In 1962, my late father Arthur Swinson spent weeks in the Western Isles researching the truth behind the story of the ? Whisky Galore ' ship the SS Politician, which ran aground in 1941 carrying 20,000 cases of malt whisky. Armed with his tape recorder, he obtained extraordinary interviews and his book, a best seller in its day, revealed a grittier and even more exciting tale than Compton Mackenzie ' s magical fiction. It was also remarkable travel writing, recording vivid first impressions of island life.
One day, after interviewing the widow of the Charles McColl the Customs officer, famed for his dogged pursuit of islanders and whisky, Arthur stopped to congratulate a woman working in her garden. He had been struck that no one on Eriskay or the Uists cultivated their gardens. She was an incomer from the Lake District, who always planted daffodils and tulip bulbs each Autumn because she missed spring gardens. Though as she explained that ? the blast ' would come in from the sea so strongly that ? after a gale you go out into the garden and it looks as if there has been a fire, all the plants are black. ? Walls built in squares didn ' t help because the wind ? would get inside and spin like a top. ? For Arthur this was extraordinary. He couldn 't imagine life without a garden.
A few weeks ago, in his footsteps, my family and I spent a week ' s holiday in Lochboisdale. I visited the widow of the former headmaster on Eriskay, a remarkable lady whose splendid walled garden, sheltered by a hill, was green and thriving. In extraordinary counterpoint, there on her wall was a photograph of her husband leaning against the St Joseph, the islands ' only motor boat which Charles McColl had commandeered for his chase.
My father came from a long line of professional plantsmen. The family had a nursery business from the 1920s, and for generations had worked on the grounds of the Dean of St Albans Cathedral which then stretched down into Roman Verulamium. (Those of you up on church politics, will know it is always the Dean not the Bishop who snaffles the best real estate in any cathedral town.) Raspberries were my father ' s particular talent. There always bigger and tastier than any in our neighbourhood. I suppose that is why about a third of my allotment is raspberries. Childhood memories sharply remerge when I work among the canes, the tang of fresh Autumn Bliss eaten when picked, is a instant comforting connection to a gentler time. And of course they also taste great soaked in malt whisky.
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