The Welsh 'Whisky Galore!'

Tuesday 6 April 2010, 12:39

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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It was a cold winter's night and a heavy sea was running. It was pitch black, apart from a faint light at the western edge of Thorn Island, and all across south Pembrokeshire most honest folks were happily tucked up in bed. But not all of them. Just off shore from the village of Angle a strange and bizarre drama was unfolding.

The fort on Thorn Island at the mouth of Milford Haven had been built to protect nearby Pembroke Dockyard. But on the night of January 30 1894, this tiny island was the scene of a maritime disaster when the schooner Loch Shiel, bound for Adelaide with a cargo of 100% proof whisky and gunpowder, was wrecked.

Unable to make headway against the wind and tide, the Loch Shiel found herself being pushed towards land. She struck the rocks below Thorn Island just before midnight and it soon became clear that the pumps could not keep out the water. A mattress soaked in paraffin was lit on deck as a distress signal and the Angle lifeboat was launched. She quickly arrived on the scene and passengers and crew were taken off in an effective, almost exemplary rescue.

The real story of the Loch Shiel, however, was only just beginning. As the ship began to break up under the brutal battering of the waves, her cargo started to float inland. Never being averse to a little judicious looting, the Angle people arrived at the beach to see what they could find and soon realised what was contained in the wooden cases that were being washed steadily towards them.

Long before the Customs Officers arrived on the scene, dozens of cases and bottles of whisky were "spirited" away. With the powers of officialdom now beginning to scour the village for the contraband, many of the bottles were stacked into alcoves in the cottage walls and simply boarded up, ready for drinking once the heat had died down. It didn't always happen - some lay hidden for so long they were forgotten and only came to light fifty years later when houses were being renovated!

There was a tragic side to the story, however. Three men died, two of them drowned while trying to recover whisky from the sea, the other from alcohol poisoning after drinking the 100% proof whisky. It could so easily have been many more - several locals were apprehended by customs as they carried home what they believed to be whisky but were, in fact, cases of gunpowder.

History does not record the party that the villagers of Angle enjoyed in the wake of their Whisky Galore but scuba divers still sometimes pull up bottles from the site of the wreck. And they say it's still drinkable!

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    Comment number 1.

    Thorn Island with its magnificent fort guarding the eastern side of the entrance to Milford Haven – a magical place even now, just with gulls as sentinels. I have spent many happy hours fishing around the Island and the reef that extends westwards out to Thorn Rock, spinning for bass in summer and ground fishing for Whiting in the lee of the Island in winter – often in darkness.
    The wind can be howling outside but as long as it stays south of west there is always shelter to the north-east of the Island. If only the Loch Shiel had got past the reef she would have found shelter. The folk of Angle would then have been denied their own ‘Whisky Galore’ however, and who should deny them – amongst their number may have been the ancestors of friends of mine. But the most precious things of all – lives - would have been saved, be it from the cold January sea or over indulgence in the spirits that were carried ashore.

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    Comment number 2.

    Roger, as someone who obviously knows Thorn Island well, how would you spell the name? On OS maps it's shown as Thorn but the one time I went out there, above the entrance door to the fort was the name Thorne Island Fort - spelt with an e on the end. Which one is correct, do you think?

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    Comment number 3.

    I have to admit Phil, that I habitually spell it with an 'e' and have to go back and change it. The oldest maps and charts I have of the area show it spelt Thorn, with no 'e'. That leads on to why is it called Thorn Island? Was it once covered in thorn bushes before the Fort was built? Was it once in the ownership of someone called Thorn? And how did Rat Island and Sheep Island get their names? The Pembrokeshire islands with Norse names are easy!

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    Comment number 4.

    Thanks for that, Roger - I invariably spell it with an e as well. The origin of the name is interesting, I'd never thought of it. And Rat and Sheep Islands, just along the coast. As a child I was always told that John Buchan got the name for his book The Island of Sheep from Pembrokeshire's Sheep Island - probably just a bit of family folk lore. But there were Iron Age huts found on the island - and it was used by the military in WW1 - what an ungodly posting that must have been.

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    Comment number 5.

    I looked up Thorn/Thorne Is in George Owen's 'Description of Pembrokeshire' written in around 1600, Phil. He spells it Thorne, with an 'e'. But many words then were spelt with an 'e' which no longer are. Owen also seems to think Thorne and Rat Islands are one and the same which as we know they are not. Around 1600 it would appear that Thorne Is was a "pretty Island, but very little,full of deep grass, a musket shot from the Main."

 

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