Customs and Excise take a different view

archive photo of men on the deck of a ship surrounded by crates
Salvage of the contents from hold number 5 by the British Iron & Steel Corporation (Salvage) Ltd of Glasgow. Note the crates of whisky on deck. B/HAR/12/BoxN/3/1, S2006.00646, Harrison Line archive, copyright unknown, courtesy of Charente Ltd

Unfortunately for the locals the customs officers, surveyor EI Gledhill and fixed officer Charles McColl based in Lochboisdale, didn't share the view that it was okay to salvage the whisky. Charles McColl, a teetotaler, saw it as theft, made worse by the fact that the whisky had never had any duty paid on it. He did not agree with Captain Kay that the whisky was unsalvageable, and that it was safe to leave it on board unguarded.

A second salvage company which later came to break up the ship, emptied hold number 5 and recovered 13,500 cases of whisky. The major part of this was transferred to storage in a customs warehouse on the mainland but some was drunk by the salvers themselves!

McColl began a battle to rally the local police into taking action to recover the stolen whisky. Village homes and crofts were searched and bottles were found hidden away in lofts, hideaways or just drunk to hide the evidence! Even today caches of 'Polly' whisky still come to light when houses are renovated.

Charles McColl and the local police caught many of the locals looting or hiding whisky when they searched households and hiding places on the islands of Benbecula, South Uist and Eriskay, between 15 March and 30 September 1941. They succeeded in recovering a considerable quantity of the goods stolen, including a wide range of whisky. An Inverness-Shire Constabulary report for the 15 March 1941 records that:

"Alexander O'Henley, crofter, Garryamonie, Lochboisdale, Isle of South Uist, and four others acting in concert were found in the sound of Eriskay in the parish of South Uist in the county of Inverness, in possession of the after mentioned goods suspected of having been stolen from the 'SS Politician' then aground on Calvay Island in the Sound of Eriskay:

  • 15 cases of whisky,
  • 3 bundles of cotton print,
  • 13 packets of 10 capstan cigarettes,
  • 2 cycle mudguards,
  • 1 handrail."

CUST 46/501, Police notes and reports on suspects and goods allegedly taken, 1941-1943, The National Archives.

On 26 April a group of Barra men stood trial at Lochmaddy Sheriff Court, where they pleaded guilty to theft and were fined between three to five pounds. Charles McColl was unhappy at the leniency of the sentence, and pursued more men, 19 of whom received harsher sentences of between 20 days and 2 months imprisonment at Inverness and Peterhead. This created resentment amongst the locals which lingers to this day. McColl estimated that the islanders had salvaged 24, 000 bottles of whisky and wanted to make sure they could rescue no more so he obtained official permission in October 1941 to blow up the 'Politician'.