Whisky Galore revival creator’s nerves over show

IT was a real-life wartime shipwreck drama that inspired a classic Scottish novel and a much-loved Ealing film.

From left, Julie Hale, Calum MacDonald and Iain Macare in the reprise of Whisky Galore, which will have English subtitles. Picture: Drew Farrell
From left, Julie Hale, Calum MacDonald and Iain Macare in the reprise of Whisky Galore, which will have English subtitles. Picture: Drew Farrell

Now the man behind a stage revival of Whisky Galore has admitted he is worried about the reaction to the show, which is partly set in the modern day and is staged largely in Gaelic.

Iain Finlay Macleod’s script pokes fun at present-day islanders and the way of life in the Outer Hebrides almost as much as the characters created by Compton Mackenzie for his 1947 bestseller.

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They cannot believe their luck when a ship runs aground with a huge cargo of whisky aboard – at a time when rationing has left their island almost dry.

The Lewis-born writer, who has adapted the novel for the National Theatre of Scotland’s first fully-fledged Gaelic play, has told of his concerns that he does not “mess it up”.

A replica of an island bar will be heading around the Hebrides later this month as part of a nationwide tour of the production, which features a five-strong cast tackling a roll-call of dozens of characters in the space of just under an hour. However, instead of a straightforward retelling of the story, the action on the fictional island of Todday flips back and forth between the 1940s and 2015. Stop-offs include the island of Eriskay, off which the 8,000-tonne cargo ship SS Politician sank in 1941 with 260,000 bottles aboard the stricken vessel, and the neighbouring island of Barra, where Alexander McKendrick’s famous 1948 film was shot.

Mr Macleod said: “There has to be a reason for doing this story in the here and now. What’s of interest to me is revisiting stories which belong to the Gaelic culture but which have never been told in the language or from a Gaelic point of view.

“I thought it would make it a bit more interesting for us nowadays to set it in the present day.

“It lets us speak about other things that are relevant to Hebridean communities today rather than just have a straight retelling of the story.

“It’s overwhelmingly still a good yarn; there’s not much time to go into a thesis or anything like that. The story of the boat going down is still the main thing.

“But it does show some of the differences between the communities then and now, and how some things have maybe changed for the better or the worse.

“In the book itself, there is a very strong sense of community, whereas nowadays there is a bit more loneliness in the islands. It is not as it was, really.”

The SS Politician had left Liverpool and was bound for Jamaica and New Orleans. As the whisky had been due for the US market, no duty had been paid on its cargo and the majority of the islanders regarded their lucky discoveries as salvage.

The NTS production, which had a curtain-raiser in Strontian, in the West Highlands, on Friday night, relives the real-life drama which unfolded when customs officials were called in to try to retrieve the islanders’ bounty.

Although some of the new play’s script is performed in English, the vast majority of the show is in Gaelic, but Mr Macleod hopes it will appeal equally to non-Gaelic speakers, as subtitles unfold above the makeshift bar throughout the show.

But Mr Macleod revealed that his own mother had already warned him that the play “had better be good”.

He added: “I hope people enjoy it and get a bit of a feel for the islands. They have a nice, quiet sense of humour.

“I just hope that I don’t mess it up. It will be pretty embarrassing if no-one laughs.

“The actors are very good. It’s very challenging for them as they’ve all got multiple parts to play. One of the actors, Iain Macrae, has the most - something like 15.

“I can remember the film a bit, but I’ve deliberately not watched it again, I just went back to the original novel.

“There are loads of very interesting things in the book from our point of view, particularly the way people are portrayed in it.

“I don’t really have a problem with it, as he takes the mickey out of everyone equally, although I know some people don’t like his portrayal of the islanders.

“It is a bit couthy and the islanders are a bit simple in it, but the original book has a very funny narrative voice. I’ve used good chunks of the dialogue.

“One interesting thing is that when I’ve been telling people I know that I was working on the show they all start coming out with a lot of old family stories about the SS Politician.

“A friend of mine can actually remember playing with the empty whisky bottles from the ship when she was little.”

Whisky Galore is on tour around Scotland until 15 May.