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Whisky Galore - Encore

Blog - Is It Scotland?

A sporadic blog about Scotland and tourism that isn't grumpy all the time.  Promise.

Whisky Galore - Encore

Gilbert Summers

Fancy going to see the new Whisky Galore? It’s the re-make - or retelling - of the 1949 Ealing Comedy classic, itself based on the novel of the same name by Sir Compton Mackenzie. (In the USA, the original movie was called Tight Little Island as movie titles weren’t allowed to mention alcohol in their names, apparently.)

Remind me about the wreck of the SS Politician

Compton Mackenzie’s story in turn was based on a real incident when an 8000 ton cargo ship, the SS Politician, left Liverpool, England, in February 1941. Among other goods, she was loaded with whisky for export to the USA. On her course along the west side of Scotland to join an Atlantic convoy, she was caught in a gale and ended up aground in the shallow channel between the islands of Eriskay and South Uist in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides.

The locals quickly got to hear what was in her holds. The island at that point was ‘dry’, because of wartime restrictions. As word spread, they came from many of the islands to ‘liberate’ the cargo, as well as outwit the Excise who were sent to ensure the whisky was safely recovered.

In the real event, several island men were fined or jailed for looting. In the book and film(s), the affair has a more whimsical air, rooted in the locals' attitude that the sea has provided and they have a right to salvage.

Portsoy and its harbour. The waterfront features in several scenes in the new Whisky Galore.

Portsoy and its harbour. The waterfront features in several scenes in the new Whisky Galore.

How they filmed Whisky Galore, 1949 version

The 1949 version was filmed on the island of Barra, close to Eriskay where the real event took place. It ran over-budget and over-time. But it captures the charm and idiosyncrasy of these islands of the far west. Somehow, even the sparkle of Hebridean light comes across in spite of the original being filmed in black and white - and none the worse for that. Personally, it’s my second-favourite film of all time. (Hmm? Oh, that’s Woody Allen’s ‘Annie Hall’ {1977}, since you ask.)

And the new version?

Anyhoo, the new Whisky Galore goes nowhere near Barra. In fact, it goes nowhere near any island. Many of the scenes were filmed at the village of Portsoy, on the Moray Firth north of Aberdeen. Among other locations, some beach scenes were located at a shore by New Aberdour on an otherwise usually overlooked or off the beaten track stretch of coastline to the east. (To be honest, it was one of the places I’d never have mentioned, but kept to myself. Now look what’s happened!)

Looking west from Portsoy. Early in the year, so it isn't even very green yet. Attractive? Probably. Hebridean? Not in the slightest. But does that matter?

Looking west from Portsoy. Early in the year, so it isn't even very green yet. Attractive? Probably. Hebridean? Not in the slightest. But does that matter?

So, and this is just an observation, apart from the Hebridean accents, in the new movie there no sense of the event actually happening on an island. The landscapes simply look too big! (The chase scene near St Abbs, for example.) And they certainly don’t look Hebridean - which is odd as the website that promoted the film-making team references the original: and actually critically alludes to ‘the fact that it seems folly to have made the film in monochrome when the unmatchable colours of land and sea in the area were available.’

So what we see instead in the new version are the cool colours of the Moray Firth and the relentless greens mostly of rural Aberdeenshire and the area around St Abbs in the Scottish Borders. I don't truly think they are as wide-ranging as the colour-palette of the Hebrides but this probably doesn't matter,

Looking up the coast from St Abb's Head in the Scottish Borders. It's green, green, so green! The lighthouse access road, bottom left, was used for the chase scene where Captain Waggett follows the islanders' whisky-laden lorry. 

Looking up the coast from St Abb's Head in the Scottish Borders. It's green, green, so green! The lighthouse access road, bottom left, was used for the chase scene where Captain Waggett follows the islanders' whisky-laden lorry. 

OK, so the scenic background is quirky and conveys no real sense of a Hebridean setting. That has been left for the actors and their accents. But does it work as a re-telling of a fairly well-known tale? Probably. At its core are the differences in culture, attitude and values of two different kinds of people - the islanders and the ‘authorities’, symbolized by Captain Waggett.

