The contents of a mailboat launched from St Kilda on 29 July 2011 have finally washed up on Norway. Knut Wågø was walking his dogs along the beach on the island of Frøya when he discovered the postcards that had been placed in a traditional St Kildan mailboat. The “post” had travelled over 600 miles and taken 166 days to travel from Scotland to Norway.
St Kilda was the most remotely inhabited area of the UK, lying 41 miles west of the Outer Hebrides. In good times, it supported almost 200 people, who survived predominately on seabirds nesting on the cliffs. Islanders lived in virtual isolation as the tenants of the chief of the Clan MacLeod.
As time marched forward, leaving them behind, St Kilda became a 20th-century anachronism. Today it is one of the UK’s most important heritage sites and is looked after by the National Trust for Scotland. It is the UK’s only Dual World Heritage Site, designated for both its natural and cultural heritage.
The mailboats date back to the 19th century, when the isolated islands were frequently cut off from the mainland for months at a time. Then, the islanders could sometimes signal to passing ships by lighting a bonfire on the 430-metre summit of Conachair – a patchy method of communication, at best.
It is thought that the mailboat was introduced by John Sands, a journalist who visited the islands – and was marooned on them – in 1876 and 1877. During the long winter, supplies were running low. With no prospect of any passing ships, Sands came up with the idea of sending a message in a wood-shaped boat, attached to a sheepskin bladder, which was sent adrift in the hope of making land.
Nine days later it was found in Orkney and a boat sent out with supplies. Thus the mailboat was christened, and proved successful in bringing the islanders’ news to the rest of the UK. Of the many boats launched, two-thirds were later found on the west coast of Scotland, or even further afield in Norway.
The mailboat caught the imagination of visitors. Richard Kearton, author of Birds’ Nests, Eggs, and Egg-Collecting, wrote in 1898 that the “natives now desire to send news of any happenings on the island to their friends, they cut a cavity in a solid piece of wood roughly hewn like a boat, and, putting a small canister or bottle containing a letter and request that whosoever picks it up will post it to its destination (a penny being enclosed in the boat for that purpose).”
The introduction of the mailboat didn’t save the archipelago from its inevitable demise. As more and more tourists travelled to look at these strange aliens living “on the edge of the world”, they brought with them promise of a new life where the living was considered easier. Emigration drained the islands of people – until eventually, on 29 August 1930, the remaining 36 islanders packed their belongings, climbed on board the Harebell and set sail for Lochaline on the Scottish mainland.
Since the evacuation, the islands have remained popular with visitors. In 2011, around 3,000 people visited – many from cruise ships or charter boats. Volunteers and work parties from NTS are now the ones to maintain the tradition of sending out mailboats – in an act that is designed to remind us of the hardships of those who lived in this most inhospitable of islands.
“Launching mail boats is a cultural tradition which we keep alive on St Kilda,” says Susan Bain, St Kilda property manager. “It reminds us of the remoteness and the difficulties that the islanders faced in communicating with the mainland. Nowadays, things are a little different and we have phones and high-speed internet on the island which makes it a bit easier to keep in touch. Despite these advances though, we are still at the mercy of the weather and it is on those days we most closely understand the challenges of living in such a wild and westerly location.”