Barra’s forgotten giant

A modest grave for a flamboyant man

Good news that the Ealing Comedy film of Whisky Galore has been reissued in high definition. I caught it a couple of months ago in the Edinburgh Film Festival and it’s as funny now as it was when first released in 1949. It will be on general release, but in case a cinema near you isn’t smart enough to feature it, there will also be a DVD version.

John Lorne Campbell’s great friend Compton Mackenzie wrote the screenplay from his own novel of the same name. The plot was based on real events – the wreck of the SS Politician on the island of Eriskay in 1941 with a hold filled with thousands of cases of Scotch – a godsend during wartime rationing. Barra served as the book’s fictional island of Todday and Mackenzie himself got a cameo part, as did the Coddy, the uncrowned king of Barra, who was John Campbell’s Gaelic teacher.

Mackenzie used real people as models for several of his characters, including the bumptious Captain Waggett, commander of the Todday Home Guard. In real life he was Dr Bartlett, a figure of fun on the island because of his English accent and old-fashioned attitudes. But when Mackenzie and Campbell organised a car tax strike in protest at having to pay for roads on an island which didn’t have any, Bartlett was a firm supporter and stood in the dock in the Sheriff Court shoulder to shoulder with the others.

Compton Mackenzie’s house was a social centre on Barra – John was to import the idea of a  weekly billiards game to Canna

Mackenzie lived on Barra for ten years and was one of the two people (with the Coddy) who invited John to the island.  He built a large house overlooking the Traigh Mhòr, the big shell sand beach which now serves as the airstrip for the island’s airport, and his billiard room became a social centre for the Barra community.  He was to play an important part in persuading John to buy Canna (though also added to John’s stress when Mackenzie failed to follow him there as promised).

When Whisky Galore was first released, Mackenzie was already a successful novelist, but the film brought his work to a wider audience. He went on writing for another two decades, producing 100 books, but these days is almost forgotten. Only two of his books are still in print and few people know that the popular TV series Monarch of the Glen is based on another of his comic novels.

When the film of Whisky Galore was released Mackenzie was already living in London. He moved to Edinburgh for the last years of his life, but is buried in Barra in a grave with a modest headstone.  A forgotten giant.

The date recorded on the wall of Mackenzie’s home – now holiday cottages



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