Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie

Slàinte mhath!

🙂 🙂 🙂

Whisky GaloreDespite their remote location, the Hebridean islands of Great Todday and Little Todday are not untouched by the ongoing Second World War. Some of the islands’ sons are far away serving in the forces, while various servicemen are stationed around the various islands. Rationing is in force, although the islanders always have their livestock and fishing to fall back on. But when there’s a prolonged shortage of whisky, things begin to get serious! When, after a few weeks of drought, a cargo ship full of whisky is shipwrecked just off one the islands, the temptation to steal the whisky before the authorities get there is overwhelming.

Humour is one of those things that is entirely subjective. Many people, according to the Goodreads reviews, found this hilarious. I’m afraid I found it occasionally mildly amusing, but mostly repetitive and rather dull. It takes about half the book before the shipwreck happens, and for most of that time we are introduced to a variety of quirky caricatures – an English writer’s affectionate idea of what Hebridean islanders should be like – and listen while they tell each other how awful life is because they have no whisky. I grant you that alcohol plays a large role in Scottish social life, and even more in our anti-social life, but not to the extent of it being the sole subject of conversation. I tired of it long before the ship hove into view.

There are a couple of other strands, both regarding romances. One is of an English soldier who has returned to the islands to claim the girl he proposed to a few years earlier, before he was posted abroad. But before they get married, they must have the ritual rèiteach – a kind of pre-wedding party. This leads to the running joke that I swear must have been repeated at least fifty times – that the Englishman can’t pronounce the Gaelic word rèiteach. He’s not alone – nor can I, but nonetheless the humour wore thin after the first dozen times he attempted it and failed. The islanders can’t imagine a rèiteach without whisky though, and so the couple can’t wed till the drought is over.

classics club logo 2Book 75 of 90

The other couple are both islanders, and the joke here is that the man is completely under his mother’s thumb, so much so that he’s afraid to tell her that he’s got himself engaged. He needs whisky to give him courage. (Mild spoiler: personally I felt the girl should be warned that the meek and mild model of sobriety she thinks she’s marrying turns into a bullying monster when he has a drink in him, but I think Mackenzie thought his drunken behaviour towards his admittedly irritating mother was admirable. Maybe that’s how men saw things back in those days…)

Mackenzie paints a picture of the lives of the islanders in which his characters seem to have endless amounts of free time and to do very little work, and, while he touches on the religious divides that have plagued Scotland for centuries, he does so in a way that makes them seem playful – I wish! However, despite its lack of realism it’s all in keeping with the cosy tone of the book.

Compton Mackenzie
Compton Mackenzie

I listened to the audiobook narrated by David Rintoul, who does an excellent job with the accents, and I assume also with the Gaelic pronunciations – I fear my ignorance of Gaelic means I wouldn’t know. There’s a fair amount of Gaelic sprinkled through it, which I would probably have found less annoying in a paper book with a glossary. But in an audiobook, not only did I not understand the words, I couldn’t work out how they would be spelled so that I could google them – it took me ages even to find the word rèiteach, despite it having been repeated umpteen times. Like a lot of Gaelic it is not pronounced how it looks! (My post title Slàinte mhath!, for example, is pronounced roughly slan-ja-va and means Cheers!)

Overall, then, a reasonably entertaining read, mildly amusing but, for me, not funny enough to make up for the lack of substance underneath. It could have made a great novella, but at full novel length there feels like far too much repetitive padding. Maybe I should have read it after a few drams of Glenfiddich…

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

33 thoughts on “Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie

  1. Sorry to hear this didn’t work as well for you, FictionFan. The setting really interests me. Still, as you say, what some people find funny, others don’t. The look at the culture would interest me, too, but I’m not sure I’m happy about the caricatures. To me, anyway, that’s got to be done carefully, or it becomes condescending or worse. Hmm……Not one I’d go running to look up, but your review is, as always, excellent.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Condescending is the perfect word! Apparently Mackenzie was very fond of his Scottish heritage and lived here for a long time, so I expected him to read like a native – I was doubly disappointed then to discover that it felt very much like an Englishman writing about those “quaint” Scots. I’m sure that was the root of why the humour didn’t really work for me.

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  2. You are right about humor being subjective, and I find my mood can also affect what I think is funny. Plus, anything overdone can lose its humor.

    Not a fan of whiskey to start with, so I can happily abstain from this one. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I’m affected by mood too and often think it’s a bit unfair to rate books because of that – that’s why I keep repeating to the point of tedium that my reviews are subjective! But really, even the funniest joke loses it impact when it’s repeated ninety thousand times… 😉

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  3. I’ve never read any Compton Mackenzie, but had him at the back of my mind as someone who I’d seen positively reviewed several times, so I’m disappointed to hear this didn’t work for you – though I think I’d seen his more serious fiction reviewed rather than his humour. Maybe he just isn’t very funny!

    Liked by 1 person

    • This was my first venture into his work so can’t make any comparisons to his more serious stuff. But comedy is notoriously difficult to pull off and depends so much on the reader’s subjective taste, so it wouldn’t necessarily put me off trying him again – after I’ve got over this one! 😉

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  4. A couple of years ago I extracted this book from the very bowels of the reserved book section of our local library, determined to read what a review had called a very clever & funny story – only to find it unreadable – for all the same reasons that you describe LOL.

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    • Ha, on the misery-loves-company principle, I’m delighted to hear I’m not alone! Such a disappointment – I really expected to enjoy this one. And I wish I’d enjoyed it as much as all the Goodreads reviewers who describe it as ‘hilarious’… 😉

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  5. This book (and the author, sad to say) is entirely new to me, and I think I will concentrate on other classics and not give it a try. Although the setting and the time period sound very good.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I really expected to enjoy it. It’s not one of the top Scottish classics, but it’s pretty well known over here although probably more because of the old film of it than for the book itself. Oh well, can’t win ’em all! 😉

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    • It really is! I always think any author who attempts humour deserves a bravery award – humour is so hard to sustain for the entire length of a novel. I guess that’s why sitcoms are usually only half an hour… 😉

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    • My feelings exactly! Mackenzie was apparently proud of his Scottish heritage and lived here for a long time, so I was disappointed at how much this felt like an Englishman’s affectionate portrait of those “quaint” Scots…

      Liked by 1 person

    • Ha, yes, it’s never a subject that does much for me either! Which is a problem since an awful lot of modern Scottish literature seems to be obsessed with either alcohol or drug addiction – ugh! I wonder why… 😉

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    • In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t included it as one of my Scottish classics. Mackenzie was apparently proud of his Scottish heritage and lived here for a long time so I was happy to accept him as a Scottish writer. But sadly it felt very much to me like an Englishman’s affectionate portrait of those “quaint” Scots…

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, indeed! I always think an author who attempts humour should get a bravery award, since the audience reaction is going to be so subjective. Thanks for popping in and commenting! 😀

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