Throughout my childhood, I was lucky enough to spend my summer holidays with my grandparents on the Isle of Eriskay. Only two miles long and with less than two hundred inhabitants, the island was – and still is – the perfect getaway from the hustle and bustle of day-to-day life. Despite its small size and secluded nature, the islands can lay claim to two historic feats. It was the place where Bonny Prince Charlie first set foot on Scottish soil in 1745, before going on to lead the (ultimately unsuccessful) Jacobite Rebellion. And during the Second World War, a whisky-laden ship would make the waters around the island is final resting place.
The SS Politian ran aground off the coast of Eriskay on 5 February 1941 during gale force winds. The ship had been bound for Kingston, Jamaica and New Orleans, with a cargo which included 28,000 cases of malt whisky. When the locals learned what the “Polly” was carrying, a number of illegal but well-organised salvage operations took place to rescue the precious cargo. This came as welcome relief to the locals, as their supplies of whisky had run dry due to war-time rationing. And it’s this story which inspired both the book and resulting film – Whisky Galore!
Written by Compton Mackenzie and published in 1947, Whisky Galore! takes the events of 1941 as its basis but gives it a sly spin – the cargo vessel becomes the SS Cabinet Minister and it is left stricken in the waters off the Island of Todday. Although this gives Mackenzie artistic licence to tell his own story, if locals on Eriskay are to be believed, his fiction isn’t far from the truth.
The film was released just two years after the book and became one of Ealing Studios most popular films in the immediate post-war period. As film critic Hannah McGill suggested at the screening I attended, films such as this reinforced people’s sense of community after World War Two, whilst also offering city dwellers a brief escape from the still-ravaged urban landscape. It was filmed on location on the neighbouring island of Barra, with interiors shot in London. The 2015 stage play is a slightly different beast, taking place in a bar on the Island of Todday in the present day. Here, we are presented with a handful of locals who reply the story to an ‘incomer’.
Despite the differing interpretations, both the film and the stage play capture island life perfectly. The former has everything I associate with my time on the islands – strong female characters, a sense of community, reference towards religion and the ability of the canny islanders to pull the wool over the eyes of the entitled mainlanders. The stage play– which it should be noted is performed in Gaelic, with English surtitles – maintains this ethos, but also brings in themes of belonging, current attitudes to the islands and the long tradition of storytelling.
And what of the whisky itself? Well, ‘The Water of Life’ has never been truer to its name. Both productions are set at a time when whisky was scarce, leading to people retreating within themselves and away from the public sphere. When the whisky is plentiful though, the community comes together and it bound by the mysterious liquid.
Although the play’s language of choice and structure may prove slightly confusing to someone approaching the material for the first time, it does a brilliant job at showing how the islands have changed, whilst also maintaining many of the traditions which ‘mainlanders’ now take for granted. And for those of you who can’t make it to one of the production’s touring dates, find yourself a copy of Whisky Galore! on DVD, a good dram and enjoy a snapshot of simpler times.
Uisge-Beatha Gu Leòr / Whisky Galore is touring Scotland throughout April and May, including visits to the Outer Hebrides. For more details or to book your tickets, log-on to the National Theatre of Scotland’s website.