The Isle of Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides is home to the famous wreck of the S. S. Politician and her namesake pub. The story of the wreck was the inspiration for the book and film, Whisky Galore.
The S. S. Politician was an 8,000-tonne cargo ship which left Liverpool on the 3rd of February 1941 bound for Jamaica and New Orleans. She was laden with, amongst other things, around 260,000 bottles of malt whisky and accidentally hit a submerged rock off the coast of Eriskay.
The crew survived without any injuries and a lifeboat with 26 men washed up on the shore of the cliffs of Rudha Dubh, across the Sound on South Uist. The islanders provided the men with shelter, hot food and drinks laced with good rum for the night.
Meanwhile, when the locals heard what the ship was carrying, a series of illegal salvage operations took place on the night of the stranding, before Customs and Excise arrived. Due to war-time shortages the island’s whisky had dried up and the islanders helped themselves to some of the bottles of Scotch malt. The islanders apparently did not regard it as stealing as the rules of salvage meant that once it was in the sea, it became theirs to rescue.
The next day Captain Worthington and his officers returned to the ship to see if there was any hope of re-floating her, however water had flooded the engine room and several of the ship’s holds. Most of the ship’s 500 tons of cargo, including cars, bicycles, cotton and mail, was saved. The whisky, however, was kept in hold number five, which was flooded with water and fuel oil. Believing that it was contaminated, Captain Kay, who was in charge of the salvage operation, made no attempt to save it and did not place an armed guard. The salvaged cargo was loaded onto another ship, which sailed to Glasgow. Upon divers’ examinations, the wreck was declared unsalvageable and it was decided that the S. S. Politician should remain where she was.
Word of the ‘Polly’ whisky quickly spread and boats began to arrive from Barra, Lewis, Mull and the mainland. There were even rumours that this whisky had magical qualities and didn’t cause hangovers.
When Customs and Excise arrived several men were arrested. A second salvage company recovered 13,500 cases of whisky from the boat, however many of these bottles were drunk by the salvers themselves on the way to the mainland.
Customs officers searched households and hiding places on the islands of Benbecula, South Uist and Eriskay. They recovered 15 cases of whisky, three bundles of cotton print, 13 packets of cigarettes, two cycle mudguards and one handrail. A group of men stood trial and pleaded guilty to theft; they were fined between three and five pounds.
An attempt to tow the vessel was made and divers were sent to lighten the ship’s load. Boxes, containing £360,000 in bank notes, which had been among the ship’s cargo, were recovered, along with some bottles of whisky and bales of cotton. It was estimated that around 1,000 cases of whisky remained in hold number 5 and permission was granted to dynamite the hold, much to the dismay of the islanders, who claimed “Dynamiting whisky! You wouldn’t think there’d be men in the world so crazy as that!”.
Further attempts were made to move the ship and eventually the forward section was towed to Glasgow and the aft section remains hidden below the water-line off the coast of Eriskay.
The story was heard by Compton Mackenzie on the neighbouring island of Barra and became immortalised in his novel, Whisky Galore, in 1947. Two years later the legend was made into an Ealing comedy film.
In 1987 eight bottles of whisky that were found on South Uist were sold at auction for £4,000. More recently, in August 2010 a single bottle believed to be from the S. S. Politician sold for £4,200. Two bottles are currently property of the UK Border Agency national museum and two other bottles, said to be recovered from the wreck are kept at the AM Politician pub – just ask the bartender!
The legend of the S. S. Politician has been the source of many conspiracy theories, particularly those surrounding the reason she was carrying the equivalent of several million pounds today to Jamaica, while sailing full steam ahead through a rocky, shallow channel in black-out conditions. Some suggested that the government and the British Royal family were preparing to evacuate the UK. Others simply believe that the islanders calling for her whisky was the reason for her grounding.
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