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Eriskay 1935

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: An abandoned house on the Scottish island of Eriskay (photo © Elaine Nash / dreamstime.com).


hidden europe explores a little moment in cinematic history that led to a Hebridean island getting its first proper road

Seventy years ago this spring, news of a windfall reached the small Scottish island of Eriskay. An unexpected gift which, it was suggested, might be used to buy wool to support the island's tradition of spinning and weaving. Actually Eriskay had plenty of sheep, so wool was not in short supply. But there was one thing that Eriskay did not have at all, and that was a road. And thus it came to pass that, through a small philanthropic gesture, this remote island outpost acquired a humble lane that led inland from the old pier at Haunn, skirted the shoulder of wild Beinn Sciathen and then dropped down to the picturesque harbour at Acairseid.

Eriskay was of course in the news a few years later when it had another unexpected windfall, as the SS Politician ran aground one wild night in February 1941. The Harrison Line ship was en route to Jamaica, carrying a cargo of currency and whisky — over a quarter of a million bottles. The Politician foundered on the rocky reef at Calbhaigh that skirts the island's northern shore. There she broke in two, conveniently well within reach of the shore. It was not long before even Eriskay's famous ponies were drunk! Compton Mackenzie romanticised the whole affair of Whisky Galore! in his affectionate comedy about the wee Hebridean island with a massive communal hangover. Even today visitors to Eriskay will find the incident recalled in the Gaelic name of the island’s pub, Am Politician. Behind the bar they still have one or two bottles of the whisky certainly no longer drinkable, that the islanders ‘liberated’ from the ill fated ship. As is so often the case, the popular recollection of Whisky Galore! shrouds a darker side to the tale. Some of Eriskay’s young men were sentenced to jail terms on the Scottish mainland for their role in relieving the SS Politician of its alcoholic cargo.

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