Whisky Galore - A True Story
There she was, lying battered by mountainous seas from the south-east, stern-on to the wind and facing the Uist coastline.
The SS Politician was an 8000-ton cargo ship sailing for Kingston, Jamaica and New Orleans with a cargo including 28,000 cases of malt whisky. On 5 February 1941, during gale force winds, she ran aground off the Island of Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides.
Duncan MacInnes was a young boy when the Politician ran aground. This is his personal account of the events that followed.
A stormy, cold south-easterly gale welcomed an early dawn on the morning of Thursday, 5th February 1941. I got up at 7a.m. just to have a look at the weather and to me it seemed to be just another bad day. Later in the morning, a school pal hailed me at the cottage and with great excitement told me about a big ship aground off Roshinish Point, 150 yards from Calvay Island. I couldn't get out there quick enough to see for myself. There she was, lying battered by mountainous seas from the south-east, stern-on to the wind and facing the Uist coastline. It was some ship, what they call an intermediate, with black funnel, buff goal posts and fully seven hatches. The black hull looked enormous sitting so high out of the water at low tide. I got there to see quite a number of people already down to gaze on the big Harrison liner.
Scramble The Lifeboats
About 10.30 a.m. a number of seamen, all in white jackets, scrambled aboard one of the port lifeboats. This seemed to us a very silly thing to do because they were quite safe, but of course they didn't know that at the time. The move was contrary to the master's orders, but they manned the boat, and managed to unship the falls and let her drift only to be battered by the huge seas. Oars would have been pointless in any case that day, although one steering oar would have been useful. We watched spellbound till the tiny vessel disappeared in the foam and fury of the cliff-face at Rudha Dubh. Then, just as we began to think the worst, a miracle happened, when the 20 or so stewards, cooks and galley boys were flung on to the shore. The Eriskay ferry boat was on the scene immediately and took the party to safety. The ferry men did a smart job that day, as they always did. Even in the worst weather they have never failed the island. These men never get any medals, but in any case, medals would not do justice to the feats they perform.
At this time my father owned a fishing boat named St Winifred. He wasn't well at the time and had hired out the boat to a near relation and crew of five. I was coming on for 15 and I arranged to go in the boat for a week with three school pals as a sort of holiday. I can remember we slept two to a single bed, but it was luxury for us.
Cargo of Whisky
We left Eriskay harbour on Monday for the fishing grounds and sailed close by the SS Politician. The average islander has a way of getting information and the topic aboard the St Winifred that day was whisky. The wreck had a cargo of it in No.5 hold. Needless to say the trawl was quickly hauled on board. I can't recall whether or not there was fish in it for the lads had their minds set on another catch altogether.
Come, gentlemen, and join the party! A party it certainly was as we were soon to find out.
We came back alongside as darkness fell, only to find a little boat from Lochboisdale already there. I will mention no names to save embarrassment, but one of its crew had served on the ship as boatswain, so the Politican was no stranger to him. He already had the locking bars off No. 5 and seeing the Eriskay men boarding, hailed them with the words I still remember: "Come, gentlemen, and join the party!" A party it certainly was as we were soon to find out.
The hold contained 25,000 cases of blended Scotch with the rest of the space taken up by general cargo of all description. The men boarded the vessel and went straight to No. 5 leaving us young fellows on the St Winifred under strict orders not to follow. But temptation got the better of us and we started up the Jacob's ladder. Eventually we made it to the deck and took a good breather after the perilous ascent in the fierce wind. We could see torches moving down in No.5 and a young man from Lochboisdale on guard over a single tea chest at the hatch. At first he was not very talkative, but we finally got round him and set off with him on a tour of the ship. We came across the lovely piano in the dining saloon.
Everyone began to enjoy themselves, but I began to wonder about the tea-chest, and leaving my friends to the music I doubled back. Picking up an empty sack from the deck, I approached the box and without stopping to seewhat was inside, I started to help myself. With a length of shirting tied on to the sack I lowered my haul into the boat, letting the material drop in after it. Then I returned to join my pals and we bade farewell to our friend from Lochboisdale before scrambling back on board the St Winifred to examine our booty. We had nine bottle of MacCallum whisky, a number of sandals or leather slippers and an electric iron which was useless to us as there was no electricity on the island. The rest of the week we spent stormbound at Lochboisdale, passing the time cooking for older hands. I remember MacColl, the Customs man in Lochboisdale coming on board inquiring why the lads didn't go to the hotel for a drink. I'm sure they had an excuse about the fishing being poor, but he left in high spirits with a generous fry of flounders, and whistling "Annie Laurie".
