Log #16m Eriskay & Barra

October 8, 2000 in Log Series 11 - 19, Logs by Series, Series 16 Scotland, The Logs

Log #16m Eriskay & Barra

Written Oct. 8, 2000
Seine River en route to Paris
Covers the period July 19 to 21, 2000

The entrance to Acairseid Mor on the east coast, the only decent inlet and anchorage on Eriskay, was straightforward, once the two shoals flanking the entrance were cleared. They were indicated as shoals on the chart, but not marked with a beacon or buoy, and were a half meter below the surface at chart datum. However, there was a set of range lights providing a good transit, once they were sighted. Murphy’s Law still was working, as the mist allowed less than a half mile visibility, and we get unsettled when having to approach that close to a shoal-strewn coastline. We did not see any white water over the shoals, and were relieved when we finally picked up the transit. The narrow loch itself was a half mile long, surrounded by hills, and ending in a shallow bay flanked by a concrete fishing pier on the north and a few houses scattered around the west and south shores. There were three visitors’ buoys, but unfortunately all were occupied, and so we anchored to the west of them.

There is only one community on Eriskay, Haun, on the north shore, overlooking the Sound of Eriskay which separates the island from South Uist. The walk from the pier to town was about two miles, up and down a paved rural road, with occasional houses scattered on the hillsides. The population of the entire island is only about 200, but it lays claim to Bonnie Prince Charlie’s landing from France in 1745, the first time he had ever set foot in Scotland. The island now has a pub called “Am Politician”, a recent development as the island was “dry” until about ten years ago. That is one of the reasons the wreck of the SS Politician in 1941 in the Sound of Eriskay  provided such a opportune diversion in a war-rationed, pub-less community as this little island.

The Politician went on the rocks, and broke in two near the islet of Calvay, but the crew were OK, got off, and were billeted in the town for a few days. When the townspeople learned from them that there were over 28,000 cases (264,000bottles) of whisky in the holds, as well as other general cargo, a series of illegal salvage operations were conducted by the townsfolk on the ship stranded on the rocks. However customs officials as well as insurance agents and legitimate salvage companies complicated the situation. Apparently the community was so preoccupied with this opportunity that fishing nearly ceased, and contraband, drunkenness, and secretiveness plagued the island. Several men were caught; some went to jail, others lost their boats, yet others were suspected of informing, – all in all, an unfortunate aftermath.

We heard a cute anecdote from the taxi/bus driver who took us around Uist from Loch Maddy, about his uncle who was living on Eriskay at the time of the wreck. Apparently the customs officials who came to the island were not well received, and one agent was refused accommodation by most of the townspeople. When he arrived at the door late on a cold night and asked this uncle for a room for a few days, the uncle took pity on him and allowed him to stay in one of the bedrooms. The customs official in gratitude shared a legal bottle of whisky, that he had legitimately paid duty on, with the uncle, knowing that the island was dry and whisky hard to get there. Apparently this was also a bottle from the Politician, and the agent commented on the quality and scarcity of it. The uncle agreed and greatly expressed his thanks, except his thankfulness was actually directed at the stout beams of his attic, which were supporting 25 or more cases of illegally salvaged whisky above the customs man’s bedroom. He feared that the ceiling would collapse under the weight of it.

Now that a legitimate pub exists on the island since 1988, it of course had to be named after the ship, “Am Politician”. It has pictures and newspaper clippings of the story, the salvage operation (the legitimate one), as well as photographs and diagrams of the ship and its holds. There is a flag from the shipping company, and a bottle of whisky from the wreck. The pub is a modern establishment, serving good meals, and providing a comfortable drinking place with a pool table, dart boards, and pictures of local kids’ teams supported by it. Compton Mackenzie, who wrote the book “Whisky Galore”, lived on Barra, the next island south of Eriskay. The movie “Tight Little Island” was a good lighthearted account of this bootlegging adventure filmed on location and at Barra the next island south of Eriskay.

We left the next day, motoring the 14 miles down to Barra and picking up a free visitor’s mooring in Castle Bay. It is so named because of the castle which dominates the bay from an islet a few hundred yards off the main town docks. It was not open for visitors, as it had just been purchased by the Scottish National Trust and was in the process of being upgraded to their safety standards. It provided a dramatic backdrop for the town. There were several other bays where boats could anchor within the same large sheltered inlet, many with lovely sand beaches.

