Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Whisky Galore – Compton Mackenzie

Starting off with some of my holiday reading and the intention of writing a list of things I want to commit to blog before I forget (or give in under the pressure of getting pictures from camera to blogger – why does this turn into such a struggle on such a regular basis?) I think I did pretty well reading wise whilst away – I worked my way through 3 and a ½ books which given all the other things we were doing – and serious attention given to whisky drinking is included in those activities, is a respectable number.

Since reading ‘The Monarch of the Glen’ ‘Whisky Galore’ jumped up to the top of the pile. It’s been one of my favourite films for a long time which was the reason that a previous attempt to read it got nowhere. Book and film have relatively little in common; the film (for those who have seen it and know what I’m talking about) takes one element of the story, condenses it and adds considerably more drama. It’s a great film. The book takes the scenic route starting with a love story and a recalcitrant father and of course a desperate shortage of whisky. The islands are dry and the islanders don’t like it. In the fullness of time the SS Cabinet Minister comes aground with a payload of whisky bound for America. The islanders spring into action to liberate the water of life, which once in their possession starts to solve all their problems. It’s a great book.

Mackenzie writes with knowledge and affection (just in case anyone doesn’t know the story the SS Politician went down off Eriskay in 1941 carrying amongst other things 28000 cases of whisky much of which was looted, this isn’t so much a fictionalised account of what happened as delight in a good story.) It made perfect reading for a rainy Sunday on an island, and is a book destined to be re read when I’m feeling nostalgic, homesick, or in need of something gently amusing generally. I loved the reminders of a gentler, slower pace of life, one which admits the possibilities of poetry and fairies (poetic Gaelic ones) and deep inbred cunning.

I think Mackenzie wanted these reminders too; I don’t doubt that he’s writing with an eye to change, by 1947 when ‘Whisky Galore’ was published it must have been clear even in the outlying Hebrides that elements of the culture and community would disintegrate under the pressure of modern life, but I don’t want to get carried away with the idea that this is all the book is about. To my mind it’s mostly a cracking good story which will tell you a lot about Island psychology and why some people thrive and others fail in this environment. I would love to quote at this point, but when I look through the pages for something suitable I find myself reading long past the point where quotation is reasonable so will just say again – it’s a terrific read.

I should also say that the edition pictured is the current Vintage one, the edition I read is a particularly ugly penguin (a cover which won’t be making its way into any postcard collections, and which I know that penguin have since improved on). It might not be a looker but my copy does have a handy Gaelic glossary and phonetics guide at the back, I’m assuming this is standard, but just in case it isn’t and just in case you feel you might want to read it having the glossary was a definite bonus – it’s given me this for example ‘A bhòbh bhòbh’ (a vov vov) – exclamation of despair, which I find myself using from time to time now I’m back at work (only in my head so far) somehow it perfectly sums up that post holiday feeling.


  1. I've never read the book but I did love the Ealing comedy of this - I should go back and read it now - your review makes it appeal. And it sounds perfect for your holiday.

  2. The Ealing version is one of my favourite films of all time Verity:)