Whisky Galore as bottles from SS Politican are lined up inside Merseyside Maritime Museum

By Richard Moss | 14 January 2011
a black and white photo of a merchant ship
The SS Politican was en route to Jamaica and the USA with its valuable cargo© Courtesy Merseyside Maritime Museum
It was one of the more picturesque incidents of wartime austerity Britain and it led to a bestselling novel and an iconic Ealing film. Now the Whisky Galore incident is being revisited by Merseyside Maritime Museum.

The Museum has acquired two whisky bottles from the SS Politician, a merchant ship heading for America and West Indies, which ran aground with its valuable cargo of 28,000 cases of Scotch whisky off the west coast of Scotland in February 1941.

As news of the incident spread, thirsty islanders in small boats began descending on the stricken vessel to help themselves to the precious tipple, which was under strict wartime ration. 

What followed was one of the most celebrated episodes of cat and mouse in modern memory as the men of Customs and Excise fought running battles with the islanders to recover the cargo.

Luckily no one was seriously hurt - although a customs and excise car was damaged - but it inspired Compton Mackenzie to write his best selling 1946 novel Whisky Galore - adapted into the 1949 film Whisky Galore!

a film poster for Whisky Galore
the poster of the 1949 Ealing film Whisky Galore!
Now as the 70th anniversary of SS Politician’s last voyage approaches, the two bottles of Scotch are going on show. Amazingly one of them still contains whisky.

The bottles, acquired recently by curators the UK Border Agency Museum, will join other artefacts from the Harrison Line vessel including a wage book and deck log recording the stranding.

“SS Politician was a famous Liverpool ship. We are very excited to be telling her story because everyone remembers the film about her grounding,” says Dawn Littler, curator of Archives at Merseyside Maritime Museum.

“Seventy years after the ship met her end, there is still so much mystery and debate about the exact purpose of the voyage and looting of the cargo. Islanders felt they were entitled to the salvage while customs officers tried to stop the looting.”

Some of the residents who looted bottles from the wreck received prison sentences but, thanks in no small measure to the book and the film, history looks upon them benignly. Visitors to the museum will be able to judge for themselves.

To coincide with the artefacts going on display and Burns Night (January 25), the restaurant at the Maritime Museum is serving up a very special menu of Scottish themed dishes including Scottish oak smoked salmon, Haggis neeps and tatties and Raspberry Cranachan.  

The display opens to the public on January 22 2011.

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