A shot in the dark.

  • Source: Sunday Herald
  • Date: 20 November, 2005
  • Author: Allan Burnett

Compton Mackenzie?s tale of locals liberating whisky from a sunken ship is well known and much loved, but the true tale of the SS Politician is far murkier, discovers Allan Burnett.

WHEN it was published in 1947, Compton Mackenzie?s novel Whisky Galore made Scotland world-famous. A winning confection of romantic Scotch myths and uproarious comedy, it was anchored loosely on the true story of the SS Politician, an 8000-tonne cargo ship that ran aground off the Hebridean island of Eriskay in February 1941, with around a quarter of a million bottles of whisky on board. Ration-weary islanders swarmed all over the vessel, rowing away with ?rescued? cases of the spirit and incurring the wrath of officious customs men. The incident gave Mackenzie, an aristocratic Englishman-turned-Scottish nationalist living on nearby Barra, the inspiration for a rich culture-clash satire that later became the subject of Ealing Studios? most successful film ? which is now being remade.

But the full facts behind Whisky Galore are darker and more mysterious than anything Mackenzie chose to fathom. That was left to another Englishman, former army officer and screenwriter Arthur Swinson. A new edition of his 1963 investigation of the incident, Scotch On The Rocks, casts fresh light on what really happened when the Politician and her crew of 52 came to grief on a cold, dark February morning in 1941.

Swinson discovered that the ship?s hold carried a fortune in legal currency whose presence could not be explained; that the vessel should never have been sailing near Eriskay in the first place; and that islanders convicted of possessing fairly negligible items from the scuppered ship were punished with unusual severity. In fact, the authorities? handling of the affair was curious. Not only did the salvors declare the whisky, which had the then-enormous street value of ?211,000, was ?not worth salvaging?, but when the Politician was successfully refloated she was quickly and deliberately resunk in the Sound of Eriskay while her hold, containing many recoverable treasures, was dynamited.

Swinson first heard about the Politician as an army captain in India in 1943. His driver, a Scottish soldier named MacNeil, began telling the friendly, moustachioed officer of strange happenings back home in the Hebrides. ?They?re saying a boat?s gone ashore with a load of whisky aboard. Thousands of bottles.? This encounter planted a seed in Swinson?s mind which, after he?d read Whisky Galore, sprouted into a quest to find out what really happened. In 1961, Swinson, then a successful freelance writer, travelled to the Western Isles with a view to turning his discoveries into a book or TV project.

Arriving at the south end of South Uist, next to Eriskay, Swinson began his detective work in the hotel bar, where he found bitterness and suspicion still lingering over how people had been treated by the authorities in 1941. ?You?re not a policeman?? he was asked. It turned out that in the weeks before the Politician was salvaged then broken up, men had sailed from as far as Mull and Harris to spirit away cases packed with bottles of Stag?s Head whisky or the highly prized Haig dimples from the oil-saturated hold. But it was only in nearby South Uist that the customs officers had come down hard. Some 40 people ended up in the local sheriff court, in some cases for having a single bottle in their possession; 19 were sentenced to jail . Despite this, many local men and women were happy to share their memories with the inquisitive outsider.

These interviews were painstakingly slotted together with evidence from surviving crew members, customs officers and other sources. Through masterful detective work, Swinson brought the drama of the ship?s initial collision, the attack of the islanders, the retaliation of the customs authorities and the controversial salvage and shipbreaking operations, to life. Armed with only a tape recorder and notebook, Swinson also learned that violent threats had been made against the customs officer, that an arson attack was made on his car and that the ship?s interior had been vandalised.

His masterstroke was working out why the vessel, which had been meant to rendezvous with a transatlantic convoy further north, had ended up miles off course in the first place. But he acknowledged that key questions remained unanswered, including the biggest one of all: what about the money?

Swinson discovered the Kingston-bound Politician had carried a fortune in Jamaican 10 shilling notes, but couldn?t establish exactly how much nor what it was for. What was clear, though, was that some of it found its way out of the ship?s hold after she hit the rocks. The money trail took Swinson to the retirement home of the last man on board the Politician before she was abandoned, Percy Holden. He told Swinson that while taking a day off from the exhausting and dirty business of the salvage operation, he happened upon three girls and a boy playing at ?shops? on the beach on Eriskay. They were using Jamaican 10 shilling notes as money.

Alarmed, Holden went back on board and, after a thorough investigation of the hold containing the whisky, uncovered several tin boxes all packed with Jamaican 10s notes. He carefully counted them, repacked them and sealed the packages. When he went to the Post Office at Lochboisdale, he declared to the postmistress what was in the packages he was sending to the authorities: ?360,000 in cash. ?She nearly did a back somersault,? said Holden. Holden?s interview was as far as Swinson got, however, and he remained puzzled as to why so much Jamaican currency should have been on board.

