SS Politician

SS Politician

The SS Politician was an 8000-tonne cargo ship, owned by T & J Harrison of Liverpool which left Liverpool on 3 February 1941, bound for Kingston in Jamaica and New Orleans.


The ship was only called Politician after 1935 after she was purchased by T & J Harrison from Furness, Withy and Co. Ltd., who had called her London Merchant. In the same transaction, Royal Prince, Imperial Prince and British Prince became Collegian, Craftsman and Statesman respectively. All four turbine-engined sister ships were built in 1922-3 with a length of 450ft 6in and beam 58ft to gross 8,000 tons and achieve 14 knots. Built for the Furness London-New York route, Harrisons employed them to South Africa in peacetime.

Harrisons had previously owned another 'Politician' built by Swan and 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.


On 5 February, 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 managed to get off the ship, where they were looked after by the locals for a while.

When the locals learned from the crew of the "Polly" what the ship was carrying, a series of illegal and later well orchestrated salvage operations took place at night, before the customs and excise officials arrived. The islands 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 malt before winter weather broke up the ship. Boats came from as far away as Lewis as news of the whisky travelled 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.

This was not the view of the local customs officer. Charles McColl was incensed at the outright thievery that he saw going on. None of the whisky had paid a penny of duty, and he riled 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 plead 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, the salvage attempts were not going well, and it was eventually decided to let the 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 one man Angus John Campbell who commented: "Dynamiting whisky. You wouldn't think there’d be men in the world so crazy as that!"

Other cargo including money

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 cargo ranging from baths, plumbing fittings, pianos, art silks, motor parts, bedding, furniture, food and bank notes for Jamaica. Recently released Public Records Office files show that it was also carrying a sum of cash. In all, there were nearly 290,000 ten-shilling notes (145,000 pounds), which would be worth the equivalent of several million pounds at today's exchange rate. (An idea of how much that is 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 suggest that these supplies were being sent to the colonies to prepare for the Monarchy, in case there was need of evacuation in the war.

The locals, periodically at first, looted the hold of as much whisky as they could carry on the islanders small boats. The men wore their womenfolk's dresses on their "fishing trips" to keep their own clothes from being covered in incriminating oil from the ship's holds.

As soon as the weather allowed, Eriskay was besieged with custom officials, insurance agents and legitimate salvage companies. It is reported 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 bank notes had turned up in Benbecula, 25 miles 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."

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."

Suspicions only began to rise when an empty cash case was found abandoned in the hold of the ship. By June the bank notes from the SS. 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. Like the whisky, their fate remains a mystery.

The wreck of the SS 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 ‘Am Politician’.

SS Politician in Popular Culture

The story of the shipwreck inspired the 1947 Compton Mackenzie 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.

Two books have been written detailing the history:

  • "Scotch On The Rocks : The True Story Behind Whisky Galore", Arthur Swinson, 1963 & 2005
  • "Polly: The True Story Behind Whisky Galore", Roger Hutchinson, Mainstream Publishing, 1990 + 1998

Recent history

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.

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. Some of the whisky was blended and bottled by SS Politician plc. The bottle was shaped in the fashion of a ship's decanter and the sales and marketing efforts, to sell the product in the USA, were conducted by Paul Davis of Maison Jomere and Phillip Silverstone of The Silverstone Collection. A launch party organized by Davis and Silverstone was held at the British Embassy in Washington DC. The sales efforts in the USA were a triumph, helped enormously by the story of Whisky Galore.


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