The Dram Dramas

  • Source: The Herald
  • Date: 2005
  • Author: Laurence Wareing

There's whisky galore in two books charting our love affairwith Scotch.

?It was a bit of a game of cat and mouse really,? recalls former Excise man Irvine Butterfield in Gavin Smith's engaging record of Scotland's whisky producers. Acquiring a few take-home drams on the side was simply one of the perks of working in one of Scotland?s distilleries ? if you could get away with it and had a suitable receptacle at hand. Anything would do: sauce bottles, disused wartime shell cases, ?even taking out the inside of a Biro and having a sook?.

This is just one of many delightful details in The Whisky Men, which sets down the lives and expertise of former industry employees largely in their own words. Another is the sly juxtaposition of Butterfield's recollections (a chapter titled The Enforcer) with the trade secrets of the anonymous ?D?, described as ?one of the last illicit distillers in north-east Scotland?. ?Yet, even his day-to-day ingenuity is child's play compared with the best cat- ndmouse game of them all, the "rescue? by islanders of thousands of bottles f top-quality whisky after the SS Politician foundered off the coast of South Uist in 1941. As described in Arthur Swinson's 1961 volume, Scotch on the Rocks, no ploy was considered unthinkable in order to conceal the purloined cargo from the local representative of His Majesty's Customs and Excise. Even a coffin was used ? its occupant temporarily stowed under the nearest bed. This, of course, is the stuff of legend, the inspiration for the Ealing Comedy, Whisky Galore, itself based on the novel by Compton Mackenzie. The introduction to the novel is included in this welcome reprint.

It's an intriguing account, reflecting as much the attitudes and procedures of the late 1950s, when Swinson was researching the story, as the wartime context in which the events took place.

Swinson opens with a detailed recreation of the Politician's final voyage from Liverpool, rather spoiled by the inclusion of stilted dialogue, and then proceeds to the .business of tracking down what happened after that An experienced documentary maker, he keeps the reader on pins by refusing to offer up immediately the fruits of his research. This can be frustrating, but no less so, one imagines, than the process was for Swinson in the first place.

Arriving on Eriskay, he is very much the bemused Londoner wandering off the edge of his world, under-whelmed by the barren landscape and unenthused by ?that Scottish abomination, High Tea?.

Though he's apt to generalise a little thoughtlessly from his experience of the islands to Scotland as a whole, more often than not his anthropological scrutiny gives pause for thought - his view, for example, that ?there is probably no nation in the world to which the past is such a living entity of daily life as the Scots?.

Nevertheless, his attempts to get a handle on his interviewees have the air of a Graham Greene novel about them. Islanders mysteriously disappear on unexpected business or simply clam up. One, a Mrs Mitchell, observes that the wreck's aftermath caused so much trouble in these islands that ?I'm not sure it's safe to speak about it even yet?. She gives the lie to Swinson's earlier assertion that ?this story happened to the right people and at the right time?. For sure, in the beginning, it's a merry tale of a once-in-alifetime spree, and Swinson depicts a good deal of generous humour as the islanders pool their resourcefulness to retrieve the abandoned whisky. The image of the ship's hold at night, "lit round like a shrine with candles and Tilley lamps", is magical. But the aftermath of arrests and the decision of some islanders to make a profitable business out of their finds, left a bitter taste and one is reminded of the epilogue to the Ealing film, which asserts that the (albeit fictional) islanders ?lived unhappily ever after?.

Unhappiest of all was Charles McColl, the Customs Officer charged with preventing ?loss for the revenue?.

Other, less measured, accounts of the affair depict McColl as a ruthless zealot, tracking down the looters with the all the vindictiveness of ?Butcher Cumberland? suppressing the Jacobites. Perhaps, as a BBC man, Swinson senses an affinity with a fellow cog within another noble British institution. Certainly he paints a more sympathetic portrait of an ?outsider? ? a Presbyterian in a largely Catholic community and a foreigner to boot; McColl came from Mull.

Intriguingly, his portrait tallies closely with the Excise men described by Gavin Smith's Whisky men ? ?very individualistic characters?, almost always "incomers" but with a community status (even a moral authority) that placed them on a par with the doctor and the minister. Warehousemen also, and mashmen, stillmen, coopers and managers, are among those who offer disarmingly warm and modest self-portraits to what is effectively an oral history.

This is no tasting guide for the novice ? there's no index by which to track down your favourite malt. The workers cite their preferences, of course, but the reader comes to understand whisky more from the character of the landscape surrounding each distillery and Vie arrangement of the stills themselves. Revealing the crafts behind an increasingly mechanised and centralised industry, Smith allows us to understand that the ?water of life? and the lifeblood of these workers are, metaphorically at least, indissoluble. No wonder that when young Irvine Butterfield was charged with selecting films to show in a film tour of the Highlands and Islands, Whisky Galore was considered obligatory.

Scotch on the Rocks: the True Story behind Whisky Galore, Arthur Swinson, Luath Press Lid, ?7.99. The Whisky Men, Gavin D Smith, Birlinn, ?14.99.

Wednesday, 24 April, 2019
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