Red and Black label, Ballantine, Haig's and countless other blends
We arrived back home on Saturday, the weather having calmed down. Of course my mother inquired about the contents of my sack and at first I was afraid to tell my secret. She wasn't left in doubt for long as she took the bad and looked inside. Whether it was surprise or shock, I just don't know, but judging by her face, she was no longer angry with me. After tea, there was a gathering in the house to discuss the Politician. We launched our other boat, which was only 18 feet, that very night and set out for Polly as we called her. We hadn't a great distance to go because we lived very close to the spot she went aground and soon I had my first view of the whisky in No.5 hold. There were tiers of it! Red and Black label, Haig's and countless other blends, together with bottles of stout and giant barrels of brandy floating in the black water. I wasn't interested in the whisky and started looking around at the other items. There were bicycles, cigarettes, tinned fruit, curtain material and bales of linen, and a few cases of left-foot shoes which I couldn't understand. I later heard that it's common practice to keep the left and right shoes apart until their destination, to discourage pilfering.
Strangely, not a drop of whisky was touched, so busy were we planning the next raid.
We finished loading our little boat by 11 o'clock and headed for home. Strangely, not a drop of whisky was touched, so busy were we planning the next raid. Our visits went on for weeks because there was no guard put on the vessel till it was much too late, and even then we still managed to get aboard. I remember one day particularly well because I was stranded on the ship. I was wandering as usual up in the accommodation area when I suddenly felt strangely alone. Looking out I saw our boat well away from the ship with one of the men waving me to get out of sight. At first I couldn't understand why, but I soon discovered the reason. There was a naval trawler anchored off the Polly's stern with a party of ratings coming on board. I streaked along that deck like lightening and hid in one of the lifeboats. Hearing their voices coming closer I plucked up courage and looked out. To my surprise they were busy looting like the rest of us and to my silent indignation, they took three new oilskins belonging to my friends. We later surmised that they'd come to sink a mine blown inshore by the fierce wind. Once they'd gone, I was taken off the ship and we made for home with an empty boat - the bold navy boys had taken all our whisky.
Our trip to the wreck created a lot of work for the womenfolk as they were the ones who washed all our oily gear. We'd be covered in oil coming out of that ship as her fuel tanks had burst when she struck the rocks. The Politician lay until 24th September before a successful attempt was made to get her off the rocks. Three big deep-sea tugs had failed earlier and eventually it was left to a salvage team who pumped her full of compressed air, sealed her off then towed her into the Sound of Eriskay where half of her lies to this day. The other half was towed to a scrapyard on the Clyde. There have been many tales told about the Politician, some true and some not. Customs men and the local police were to be seen most days using long probes to poke haystacks and bogs. I remember one team searching near our house and me watching them, quite the innocent party! They were on top of 15 cases of Johnnie Walker Red and Black Label, but when they started digging all they found was an old wooden fence-post. They missed the cache completely, for we never made the mistake of packing too close together.
The strange thing about the whisky form the Politician was that nobody ever had a hangover in the morning, always that devil-may-care feeling.
They would watch where we buried the stuff
I didn't mind so much for the Customes getting it, for that was their duty. What I did mind were the people who hadn't the courage to board the steamer yet fared as well as the ones who got themselves tired and oily. They would watch where we buried the stuff and unearth it later on. The strange thing about the whisky form the Politician was that nobody ever had a hangover in the morning, always that devil-may-care feeling. I must stress that I'm not criticising the authorities over lack of security. After all, what was one ship on a rock in the Hebrides to Whitehall when ships were being sunk every day all over the world?
The Monday after the Politician grounded, the SS Thala, loaded with iron ore, struck rock south of Hartamul Island less than a mile off Eriskay. The Thala was commodore or leading ship for a convoy of seven other with two corvette escorts, and when she came to grief she blew her siren to warn the rest. She broke in two the next day and by the end of the week had disappeared in 20 fathoms. What caused these ships to go ashore in practically the same spot? One common factor was that the vessels were heading north-west. There were numerous other incidents, too, for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Tanker Birchol went ashore at Melvich early in 1939 and years later, a floating dry-dock and tug were stranded at Rudha Dubh.
During the 1914-18 War, the Blue Funnel boat SS U.S.S.A. also went ashore there with a full cargo including whisky, but she was pulled free by a tug after only six days. My father told me about the Dania a Danish ship which struck a reef near where the Politician grounded. It seems there was a mutiny and the captain had been shot. Strange to relate, since the Politician, there have been no other ships wrecked off Eriskay, but this one incident has been sufficient to secure the island and the vessel a permanent place in modern folklore. Wherever Eriskay folk go, the events of that wartime winter will be retold for all time to come.