Whisky Galore (1949) is one of the great classic films made by Ealing Studios in the post war years. It was unusual in that much of it was shot on location on the Isle of Barra in the Western Isles of Scotland. The screenplay, by Angus MacPhail was based on Sir Compton Mackenzie’s book of the same title however there were a number of simplifications of the story to make it suitable for the screen. The story concerns the adventures of the local inhabitants when a cargo ship loaded with whisky runs aground off the island of Todday. The locals salvage much of the whisky but have to hide it from the ‘pompous and high-minded’ local Home Guard commander, Captain Waggett. The film starred Basil Radford, Joan Greenwood and Gordon Jackson. The story is based on a real-life incident when the SS Politician was wrecked off the coast of the Isle of Eriskay.
The ‘ebullient’ score was provided by Ernest Irving (1878-1958) who was a composer, arranger and conductor. He had recently written the music to another Ealing comedy, Passport to Pimlico. In 1948 Irving had conducted the sound track for the classic Scott of the Antarctic with music by Ralph Vaughan Williams.
A short suite of the music was arranged by Philip Lane and released on The Ladykillers with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by Kenneth Alwyn. The Suite opens with a martial tune, soon followed by a jig which is played in counterpoint. The dance begins to dominate the proceedings. There is a short bridge passage leading to the ‘lover’s tune’ celebrating the relationship between the English Sergeant Odd and Joseph Macroon’s daughter, Peggy. This is so typical of romantic film scores of the period: there is nothing Scottish about this. The second part of the suite uses music heard when the locals board the stricken ship and begin to unload the cargo onto smaller boats. This section continues with music used in the chase towards the end of the film. The dancing music recurs. The final bars are a reflection on the fact that after all the salvaged whisky had been drunk, the islanders could not afford to buy the legal stuff, because the prices had risen to such an great extent.
The film score is full of pastiche Scottish tunes. However, Irving is presumed to have only quoted a single genuine tune throughout. The composer uses an array of musical effects to present a definite Celtic feel to this score: Scotch snaps abound, dance tunes fall over each other, but there is also a darker, more introspective mood at times. Miguel Mira and David Burnand in European Film Music (2006, Ashgate Publishing) have suggested that Ernest Irving’s score ‘seems positively lush with its expansive seascapes and emotive expressions of anxiety in the community.’