The Empty Bot­tle

Sharp - - END HERE - By Lin­den Macin­tyre Il­lus­tra­tion by Chloe Cush­man

The storm raged on, but word spread. The ship had al­ready started break­ing up and there was no hope of sal­vage — at least not in the for­mal, le­gal sense.

ONE OF THESE DAYS I MUST do some­thing about the bot­tle. It’s an empty liquor bot­tle and has the ap­pear­ance of some­thing I re­trieved from a ditch, which is partly true. But it wasn’t re­ally a ditch, and it was not I who re­trieved it but a crofter work­ing his small patch of land on an is­land in the Outer He­brides, off the west coast of Scot­land. My fear is that when I be­come in­ca­pac­i­tated, some­one will sim­ply toss the bot­tle in the trash. I’ve had it for nearly 50 years. Here’s its story.

My pa­ter­nal an­ces­tors came to Cape Bre­ton from the is­land of South Uist. In 1970, I vis­ited the is­land and I think I was the first in my fa­ther’s line of de­scent to have done so since the ini­tial ex­ile (caused by re­li­gious dis­tur­bances) in 1819. It was a nos­tal­gic trip. My fa­ther had died at the age of 50 the year be­fore. The Gaelic lan­guage, which still thrives in the He­brides, was his mother tongue, and I sup­pose I was anx­ious to once again hear it spo­ken as a nor­mal means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

I had no ex­pec­ta­tion that any­one would know the his­tory of my fam­ily, but I was wrong. Con­nec­tions were quickly made, ex­plained and cel­e­brated.

Not much had hap­pened there in the 150 years of sep­a­ra­tion. But there was one event, in Fe­bru­ary 1941, that stood out in lo­cal lore — in fact, it had be­come the sub­ject of a novel (Whisky Ga­lore) and a movie (Tight Lit­tle Is­land).

On a stormy win­ter night, a cargo ship, the SS Politi­cian, en route to the Amer­i­cas, foundered be­tween South Uist and its nearby south­ern neigh­bour, Eriskay. The ship was car­ry­ing 28,000 cases of malt Scotch whisky. The crew aban­doned the ves­sel, find­ing refuge in is­land crofts. The storm raged on, but word spread. The ship had al­ready started break­ing up and there was no hope of sal­vage — at least not in the for­mal, le­gal sense.

The in­trepid is­lan­ders were soon aboard and re­moved an es­ti­mated 24,000 bot­tles of the pre­cious cargo be­fore the ship went down. The ceilidh lasted for days on all the nearby is­lands — Uist, north and south, Ben­bec­ula, Barra, Eriskay. Word spread again, and soon the crofts were be­ing vis­ited by zeal­ous cus­toms of­fi­cers. Most of the con­tra­band had al­ready dis­ap­peared down the Gaelic gul­lets and into byres and bogs. But the cir­cum­stances of con­ceal­ment were in many cases com­pro­mised by the con­sump­tion of the prod­uct they were hid­ing. Not ev­ery­one could re­mem­ber where the booze was buried.

And so it was that crofters work­ing the fields and peat bogs for years there­after would oc­ca­sion­ally turn up a bot­tle. Don­ald Macin­tyre, a dis­tant cousin, found one just be­fore my his­toric visit in 1970. To com­mem­o­rate the oc­ca­sion, he pre­sented it to me.

The ges­ture, to be hon­est, was more pre­cious than the gift — a black, un­drink­able fluid — but I am fas­ci­nated by the bot­tle and the story. The snapon metal cap, the words “Black” and “White” still leg­i­ble, had rusted badly and has since been lost. Per­haps if there had been a cork…

Nev­er­the­less, the bot­tle is pre­cious to me — a mem­ory of a quiet ges­ture by a good man in a place where, in a cen­tury and a half, not much had changed, in­clud­ing na­tive hos­pi­tal­ity and gen­eros­ity.

Lin­den Macin­tyre is a broad­caster and Sco­tia­bank Giller Prize-win­ning au­thor. His lat­est book, The Only Café, is out now.

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