The legend of the 'Polly'

recent photo of a pub
The first public house on Eriskay named after the 'Politician'. B/HAR/12/BoxN/3/1/3, Harrison Line archive, copyright unknown, courtesy of Charente Ltd

The stranding of the 'Politician' would have been forgotten as just a minor incident amongst many occurring to the Harrison Line fleet of ships during the Second World War, when they lost 30 of their 46 ships.

During the war the incident was not reported to the public, but the rumours in the highlands and islands of the West of Scotland would have been heard by the author Compton Mackenzie on the neighbouring island of Barra. The story of the 'Politician' became immortalised in his 1947 novel, 'Whiskey Galore', renamed the 'S Cabinet Minister'. When this was made into the Ealing comedy film in 1949, her story became the stuff of national legend.

poster with illustration of men carrying lot up the cliff from the shore
Poster for 'Whisky Galore', the Ealing Studios comedy film (1949). © Canal + Image UK /BFI

The 'Politican' continues to rouse interest with stories of whisky still being discovered on the Islands. In 1987 eight bottles found by Donald MacPhee from South Uist sold at Christies for £4,000, and in 2003 Bonhams sold a single lid from a Ballantine's whisky crate for £1,500. As recently as August 2010 one single Ballantine's bottle of whisky sold for £4,200!

In 1988 the island of Eriskay got its first 'legitimate' pub, named Am Politician, 'The Politician' in Gaelic.

In 1989 a salvage company, SS Politician plc, was founded to salvage whisky and other cargo. After moving hundreds of tons of sand they only recovered 24 more bottles.

The Politician's other valuable cargo - bank notes!

old bank note
Jamaican 10 shilling note from the consignment on board the 'SS Politician'. DX/2515

Even today the 'Politician' continues to fascinate. Conspiracy theories prevail, mostly surrounding the reason she was carrying almost 290,000 ten shilling notes (£145,000), the equivalent of several million pounds today. Why was this amount of money being sent to Jamaica? Was it in case the government and royal family were preparing to evacuate the UK?

The Crown Agents for Overseas Governments report from 1973 describes how the government hoped that they would not get into circulation but they started turning up on the shore. Local children were seen playing with them on the beach at Benbecula but;

"the locals, most of whom are known to be incriminated in the looting, are too wily to give anything away"
National Archives, CAOG11/194.

An empty cash case was also found abandoned in the hold of the ship. By June the bank notes from the 'SS Politician' were turning up in bank branches in Liverpool and as far away as Jamaica, Switzerland and the USA. By 1958 the Crown Agents reported that 211,267 (£360,000) of the 290,000 notes had been recovered by the salvage company and a further 2,329 had been presented in banks in England and all over the world. There are still about 75,000 banknotes which have never been accounted for, their whereabouts remain a mystery.

The mystery is fuelled by the fact that government papers concerning the 'Politician' are still the subject of a 75 year old closure rule, which means we may not know the answer until 2016.

Perhaps the greatest mystery of all is how the 'Politician' came to be grounded in the first place? Why was she sailing full steam ahead up a narrow shallow rocky channel? The weather and black-out conditions of wartime certainly contributed and there is some evidence to suggest that she had changed direction to avoid a south bound convoy, which forced her west off her projected course. The locals have a simpler answer - it was the islanders calling for their whisky!