SS Politician

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

SS Politician
  • London Merchant (–1935)
  • Politician (1935–1941)
Builder: Furness Shipbuilding Company.
Launched: c.1922
Fate: Grounded 1941
General characteristics
Type: cargo ship
Tonnage: 8,000 long tons (8,100 t)
Length: 450 ft 6 in (137.31 m)
Beam: 58 ft (18 m)
Installed power: steam turbine
Speed: 14 knots (26 km/h; 16 mph)

SS Politician was an 8000-ton cargo ship owned by T & J Harrison of Liverpool. It left Liverpool on 3 February 1941, bound for Kingston, Jamaica and New Orleans with a cargo including 28,000 cases of malt whisky. The ship sank off the north coast of Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland, and much of the wreck's cargo was salvaged by the island's inhabitants. The story of the wreck and looting was the basis for the book and film Whisky Galore!.


The ship was called Politician only after 1935, when she was purchased by T & J Harrison from Furness, Withy and Co., who had called her London Merchant. [1] In the same transaction, the vessels Royal Prince, Imperial Prince and British Prince became Collegian, Craftsman and Statesman respectively. All four turbine-engined sister ships were built in 1922-3 to have a length of 450 feet 6 inches (137.31 m) and beam 58 feet (18 m), gross 8,000 long tons (8,100 t) and achieve 14 knots (26 km/h; 16 mph). Built for the Furness London-New York route, Harrisons employed them to South Africa in peacetime.[2]

Harrisons had previously owned another Politician, built by Swan Hunter in 1899, which was bought by Christian Salvesen in 1922, renamed Coronda and used from 1940-5 as a store ship on the Tyne.[1]


On 5 February 1941, during gale force winds, she ran aground off the Island of Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides and later broke in two near the islet of Calvay. The crew were all unharmed and were looked after by the locals for a while.

When the locals learned from the crew of the Politician 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 whisky before winter weather broke up the ship. The men wore women'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.[3]

This was not the view of the local customs officer. Charles McColl was incensed at what he saw as outright thievery 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, but the police (being largely locals themselves) were tired of harassing the locals who had not, in their minds, done such a bad thing.

But McColl continued on his crusade, and more men did appear 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 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.

The islanders watched this extraordinary action, their emotions summed up by Angus John Campbell, who commented, "Dynamiting whisky. You wouldn't think there'd be men in the world so crazy as that!"[3]


At the time, the Crown remained very unforthcoming about the incident, the cargo and the salvage. The majority of its hold was taken up by the whisky, but there was also an assortment of other cargo ranging from baths, plumbing fittings, pianos, art silks, motor parts, bedding, furniture, food and banknotes for Jamaica.

Public Record Office files released in January 2001[4] show that 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[5][6] suggest that these supplies were being sent to the colonies in case there was need of evacuation in the war.

As soon as the weather allowed, Eriskay was besieged with customs officials, insurance agents and legitimate salvage companies. It is reported[by whom?] that the custom officials were not well received and one agent was refused accommodation by most of the townsfolk.

In April 1941 Captain E Lauriston, who was in charge of the operation, claimed that the banknotes had turned up in Benbecula, 25 miles (40 km) north of the wreck. The salvage company stated:

It is reported that some of the children on the island have been playing with them and the locals, most of whom are known to be incriminated in the looting, are too wily to give anything away.[4]

In a memorandum, the Crown Agents noted:

The local police service is in no doubt on a very, very small scale but the nature of the place and its surroundings should tend to reduce the chances of serious loss through the notes being presented and paid.[4]

Suspicions only began to rise when an empty cash case was found abandoned in the hold of the ship. By June, the banknotes from 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 wreck of the Politician still lies off the coast of Eriskay, although it is below water line now as the winter gales destroyed the deck and cabins. In 1988 the island got its own legitimate pub, named The Politician (Scottish Gaelic: Am Politician).

SS Politician in popular culture[edit]

The story of the shipwreck inspired the Compton Mackenzie's 1947 novel Whisky Galore which was made into an Ealing Comedy film in 1949.

A "Poem of the S.S Politician" is attributed to Angus Mcintyre, Tobermory.[7]

Oi Polloi wrote a song about this ship on their album Ar Ceòl Ar Cànan Ar-A-Mach.

Two books have been written detailing the history:

  • Scotch On The Rocks : The True Story Behind Whisky Galore, Arthur Swinson, 1963 & 2005 ISBN 1-905222-09-2[8][5]
  • Polly: The True Story Behind Whisky Galore, Roger Hutchinson, Mainstream Publishing, 1990 + 1998 ISBN 1-84018-071-4[9]

Recent history[edit]

In 1987 Donald MacPhee, a local South Uist man, found eight bottles of whisky in the wreck; he sold them at Christies' auction for £4,000.[3]

In October 1989 a salvage company, SS Politician plc, was founded by Churchill Baron Financial Services of Glasgow, with Jeremy Brough as company chairman. About £400,000 was invested by more than 500 people, but moving hundreds of tons of sand and steel plates only uncovered 24 more bottles, thereby creating a notional rate of return of £16,667/bottle. Some of the whisky was blended and bottled by SS Politician plc.

In 2013 two of the original eight bottles of whisky salvaged in 1987 by Donald MacPhee, sold for £12,050 after an online auction. Scotch Whisky Auctions, which sold the bottles, said they had gone to a buyer in the UK after worldwide interest.[10]


  1. ^ a b T & J Harrisons. Quoting A.G. Collingwood. Sea Breezes. May 1977 – via Merchant Navy Officers.
  2. ^ Prince Line. Red Duster. The Merchant Navy Association.
  3. ^ a b c Scotsman Heritage article valid December 2014
  4. ^ a b c The Daily Telegraph 26 January 2001
  5. ^ a b "Scotch on the Rocks". Antonia Swinson. Archived from the original on 19 December 2011.
  6. ^ Antonia Swinson 'Return of scotch on the rocks'
  7. ^ "Whiskey Galore: SS Politician". SeaRoom. Archived from the original on 3 October 2011.
  8. ^ "Scotch on the Rocks". Luath Press Ltd. Archived from the original on 20 September 2010.
  9. ^ "New Books from Mainstream Publishing January – December 2006" (PDF). Mainstream Publishing. p. 21. Archived from the original (pdf) on 10 August 2007.
  10. ^ Whisky Galore bottles fetch £12,050. BBC News. Highlands & Islands. 6 May 2013

Coordinates: 57°5′52″N 7°15′43″W / 57.09778°N 7.26194°W / 57.09778; -7.26194