Friday, August 31, 2018

Classics Spin #18: Whisky Galore: More Scottish than Outlander

I was delighted by the most recent Classics Club Spin selection. I had been actually hoping to visit Scotland this summer (after my trip to London to see Hamilton) but since we decided to visit Jane Austen country, reading Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie would have to suffice for my Scotland fix. It includes so many of my favorite bookish requirements: Mid-century -- Check! Scotland location -- check! Quirky characters -- check! I am sorry to say most of what I know about Scotland comes from reading and watching Outlander (which I realize was written by an American). This has a lot more drinking and a lot less kilts and steamy Scotsmen -- and no time-travel.

The setup: loosely based on actual events of the 1940s, this comic novel is set during WWII and is the story of the residents of Little Todday and Great Todday, two fictional islands in the Outer Hebrides. Of course there is rationing due to the war, but what hits everyone hardest is the lack of whisky -- as the story begins there hasn't been any Scotch for weeks, and everyone is rationed to one beer every other day. They are all miserable.  

The tale opens with the return of Sergeant Odd, a forty-something English solider who had been previously assigned to the island, and fallen in love with a local girl, Peggy Macroon, before he shipped off to Africa. He's ready to get married but her father keeps putting off the wedding. The locals tell him they can't possibly host a reiteach, a traditional Gaelic engagement party, when there's no whisky to be had. The first third of the book mostly deals with Odd visiting various locals so the reader is introduced to the various quirky locals. 

Finally, a miracle occurs -- a steamer called the Cabinet Minster is wrecked on a reef between the two islands, and it seems like manna from heaven when the locals realize the hold was filled with 15,000 cases of premium whisky bound for the United States (apparently much of the whisky has been diverted to sell to America to pay for the war effort -- it's not clear if the Americans have entered the war yet). The shipping company writes off the loss and the residents get busy salvaging what they can before the excise men arrive, and the engagement party is back on.

Hilarity ensues when the resident self-important gentry, Captain Wagget, decides that everyone is flaunting the law (and enjoying themselves), so he tries to get the police and military involved. There are also some really funny bits with the local school master, George Campbell, whose domineering mother is trying to prevent his engagement. 

I really enjoyed this book. I do think it started out a bit slow, and I had a little trouble with Gaelic references and some of the dialect written phonetically into the dialogue. It's not what I'd describe as a rip-roaring yarn but more of a simmer -- perhaps I would have enjoyed it more if I'd been sipping a wee dram myself while I'd been reading it! It was definitely worth sticking with. I feel like I got a real flavor of the islands, so to speak, and I enjoyed all the colorful characters. I really wish now that I had been able to visit Scotland this summer. 

Eddie Izzard as Captain Wagget
There have been two film adaptations of Whisky Galore -- the first one from 1949 starred Gordon Jackson (Hudson from Upstairs, Downstairs) as Mr. Campbell and is a classic comedy from the British Ealing studios.  The 2016 remake stars Eddie Izzard as Captain Wagget which I think is brilliant -- I love his stand-up and he's wonderful in almost every film and TV role. Sadly neither version is available from Netflix or at my library so I'll have to see if I can get one via inter-library loan, or I may just suck it up and see if I can find a cheap copy on the internet. 

Bloggers, has anyone seen either version? And how did everyone do with their spin picks? 


  1. Replies
    1. It was a fun read. I love mid-century fiction.

  2. I really enjoyed this one too. There are two other books in this series. They're possibly even better than this one. Keep the Home Guard Turning and Rockets Galore. You should try to read them too.
    I've seen the original film but not the newer one yet. I think the first one is in black and white but that never bothers me.

    1. I'm fine with black and white also! I'm so annoyed that Netflix doesn't have it. I also want to read Monarch of the Glen, which I've heard is very different than the TV series it inspired.

    2. I have Monarch of the Glen but haven't got around to reading it yet.

  3. Sounds like you had fun with this one - my favourite Scottish indulgence was Hamish MacBeth - great scenery, great characters and lots of weird Celtic shenanigans.

    My spin took me to Ireland with The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch - a gothic psychological thriller.

  4. I tried watching the Hamish MacBeth TV series because I love Robert Carlyle, but I just couldn't get into it. Maybe it was just the first episode. I haven't read any of the books.

    I've never read anything by Iris Murdoch! I'm a little intimidated by her but a gothic psychological thriller is always intriguing.

    1. The first couple of episodes were hard to get into - the accent for starters!
      I think the TV series ended up deviating from the books, certainly in tone and quirkiness, at least the one and only book I tried to read was tediously dull and mundane.

  5. I just read this recently and enjoyed it quite a bit. I went the audiobook route, so I got the added bonus of the accents. I often have a hard time with phonetic spelling in novels.