Scotland

Real Whisky Galore story is still being written

Still from the film Whisky Galore
Image caption The 1949 comedy was inspired by the islanders' raids on the wreck

Seventy years on it remains one of the most romantic island tales.

The people of Eriskay, in the Outer Hebrides, awoke on 5 February 1941 to find a cargo ship, the SS Politician, aground off their island.

A wreck was not unusual but for islanders struggling to get by on wartime rations, the cargo was astonishing: 250,000 bottles of whisky.

What happened next was immortalised in the film Whisky Galore!

Under cover of darkness locals rowed out to the wreck and scrambled over the side using rope ladders.

In the following days and weeks they took hundreds of cases of whisky from the hold.

Eriskay's priest, Father Calum MacLellan, 84, was a boy at the time.

He said: "It depended on your own ability or agility to get as much ashore as you could."

But was it salvage or plunder?

Image caption Fr MacLellan said there was a grand piano on the ship, as well as the whisky

No duty had been paid on the spirits, so Customs and Excise came after the islanders.

"I suppose the bigger thing was hiding it, especially from the Customs officers, and that produced a lot of hilarity," said Fr MacLellan.

But locals weren't just helping themselves to the water of life.

According to the priest, "the whole island was swathed in linen" from the Politician's hold - and further treasures remained on board.

Long-term alcoholics

He said: "There were bicycles on it but we couldn't use them because there was no road on island.

"There was a grand piano as well but none of our homes was big enough to accommodate a grand piano."

The ship eventually disappeared beneath the waves but Don MacPhee, who has dived down to see her, said there was a dark side to her legacy.

"There were a lot of social problems which resulted and quite a few families regarded it with quite a bit of opprobrium," he said.

"A lot of the crofting work was abandoned. People ended up as long-term alcoholics.

"The whisky was available for years and years afterwards ... in extremely large amounts.

"It was a case of get as much as you can down your neck in as short a space as possible."

Image caption The SS Politician ran aground on the Sound of Eriskay

But not all the salvaged whisky was drunk. Years later, bottles are still turning up.

Donald John Rodgers, who captains the Eriskay to Barra ferry, is one of many islanders who have discovered a secret stash.

"I was digging a path from the house down to the shore," he said.

"I felt the glass and I thought 'there's something funny here' and I cleared it away and six bottles were lying in a row."

Mr Rodgers reckons there is plenty more whisky still to be found.

Seventy years later, on the little island of Eriskay, the real story of Whisky Galore is still being written.

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