused much dispute in local communities.”
It is a far cry from the picture that Mackenzie painted. So too — as the documents show — was the work of McColl and Bootham White. Nobody is going to make the customs men heroes, but they weren’t the prize killjoys of Mackenzie’s imagination.
Additional reporting: Peter Day