The Great Whisky Caper

The Great Whisky Caper- Isle of Eriskay, Scotland

The year was 1941, the location, the tiny Hebridean Isle of Eriskay off the West coast of Scotland. Famous for being the spot where Charles Edward Stuart first stepped foot on British soil at the beginning of the 1745 uprising. Now, 200 years later, this island was about to become infamous for an entirely different reason.

The war was taking its toll on this remote island with the residents suffering under rationing. Although they grew their own food, whisky was almost impossible to come by.

In February, the SS Politician set off from Liverpool to Kingston, Jamaica and New Orleans. It’s cargo? Bicycles, linen, tobacco, £145,000 in Jamaican 10 Shilling notes and most importantly, 264,000 bottles of the finest Scotch whisky.

Distilleries and warehouses had been targeted in the war by the Nazis. The ignition of such a flammable substance was found to be as dangerous as hitting live shells. After a mass public campaign the whisky was loaded up to be sold in safer places across the Atlantic.

As the SS Politician passed the Isle of Wight, gale force winds forced the ship to change its course. The storm continued to batter the ship, pushing it further off track. On the morning of the 5th of February, 1941, it ran aground off the Isle of Eriskay. With its oil tanks ruptured and the engines no longer working, the crew had no choice but to abandon ship. The hold in which the whisky was kept had been flooded with water and fuel oil. Therefore, the captain didn’t believe that the cargo could be salvaged.

The ‘helpful’ islanders hoped otherwise and set up unofficial salvage teams to collect the cargo. Many men donned their wive’s dresses to keep their clothes clean from the ship’s leaking oil. Under the cover of darkness, they rowed out to the SS Politician and used their wits to get to the flooded hold. They salvaged whatever they could carry.

When word got out of the whisky on board, people from neighbouring islands, some as far as Lewis (130 miles away), made their way to Eriskay. In the words of one man, they were simply “rescuing the whisky”. In all, around 24,000 bottles were salvaged. To put that into perspective, the population of the entire Isle of Eriskay at that time was around 400. Local resident Mairi MacInnes later recalled that, “Men were dancing in the streets and singing songs and everyone joined in. It was very exciting.”

The authorities, and certainly the ship’s owners, saw the islander’s salvage efforts as nothing short of thievery. After all, duty hadn’t been paid on any of the cargo. The customs officers began combing the islands, confiscating the loot and arresting those found with it.

The locals on the Isle of Eriskay were crafty when hiding their spoils. Bottles were hidden everywhere, in hen houses, amongst rocks and buried deep in people’s gardens. Very little of it was hidden in their homes. Many of them simply tried to drink the evidence, although there was far too much to get through so quickly. Very few were ever caught with their loot. Eriskay was awash with a sense of adventure, community spirit and whisky!

After many months, the authorities finally gave up and the islanders were left alone. To deter any further looting, the hull of the ship was destroyed. This prompted one resident to declare, “Dynamiting whisky. You wouldn’t think there’d be men in the world so crazy as that!”

Although the incident was never publicly reported, the story was picked up by Scottish author Compton MacKenzie and made into a book, Whisky Galore, which was later immortalised on film.

To this day, whisky is still being found under water and in forgotten hiding places on the island. In 2013, two recovered bottles of whisky were sold at auction for just over £12000.

The money has its own story. In the hold, the cases of Jamaican notes had been covered with fuel and water and later believed to be swept out to sea. However, within a few years, notes began showing up in banks in Northern Scotland, Liverpool, Stoke-on-Trent and London and later internationally. By 1958, just over £105,000 had been recovered. To this day, no one knows exactly how the Jamaican shillings could be used in such remote parts of Scotland in the middle of a war.

For more information on this story, have a look at this online exhibition at     The Merseyside Maritime Museum: