One more recent Scottish legend is atually based on fact. It concerns the sinking of a ship laden with whisky.
The SS Politician left Liverpool on 3rd February, 1941, bound for Kingston, Jamaica and New Orleans. But gale force winds forced her to run aground off the Island of Eriskay,in the Outer Hebrides. Near the islet of Calvay, the ship broke in two. The crew were all unharmed and were looked after by the locals for a while.
When the locals learned from the crew of the “Polly” what the ship was carrying, a series of illegal, and later well-organised salvage operations took place at night, before the customs and excise officials arrived. The island’s supplies of whisky had dried up due to war-time rationing, so the islanders periodically helped themselves to some of the 28,000 cases (264,000 bottles) of Scotch malt before winter weather broke up the ship.
The men wore their womenfolk’s dresses on their “fishing trips”, to keep their own clothes from being covered in incriminating oil from the ship’s holds. Boats came from as far away as Lewis as news of the whisky spread across the Hebrides. No islander regarded it as stealing; for them the rules of salvage meant that once the bounty was in the sea, it was theirs to rescue.
However, this was not the view of the local customs officer. Charles McColl. He was incensed at the outright thievery that he saw going on. None of the whisky had paid a penny of duty, and he railed against this loss to the public purse. McColl whipped up a furore and made the police act.
Villages were raided and crofts turned upside down. Bottles were hidden, secreted, or simply drunk in order to hide the evidence.
McColl and the police caught plenty of locals red-handed, and they were sent to trial. On 26 April at Lochmaddy Sheriff Court. A group of men from Barra pleaded guilty to theft and were charged between three and five pounds. McColl was beside himself at the leniency of the sentence.
McColl continued on his crusade, and more men appeared in court, some of whom were sentenced to up to six weeks imprisonment in Inverness and Peterhead.
At sea, salvage attempts did not go well, and it was eventually decided to let the Politician remain where she was. McColl, who had already estimated that the islanders had purloined 24,000 bottles of whisky, ensured that there would be no more temptation. He applied for, and was granted, permission to explode her hull.
Recently, the Public Records Office released files which showed that the SS Politician was also carrying nearly 290,000 ten-shilling notes (145,000 pounds), which would be worth the equivalent of several million pounds at current exchange rates.
To give an idea of how much that was worth, a corporal on full pay in the British Army received 35 shillings a week. The British government hoped that they would not get into circulation, but they started turning up at banks all around the world. Some sources suggest that these supplies were being sent to the colonies in case there was need of evacuation in the war.
Suspicions only began to rise when an empty cash case was found abandoned in the hold of the ship. By June, the banknotes from the SS Politician were turning up in branches as far away as Liverpool. By mid July, a hundred or so had been tendered in Jamaica and almost two hundred in Britain.
By 1958, the Crown Agents reported that 211,267 notes had been recovered by the salvage company and the police and had been destroyed. A further 2,329 had been presented in banks in England, Scotland, Ireland, Switzerland, Malta, Canada, the US and Jamaica. Only 1,509 were thought to have been presented in good faith. That still leaves 76,404 banknotes which have never been accounted for. Their fate remains a mystery.
The legend inspired a novel by Compton McKenzie and an Ealing Comedy.
Poster for Whisky Galore!