“The proper drinking of Scotch whisky is more than indulgence: it is a toast to civilization, a tribute to the continuity of culture, a manifesto of man’s determination to use the resources of nature to refresh mind and body and enjoy to the full the senses with which he has been endowed.” So wrote the Scottish literary critic and writer David Daiches. Few would disagree, least of all the inhabitants of the Western Isles.
The story of the shipwreck of the SS Cabinet Minister, a vessel carrying 50,000 cases of whisky, is told by the prolific writer Compton Mackenzie (1883-1972) in Whisky Galore (1947). It takes place off the coast of two fictional Scottish islands – Great Todday and Little Todday – whose inhabitants have run out of uisge beatha (the “water of life” in Scottish Gaelic) due to wartime rationing. The shipwreck is a godsend and the thirsty islanders manage to salvage several hundred cases before the authorities intervene to confiscate the liquor. A game of cat-and-mouse ensues.
Although the wreck and the whisky are at the centre of the story, there is a lot of humorous background detail about life in the Outer Hebrides, including clashes between the Protestant island of Great Todday and the Roman Catholic island of Little Todday. Mackenzie based the geography of these islands on Barra and Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides. The 1949 Ealing Studios comedy Whisky Galore! was filmed on Barra.
The book’s title is elucidated by one of the book’s characters who, lamenting the lack of a wee dram, exclaims, “Never mind. Good things will come again, and we’ll have whisky galore. Uisge beatha gu leòir !” According to a note added by Mackenzie, “Gu leòir is almost the only Gaelic phrase which has passed into English so nearly like the original.”
The story is based on a real-life incident, when an 8000-ton cargo ship called the SS Politician left Liverpool on 3 February 1941 with a cargo that included 28,000 cases of malt whisky. The ship sank near the island of Eriskay (right), off the west coast of Scotland, and much of the cargo was spirited away.
A less well known part of the story was recently confirmed by Public Record Office files revealing that the ship was also carrying some 290,000 ten-shilling notes (145,000 pounds), worth the equivalent of several million pounds at today’s exchange rates. The British government hoped that they would not get into circulation, but they started turning up at banks all around the world.
Suspicions arose when an empty cash case was found abandoned in the hold of the ship. By June 1941, banknotes from the SS Politician were turning up as far away as Liverpool and by mid-July, a hundred or so had been tendered in Jamaica and two hundred in Britain.
By 1958, it was reported that 211,267 notes had been recovered by police and the salvage company and had been destroyed. A further 2,329 had been presented in banks in England, Scotland, Ireland, Switzerland, Malta, Canada, the USA and Jamaica. That still leaves 76,404 banknotes which have never been accounted for and whose fate remains a mystery.
“Rarely, rarely, comest thou, Spirit of Delight!”