by Compton Mackenzie
‘Beer does not taste like itself unless it is chasing a dram of neat whisky down the gullet, preferably two drams.’
It is 1943, and war with Hitler is dragging on. The inhabitants of the two islands of Todday, like the other peoples of Great Britain, are suffering shortages. However, no shortage is so pressing as the lack of whisky. There is none on the islands. To make matters worse, the beer is running out too.
There you have the background to Whisky Galore in a nutshell – or perhaps I should say an empty glass. The story begins as Sergeant-Major Fred Odd, late of Africa and various other places, arrives in the islands to visit his sweetheart Peggy Macroon and hopefully to arrange their wedding. The shortage of whisky is not making life easy for Peggy’s father, who is doing his best to delay the happy day. I should mention that the population of Little Todday, where the Macroons live, is Catholic, while Fred is a Church of England Protestant. Also engaged in matrimonial plans are schoolmaster George Campbell and his fiancée Catriona, though in their case the problem is George’s mother. They live on Great Todday, which is largely Protestant of the strict presbyterian kind, and Mrs Campbell is about as strict as you can get!
Captain Waggett, commander of the Todday Home Guard is rather concerned at the lack of commitment by his subordinates, and about their loose tongues. He commits his worries to paper and his superiors send an intelligence officer called Boggust (alias Brown, a supposed tweed merchant) to investigate. Of course, the islanders see through the Englishman ‘Brown’ right away. They know he isn’t what he claims to be although they can’t precisely decide what he is – a man from one of the Ministries? an excise inspector perhaps? or maybe even a German spy?
Of course, Brown thinks the islanders simple and uncouth:
‘He was thinking of that strange old woman in the shop at Nobost . . . when he asked her if she kept toilet-paper [she] had replied with a slightly puzzled, but equally propitiatory smile, “No, no, I’m afraid we haven’t that kind of paper just now, but we have emery paper if that would do as well for you.” ‘
Which just about brings us back to the whisky and that part of the novel made famous by the 1949 Ealing comedy film. A ship, the SS Cabinet Minister, carrying a cargo of whisky, runs aground in a fog and the men of the two islands help themselves to liberal supplies of uisge beatha *.
‘There were spherical bottles and dimpled bottles and square bottles and oblong bottles and flagon-shaped bottles and high-waisted bottles and ordinary bottles, and the glass was stamped with a notice which made it clear that whisky like this was meant to be drunk in the United States of America and not by the natives of the land where it was distilled, matured and blended.’
With half the population of both Toddays invited, the party (reiteach) to celebrate Fred and Peggy’s engagement goes with a swing. Even Peggy’s father appears to accept the inevitable when Father Macalister practically arranges the wedding for them. Not even the presence of Captain Waggett, who tries to make a political speech, dampens the enthusiasm (already well dampened with unlimited drams of Scotch liquor).
The whisky, christened Minnie by the islanders, and St Minnie by Father Macalister, refreshes the most unexpected parts. Its influence is felt, both psychologially and physiologically, even by the authorities, including the exciseman. It wends its way among the military establishment too and makes a somewhat willing convert in the person of Mrs Odd, mother of the Sergeant-Major.
‘ “That’s a big lot of whisky for an old woman,” Mrs odd said, eyeing her own.
‘ “Och, you won’t notice it, Mistress Odd,” the skipper assured her.
‘ “Well, seeing that I’ve waited twenty years and more for my son to turn sensible,” said Mrs Odd, “here goes.” ‘
Whisky Galore is a very funny book, and it ends joyously. Compton Mackenzie sends up just about everything and everyone: the islanders and their lax ways; the Catholics and Protestants; the stiff upper-lipped men in uniform; the Scots, the English and their different styles of speech. With a huge cast of unforgettable characters – like the brands of whisky too many to mention in a short review, the inhabitants of both Great and Little Todday will remain with you long after the supplies of 90 proof whisky are exhausted.
* uisge beatha – ‘the water of life’