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The Welsh 'Whisky Galore!'

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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