As we anchored by noon, we were in time to take a local bus around the island. We stopped at the Barra airport, one of the few, if not the only, airports with scheduled service set by the tide tables. Yes, the aircraft land on a shallow hard sand beach, which dries at low tide! We walked out on the exposed rippling sands shortly before low tide, and were warned off it by large windsocks set up around the shoreline of the airport when aircraft were approaching. It was quite the sight to see a two engine passenger aircraft flying in low over the water to land on this damp stretch of exposed beach, and taxi up to the airport terminal on the shore. The aircraft did not come up onto the shore, but stayed on the hard sand in front while the baggage carts and technical support wagons were towed out to it. We were fortunate in that it was a lovely sunny day (for a change), allowing us to get some good pictures, and to enjoy the long beach on the opposite side of the isthmus from the airport. This was the first time all summer we had strolled barefoot along a sandy beach. The combination of shallow sloping shorelines and high tides created some dramatic scenery, with diamond white sand, volcanic rock, scrub brush, and miles of rivulets threading to the gently lapping waves, trapping pools of tepid salt water, crystal clear over the rippled foreshore.

The next day we were off again, in fine weather for a 36 mile motor sail east across the Sea of the Hebrides to Canna, finally leaving the Western Islands chain (also called the Outer Hebrides) and returning to the Small Islands south of Skye.

Below is a poem about the incident of the Politician sinking off Eriskay

Whiskey Galore

This poem, by an unknown author, describes the sinking of the S.S. Politician

The SS Politician

“Och, times are hard in Barra”
You’d hear the Badochs cry.
“No food to feed a sparra!
And effery bottle dry.”

Old men, once fresh and frisky,
So full of ploy and play,
Dropped dead for want of whisky,
The blessed Uisque Bae.

Now, the dusty dry Sahara
Is a bare and barren land,
But the drought that year in Barra,
Was more than man could stand.

Aye, life was hard and cruel
And days were long and sad,
When the strongest drink was gruel,
And the war was going bad.

A cleffer man, old Hector
And wise the words he said:
“Without the barley’s nectar,
A man is better dead.”

But strange the ways of Heaven,
When men in darkness grope.
Each sorrow has its leaven,
Each tragedy its hope.

The great ship “Politician”
Her hold stocked high with grog,
Steamed proudly past the island,
And foundered in the fog.

A case was rent asunder,
Twelve bottles came to grief,
When the Barra surf – like thunder –
Came pounding on the reef.

And then the scent of nectar,
Came on the wild wind’s breath.
“I smell it” screamed old Hector
“It’s whisky – sure as death”.

He yelled out Kirsty, Kirsty,
Bring down my oilskin coat.
No more will we be thirsty,
Salvation’s in that boat.

Though thirst her tongue had blistered,
Old Kirsty forced a laugh.
“I’m coming too” she whispered,
“It’s me that needs a half.”

Now, Chon MacNeill was dying,
The death that’s far the worst.
No end so sad and trying,
As the fatal pangs of thirst.

For weeks he had been lying,
Without a sign of life,
And all the neighbours crying,
For his nearly widowed wife.

He sobbed “I am delivered”
“From the torture I am free”.
As his nostrils flared and quivered,
In the glory from the sea.

He shook, chust like an aspen,
The man they thought was dead,
An’ sighin’ gulpin’ gaspin’
He vaulted out of bed.

Barefooted, in his nightie,
He slipped from out their reach,
With steps both long and mighty,
He headed for the beach.

Now Sarah Chance MacKinnon,
A lady through and through,
Was chust a wee bit partial,
To a drop of Mountain Dew.

She brooded at the Ingle,
Her form all old and bent,
When her blood began to tingle,
At a well remembered scent.

Wan sniff and she was rising,
Two sniffs and straight outside,
Where odours appetising,
Were blowing from the tide.

She ran, but so did others,
Och hundreds, maybe more,
As uncles, cousins, brothers,
Stampeded for the shore.

The boats went gaily dashing,
Across the crested wave,
The long oars dipping, splashing,
To their Aladdin’s Cave.

They climbed aboard the liner,
The halt, the lame, the old.
No Vikings e’er were finer,
No Pirates half so bold.

They peered with anxious faces,
Within the gaping hold,
And saw a thousand cases,
Of precious liquid gold.

“Ashame! Ashame!” cried Kirsty
It is an act of God,
Just think of Barra thirsty,
And all this going abroad.

Och the ceilidhs and the pleasure,
Oh the choy in Castlebay,
As the gurgling golden treasure,
Chased the cares of war away.

Och the bottles that were hidden,
Buried deep beneath the croft.
Oh! the cases in the midden,
Oh! the joy up in the loft.

Who would heed an air raid warning,
Who would hide himself in fright,
With a tumbler in the morning,
And a bumper late at night.

And Barra boys hard fighting,
On sea and ocean wide,
Deserved their wee bit parcel,
With glook, glook, glook inside.

Old Hector cried we’re winning,
The fact is plain to me.
This night is the beginning
Of Victory at sea.

He swigged another chug full,
And happily he sighed:
“The Germans sure have had it,
Now Barra’s fortified.”

A Slainte – now for Churchill,
His name I proudly call.
But the Barra Politician
Is the greatest of them all.