Swinson?s daughter Antonia, a journalist and author who has contributed an introduction to the new edition, believes the money is central to uncovering the Politician?s true purpose. She points out that there has been much speculation that the royal family may have been planning to get out of Britain during the Blitz, and that a well-funded retirement in the Caribbean might have been one option. ?Why did the authorities not tow the wreck in to land?? she wonders. ?And why was the ship blown up??

Antonia Swinson believes the most robust theory about the money arose during the making of a TV documentary on the Politician?s tragicomic demise a few years ago.

Allan MacDonald, an Eriskay native and director of film company Media nan Eilean, along with my father, Ray Burnett, director of the Dicuil Institute for Island Studies, who has lived and worked in the islands for 30 years, uncovered clues that suggested the money may in fact have been intended to shore up the Jamaican economy, or even to finance dirty tricks by the colonial regime then in power.

?The Jamaican economy was bankrupt,? says MacDonald, who recalls that pupils at the school in Glendale, South Uist, once played in the yard with real machetes liberated along with bicycles, detergent and other items from the Politician?s hold. ?It was obviously money for a purpose.?

MacDonald and Burnett discovered that the tightly packed boxes of Jamaican 10s notes on board were not only legal tender, but that they amounted to considerably more than the entire sum of money then circulating in Jamaica. Examination of the audited accounts for the colony for the period revealed that the total value of notes in circulation in March 1941 was ?254,000 ? yet Swinson discovered from Holden that the Politician had at least ?360,000 aboard. (Some reports suggest the sum may have been closer to ?3 million.)

They also uncovered evidence that Britain?s governor of Jamaica, Sir Arthur Richards, was by 1941 desperately papering over the financial crisis in the colony with consignments of what was referred to in secret memos as ?cash funds?. Such funds, like those aboard the Politician, may have been intended to refloat a bankrupt economy, or may have even had a more sinister purpose.

MacDonald and Burnett found evidence that the money may have been intended as a bribe for one of Jamaica?s most powerful opponents of white colonial rule, Alexander Bustamante, to curtail his rebellious activities. The money on the Politician may not have gotten through, but there were other vessels that could be reloaded with a fresh consignment of notes and quickly dispatched.

?There have long been suspicions in Jamaica that a deal was done between Richards and Bustamante,? says Burnett. ?Indeed, in Jamaica, the allegation has been referred to as ?the widely held belief?. It is, to say the least, a curious context in which Percy Holden discovered large quantities of unaccounted for Jamaican currency in the holds of the Politician.?

Neither Swinson nor Burnett and MacDonald could find a paper trail acknowledging the money was actually on board the Politician when it left Liverpool on February 3, 1941. It?s almost as though it never officially existed. Moreover, if it is possible that Holden had not recovered all of the money, how much was still left in the hold when the ship was resunk? Was the decision to blow it up based on an officious desire to prevent islanders getting their hands on more free whisky, or to destroy the cash? As Swinson himself remarked: ?The whole episode is very curious.?

MacDonald, the original proprietor of The Politician bar on Eriskay which he kitted out with artefacts salvaged from the ship, is certain that wherever the trail to Jamaica ultimately leads, the sleuthing of Swinson, who died in 1970, was enough to suggest that there is much more to the SS Politician than Scotch on the rocks. ?Behind Whisky Galore,? says MacDonald, ?the money is the real story.?

While proof of the Politician?s ultimate purpose is lurking somewhere, it is unlikely to be found on the seabed where she now lies. Investigation of the wreck reveals that any evidence has long since rotted away. James Cameron, whose grandfather James Morrison was interviewed by Swinson as one of those convicted of taking whisky from the ship, recently dived down to the Politician, which lies north of Calvay, a small islet between Eriskay and South Uist.

?It?s lying on a sandy bottom at a depth of about eight or nine metres at low water,? Cameron says. ?It?s mostly a collection of steel plates now, some growing bits of seaweed. It was cut in half and the front towed away for scrap. The bit with the whisky in it was blown up. But there?s no sign of any bottles as such.?

However, Cameron also reveals that bottles of Politician whisky still lurk below the surface ? on dry land. Cases have been dug up in recent years on his own family croft. Like many people in 1941, Cameron?s grandfather buried the whisky in a secret place only to later forgot where it was. How much of the real whisky galore remains hidden in the islands is anyone?s guess.

Scotch On The Rocks: The True Story Behind Whisky Galore (Luath Press, ?7.99) is launched at Ottakar?s, Glasgow, on Tuesday at 6.30pm. Invitations only ? contact www.luath.co.uk

Wednesday, 24 April, 2019
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