‘Whisky Galore’ bottles salvaged from ship to sell for £9,000

John Morrison with an empty bottle of Highland Nectar whisky he liberated from the SS Politician in 1941. Picture: TSPL
John Morrison with an empty bottle of Highland Nectar whisky he liberated from the SS Politician in 1941. Picture: TSPL
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A pair of unique bottles of whisky salvaged from a shipwreck that prompted a humorous book and film after locals tried to hide them from customs officers have emerged for sale for £9,000.

When the SS Politician was grounded in a storm in 1941 with 28,000 cases of whisky in its hold, opportunistic islanders on Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides decided to plunder the cargo.

Gregor Fisher in a scene from the 2017 remake of Whisky Galore! filmed at St Abbs. Picture: Contributed

Gregor Fisher in a scene from the 2017 remake of Whisky Galore! filmed at St Abbs. Picture: Contributed

But heavy-handed customs officers dynamited the ship rather than let the locals get their hands on any more of the whisky and even prosecuted some of the raiders.

Remarkably one of the bottles being put up for auction is heavily encrusted with ‘blast debris’ from the explosion.

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The two bottles are now being sold by Wright Marshall Ltd, based in Knutsford, Cheshire.

The SS Politician set off from Liverpool heading for Jamaica, Kingston and New Orleans but it got stuck on an unseen sandbank off Eriskay on February 5, 1941 during bad weather.

The fuel tanks ruptured and the engine gave up, leaving the crew and cargo waiting to be rescued.

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It was carrying lots of different things, including cotton and medicines, but it was the 264,000 bottles of whisky in Hold Number 5 that the locals were most interested in.

Unofficial salvage parties set out to ‘rescue’ the cargo and even donned their wives’ dresses to prevent getting incriminating oil from the ship on their own clothes.

Because the ship was headed for America, no excise duty had been paid on the goods and officials desperately tried to get back about 24,000 bottles that were ‘salvaged’.

Locals tried to hide the evidence - stashing bottles in drainpipes or toilet cisterns - or just drinking them, but some ended up in court and spent up to six weeks in jail.

Customs officer Charles McColl got permission to dynamite the ship to prevent any further temptation for salvage.

The islanders watched in disbelief and one, Angus John Campbell, summed up their feelings: “Dynamiting whisky. You wouldn’t think there’d be men in the world so crazy as that!”

Sir Compton MacKenzie wrote the book Whisky Galore (1947) based on the humorous incident and a film followed in 1949. The film was re-made last year starring Eddie Izzard.

These two bottles were recovered by a diving party in 1970 and still contain the original whisky.

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Ron Pritchard, one of the divers, has had these two bottles ever since and kept them on the sideboard in his village home until he and his family decided to sell them.

One is from Geo Ballantine of Scotland and is only half-full as the cork shrunk and some of the whisky evaporated before the bottle was resealed.

The other, from WA Gilbey of London, is encrusted with blast debris from when the hold was dynamited. The heat caused the debris to melt and then re-harden around the neck of the bottle.

Peter Hopkins, Wright Marshall’s fine wine and spirits consultant, said: “The SS Politician was only in about 20ft of water and the whisky was packed in wooden boxes that made them float to the surface.

“There was one rather officious customs officer and he was adamant the islanders weren’t going to have it.

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“He actually prosecuted several of them so they took to hiding it in toilet cisterns, down drainpipes and under mattresses.

“It’s absolutely hilarious what went on.

“He applied to the authorities to have the ship destroyed. They loaded it with an enormous amount of dynamite and blew it, which collapsed the number 5 hold where the whisky was stored.

“Our bottles come from the 1970 dive, they’ve got very good provenance.

“These are being sold by the diver and his family. When I went to see them they were on the sideboard in his house in a little village in Cheshire and his family hadn’t really anticipated how rare they were.

“One has a huge encrustation round the neck. It’s unbelievable, people would think the bottle would shatter. But the heat from the dynamite causes the debris to become semi-molten, a bit like a volcanic explosion.

“But because it’s underwater it cools super quickly and solidified round the bottle. It’s amazing that it’s completely intact with this crust on it.

“It’s totally impossible to judge their value because they are absolutely unique and have worldwide interest. They are fascinating and a piece of Scottish history.”

The bottles will be sold on September 5.