In charge of the island Home Guard guarding the wreck, the pompous English Captain Waggett is splendidly played by Eddie Izzard. His utter incomprehension of how the locals think harks right back to Mackenzie’s novel where the author gives these words to Waggett:

‘They’re not sporting. They don’t enjoy doing things just for the sake of doing them. That’s where the English are superior to every other nation in the world.’

Captain Waggetts - they're still with us today

Waggett stands here for the kind of incomer or ‘blow-in’ absolutely convinced that his ways are the only way and that it’s simply a matter of educating the locals. Ironic how Mackenzie was satirising this back in 1947. Nothing much has changed in contemporary Scotland.

Hebridean blue (or is it green?). Looking east down the Sound of Eriskay, where the real wreck happened. See also picture below.

Hebridean blue (or is it green?). Looking east down the Sound of Eriskay, where the real wreck happened. See also picture below.

The plot unfolds much as in the original, apart from a curious (and not really necessary) sub-plot involving a confidential attache case containing letters from the Nazi-sympathising abdicated King Edward VIII and his fancy-piece Wallis Simpson.

The new Captain Waggett is more like the 1949 film version than the character in Compton Mackenzie’s original novel, where, though his pompous superiority is satirised, there is no ‘revenge’ or come-uppance for him - the factor that makes the screen play more satisfying!

Intended to bring the story to a new generation of moviegoers, the team have been faithful to the narrative and spirit, while completely missing the chance to capture the Hebridean ambience. This, of course, is mostly to the advantage of Aberdeenshire and the full weight of tourism promotion will make the most of the spotlight shone on this pleasant stretch of the Firth. (VisitScotland’s helpful map of the film locations does not even flag up the islands of Eriskay or Barra and their intimate connections to the origins of the story.)

Will you enjoy the new version of Whisky Galore?

Probably. If you’re a real movie buff you’ll inevitably compare and contrast - and notice the places where the new film refers to the old. (For example, they re-use that classic line that from the scene-setting voice-over that opens the 1949 version ‘...and to the west, there is nothing - except America.’ Without reading too much into it, this may have been a device to alert the audience that they were about to see a self-contained little world that wasn't too interested in what lay beyond the horizon. In the new film the same words are simply read out from a school textbook in a schoolroom scene. Ho-hum.)

So, Is it as good as the original?

I'm tempted to say no. But It’s just different. It’s a re-telling. It’s for a different audience. It’s for younger people probably. Personally, I prefer the 1949 film for its vitality and its soundtrack - and for the way it captures the sense that native Hebridean folk do things in their own way.

But I prefer the ice-cream in Portsoy.

In this view, little Calvey Island lies in the sound between Eriskay (from where the pic was taken) and the south end of South Uist. The morning after the grounding, according to witnesses, a ship’s boat was launched and drifted north onto the hazardous steeply shelving rocks at a spot opposite Calvey, just left of centre (and marked as Rubha Dubh on OS maps). Miraculously, all the crew got ashore, and the Eriskay ferry promptly rescued them.

In this view, little Calvey Island lies in the sound between Eriskay (from where the pic was taken) and the south end of South Uist. The morning after the grounding, according to witnesses, a ship’s boat was launched and drifted north onto the hazardous steeply shelving rocks at a spot opposite Calvey, just left of centre (and marked as Rubha Dubh on OS maps). Miraculously, all the crew got ashore, and the Eriskay ferry promptly rescued them.

What really happened to the wreck of the SS Politician?

Follow this link for a picture of the wrecked SS Politician, courtesy of the Merseyside Maritime Museum. What is striking is how high she sits on the reef - it must have been quite a shock to the Eriskay folk to find this huge vessel looming offshore. She lay there till September 1941. Finally the salvage team got one half of her away for scrapping. The other half of the vessel was towed further into the Sound of Eriskay where she lies, just below the surface, to this day.

Sometimes, the Eriskay ferry would divert to give visitors a view of the submerged hulk - but there is a causeway today and no ferry runs!