The little CalMac ferry boat manoeuvred up to the deserted slipway on the end of a huge rocky landmass at the southern gateway to Eriskay, named from the Norse for Eric’s island. It was about 7:30 in the morning and we hadn’t yet unmade the bed or had our breakfast,
Pete drove the motorhome down the ramp and up onto dry land once more, thankful that we’d yet again avoided the dreaded tail end scraping that we had been warned about. If you keep your speed very low as you come on and off the ferries, it’s not usually a problem. We parked up just near the slipway in a tarmacced area, put the kettle on and to have a look at the map. This little area of tarmac would probably make a reasonable wild camp spot if you had an early ferry going the other way, it’s certainly well away from any houses.
There weren’t that many fellow passengers, obviously everyone else sensibly had a warm bed to be in at that time of the morning. There were a couple of vans who looked in a hurry to get to work and a lone foot passenger, an elderly man, looking rather dapper in a straw boater and jacket with a cane. I wondered if he was either a member of a local Barbershop quartet, or maybe he owned the island. His lift turned up, he briskly hopped in and off he went.
We paused for a photo looking back down at the little ferry terminal which is at one end of the main road on Eriskay.
Maybe the handsomely (albeit a little bizzarely) dressed foot passenger gentleman had come over for a gig at the world famous pub on Eriskay. The AM Politician pub is named after the doomed Steam Ship Politician, which in 1941 ran into trouble in a storm and grounded on the sandbanks off the coast of Eriskay. The life boat was launched, but in the wrong direction and so the locals, who were watching the disaster unfold, set sail and thankfully all the crew were eventually rescued.
However this is not where the story ends. It just so happens that the cargo of this ship was 260,000 bottles of whisky, bound for Kingston, Jamaica and New Orleans.
That’s a fair few snifters and a heck of a lot of hangover juice.
This was 1941, wartime and rationing was in place, so a boatful of whisky bobbing about offshore within staggering distance was like manner from heaven for the islanders.
It must have been like winning the lottery! The locals set about offloading, secreting and drinking 24,000 bottles of whisky, much to the annoyance of the customs men, who considered it an illegal activity. In the ensuing struggle villages and crofts were raided in an attempt to recover the scotch and deter the by now probably very happy islanders. In the end the customs men blew up the wreck of the ship to prevent further salvage. Spoilsports!
The story was immortalised in Compton Mackenzies book Whisky Galore and you can see relics from the ship in the Politician pub.
Having missed out on breakfast due to our middle of the night alarm call, we pulled in at the first possible parking area which just happened to be next to a white sand beach with turquiose waters gently lapping at the shore. Not a bad view to eat your Alpen to.
We drove along the island where the main settlement on Eriskay opened up in the landscape before us..
We popped into the excellent Eriskay community shop at Rubha Ban, where they sell just about everything you could need including many coop branded food items. You’ll probably find the shop populated with lots of friendly Gaelic speaking locals, as it serves importantly as the hub of their community, tackling rural isolation which must be a problem particularly for the elderly and during the long dark winter months.
The prices weren’t far off what you’d pay on the mainland and they had a rather good selection of whisky. It’s good for the local economy if you stock up here as all the profits are invested back into the community. Bearing this in mind we helped community funds by succumbing to a bottle of 15 year old Dalwhinne, not chosen from experience, more because the box looked nice. It proved to be a smooth choice. Bang goes £40 of our budget, but at least we didn’t need to plunder an offshore wreck to get it and we wouldn’t need to worry about customs men turning our van over in the night either.
As well as whisky galore, the island is also famous for Eriskay jerseys which apparently are knitted without seams. I imagine if the crafty knitters suddenly discovered they’d inadvertently put in a seam by accident, they could call on their neighbours at Buth Barragh, as mentioned in my previous post, to solve their knitting problems.
Ode to Eriskay
I’ve discovered there’s also a song called the Eriskay Love Lilt, which is credited with being written by Marjory Kennedy Fraser, although Marj apparently adapted it from a traditional song that she had collected during a project to preserve Gaelic music of the islands and then she changed the tune a bit, so I’m not sure how much of it she actually wrote.
This is yet another lovely Hebridean island, full of character and choc full of lovely landscapes. In tribute to this special patch of land, here’s a rather nice rendition of the Eriskay Love Lilt by Paul Robeson for your listening pleasure, although it was also covered by Nana Mouskourie and Judith Durham of the Seekers.