When I was researching John’s story I came across unopened bottles of long-forgotten brands of whisky in his desk, relics of the SS Politician which foundered on Eriskay in 1941. Now, revising The Man Who Gave Away his Island for a new paperback edition, I am intrigued to find how often whisky works its way into the book. Perhaps that’s not surprising. As Addicted to Pleasure, Brian Cox’s diligently researched documentary records, Scottish history is saturated with uisge beatha, which no doubt accounts for the potent blend of fact and fantasy in so many stories.
In fact John himself dreamed of establishing a small distillery on the island to produce ‘Canna Cream’ though he conceded it was unlikely to become reality (not least because the island would not be able to grow enough barley or supply enough fresh water). ‘The introduction of Gentoo Penguins at Garrisdale might be achievable sooner,’ he thought.
A quick scan through the index connects whisky and Canna with an extraordinary mix of larger than life characters and events that really did happen (believe me I could not have made them up); names such as Compton Mackenzie, the Coddy, Gavin Maxwell, Kathleen Raine – all of them enjoying the good company of John and Margaret over a dram or two.
As a Christmas special, here’s a sample of whisky tastings from the book – Slàinte bha.
Whisky Galore: Bounty from the sea was not thought to be theft by Hebrideans. In 1941 a famous stranding happened on the rocks off Eriskay when the SS Politician, a cargo ship bound from Liverpool for Jamaica and New Orleans carrying 260,000 bottles of whisky, was wrecked. The incident provided the story for Compton Mackenzie’s most successful novel, Whisky Galore, and thousands of cases of Scotch ‘liberated’ from the vessel were dispersed all over the islands. Mackenzie himself gratefully received a supply at his home on Barra, a few bottles found their way to the South Uist home of Peigi and Mairi MacRae, where they were concealed in the straw bedding of Dora the cow…and a few bottles from the Politician even made their way to John’s study in Canna House.*
* Whisky Galore was later adapted as a film, with small parts played by Mackenziehimself and the Coddy. Two full bottles from the ‘Polly’ are still in John’s desk in Canna House.
Hospitality in Canna House: In 1946 Gavin Maxwell visited Canna. He had not yet achieved fame as a naturalist and author of Ring of Bright Water, but was attempting (unsuccessfully) to run a shark fishery from the nearby island of Soay. He arrived in his boat Sea Leopard with John Hillaby, a journalist from the Picture Post, who later described the visit.
So we went ashore at Canna to have dinner at the grand house of the bonnet-laird and his wife, friends of Gavin by the name of John Lorne Campbell, a Gaelic scholar and lepidopterist, and his wife Margaret. It was a remarkable dinner. There was a tremendous tradition of ancient ceremonial, and a tremendous amount of whisky consumed – especially by Gavin who was always popping up to give Gaelic toasts, though he didn’t know any Gaelic.
Despite the apparent disorder of the evening, Gavin Maxwell became a friend of the Campbells until his death from cancer in 1969. He also brought his lover, the poet and academic Kathleen Raine, to Canna and at one time or another John and Margaret nursed both Gavin and Kathleen through the hurts of that tempestuous relationship.
Canna House games: At the end of the war John had bought a three-quarter size billiard table from a nearby commando training camp at Knoydart which was being disbanded. He installed it in the ‘morning room’ – the single-storey extension off the dining room of Canna House, which henceforth became the ‘billiard room’. The Saturday ‘penny pool’ evenings at which all were welcome were a reflection of the events Compton Mackenzie had hosted on Barra, but with three important differences: Margaret served tea and scones rather than whisky – she told Angus McIntosh they could not afford beer – games were played for tokens (first farthings, then Cypriot piastres and latterly French francs) rather than money and, unlike nights in Suidheachan [Mackenzie’s bungalow] which could continue until dawn, the Canna House parties ended in time for the laird to have an early night and the farm workers and their families to continue the festivities – with alcohol – at the farmhouse at the Square.
Author at work: Mackenzie was very different from John in temperament. His working timetable usually began after lunch and continued after dinner until late in the evening, after which he began conversations with his guests, sustained with whisky, which could last until five in the morning. He then slept until lunch, when the cycle began again. The Ulster poet Louis MacNeice tried to call on Mackenzie in 1937.
His secretary told me that she could not say when he would get up, but that when he did get up he would be busy with his mail; Mr Mackenzie did most of his work at night; that was because it was creative; but if I left my address she would arrange that I should see him later. I passed out again over the doormat that said Ceud Mile Fa` ilte’. (One hundred thousand welcomes.)
Margaret’s nightcap. Margaret was invariably the last to go to her room and, with a packet of cigarettes on one side of her table and a glass of whisky on the other, would be heard pounding her upright manual typewriter deep into the night, keeping up a constant correspondence with friends and relatives in Britain and abroad.
Tasting Note: Both John and Margaret would have loved to visit the Islands of Uist Whisky Company which aims (once established) “to honour the islanders past, present & future generations unique heritage, & way of life on the Western Isles. To encapsulate this dynamic spirit embodied by its people shaped by land weather & sea”. Visit their Facebook page.