Today is what the newspapers call a ‘slow news day’ (in our case dull skies and expectant rain) so, instead of our usual daily blog post, we’re going to enlarge on the story of Sir Compton MacKenzie (author of Whisky Galore and Monarch of the Glen, amongst many others) and his connection with Barra.
He was not actually born in Scotland but in West Hartlepool, in 1883, to a theatrical family (his sister was the actress Fay Compton) but his family had Scottish roots and instinctively he ‘felt’ Scottish. Indeed, he was actually a co-founder of the Scottish National Party in 1928.
During WW1 he served with British Intelligence in the Mediterranean and in the 1920s he became the tenant on two small Channel Islands, Herm and Jethou. However, in 1928 he discovered Barra and, a few years later, had a house built there – opposite the airport on Traigh Mhor, which was established at about the same time.
He wrote ‘The Book of Barra’ in 1936 and I found this quotation from it online in The Spectator archive:
The Island of Barra is about twelve miles long and six miles broad. Accompanied by its satellite islands, Vatersay, Sandray, Pabbay, Mingulay and Bernara, it lies at the south-west end of the line of the Outer Hebrides. There are only two steamers a week to it from the mainland of Scotland, and they take a full twelve hours to reach it from Oban, as they have to wind their way in and out between islands and ports of call on their journey. There are three small townships (each with a Roman Catholic church) on the Island, though there are a number of crofts and small dwellings scattered about between the main centres of population.
Apart from the romantic prospect of Kisimul’s Castle situated in the middle of the bay of Castlebay, the lovely silver and gold sands on the Western side, the little beautiful lochs on the Island itself, and the general air of remoteness which pervades it, there is little that would strike the traveller who arrived upon the Island by chance.
Barra, however, is the most remarkable island in the whole huge archipelago of the Hebrides. It is an island in time as well as place. It is a microcosm of all that is best, and much of what was best in the Highlands of Scotland. Despite the terrible evictions, forced emigrations and other attacks upon the individuality of the Highlanders, which were their fate in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the people of Barra survived in an extraordinary way. They kept their faith, their rights and, in the long run, their lands. For those who look upon what has happened to the Highlands of Scotland in the last hundred and fifty years as one of the blackest events in the history of Scotland, the Island of Barra is a shining light in the darkness. On Barra there is ‘living proof (though God knows how sadly it is harassed) that the old way of living there worked and is capable of working still. it is an island which, once visited, it is impossible to forget.
MacKenzie’s novel, Monarch of the Glen (later memorably made into a long television series starring Richard Briers) was published in 1941 but it was Whisky Galore in 1947, the film of which in 1949 was a huge hit for the Ealing Studios, that really made his name.
The story fictionalised the real events that had taken place in 1941 when a cargo vessel, the SS Politician, bound for the United States with a cargo including 28,000 cases of Scotch Whisky, had run aground on the island of Eriskay, an island visible from Mackenzie’s Barra home.
According to one Barra resident, “People around here joke that the only politician that brought us any good is lying at the bottom of the sea.”
The film had a large cast including the leading Scottish actors of the day such as Gordon Jackson, Duncan Macrae and James Robertson Justice. Scottish first-time director Sandy Mackendrick and an 80-strong cast and crew sailed for Barra from Oban, and had to contend with the worst summer for 80 years. The film went over budget and over schedule and was considered a disaster when studio boss, Michael Balcon, first saw it. He wanted to cut it down and release it as a supporting film. It was re-edited, but the film still performed poorly on its original release. Whisky Galore went on to become an all-time favourite. A sequel, called Rockets Galore, was also shot on Barra.
According to the story, a lot of the whisky from the Politician was ‘liberated’ by the islanders – bottles being stuffed in all sorts of places, some down rabbit holes. A few men came up before the court and were sent to prison, but most only suffered a minimal sentence. There was also a huge quantity of currency on board (over 290,000 ten shilling notes) bound for Jamaica. The majority was recovered by the salvage company but over the years 2,000 odd notes were presented in banks as far afield as Canada and Switzerland, leaving over 75,000 notes which were never accounted for.
Compton MacKenzie was a leader of the Home Guard on Barra during the Second World War and organised a mock invasion with the Home Guard from South Uist, who surprised the islanders by landing on the Atlantic beach, Traigh Eais, behind MacKenzie’s home (the one which we climbed up to yesterday, instead of Eoligarry where they were expected.
He was knighted in 1952, appeared on This is Your Life in 1958 and died in Edinburgh in 1972.
He was buried in the Cille Bharra churchyard, not far from his home.
The house appears to be empty these days, which seems a great pity.
Very informative. Whisky Galore is a great film. It must nearly be time for a new painting to be posted.
Good to read a bit of background information.
According to my grandfather’s memoirs, Compton was an amazing host to unexpected visitors, my grandfather and his copilot made an unplanned landing in Barra during ww2 due to fog, His assistant/ drivers name was Thomas. Per my grandfather, Compton had an excellent wine collection, which Compton alluded was augmented by casks that occassionally wash up on shore. Compton was trying to encourage Britain to reenter the wine business as it did before puritan times destroyed many grapevines too.
Thank you for your interesting comment LD – how wonderful to have such a fascinating personal anecdote from your grandfather. Lucky the tide was out!