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29 Aug 2020

St Kilda mailboat’s epic journey

Four children wrapped up in anoraks and hats on a remote beach, holding postcards and a St Kilda mailboat.
The four children who found the St Kilda mailboat on a beach in the far north of Norway
Ten years ago, to mark the 80th anniversary of the evacuation of St Kilda, the National Trust for Scotland made a ‘mailboat’, filled it with postcards and launched it into the Atlantic Ocean.

Incredibly, in the week of the 90th anniversary of the evacuation, the cards have finally been delivered to their destinations, including royalty and the descendants of the original St Kildans. And the Trust has a group of Norwegian children to thank for helping get the mail delivered.

Mailboats are an old St Kilda tradition where the islanders launched their mail into the sea in tiny waterproof boats in the hope that they would be picked up by passing ships or make it to more populated places and be sent on.

The means of communication was developed in the 1870s by journalist John Sands, when he became stranded on St Kilda. In 1877 Sands launched a mailboat, which was found in Birsay in Orkney nine days later, and a boat was sent to rescue him and nine shipwrecked Austrian sailors.

In September 1885 the islanders faced starvation when a severe storm ruined their food stores. Alexander Gillies Ferguson, a 14-year-old schoolboy who had heard of Sands’ mailboats, launched five such crafts containing messages asking for help. One of the mailboats quickly arrived in Gallan Head, Lewis, and the resulting publicity saw £110 raised, provisions bought and a boat chartered.

The islanders adopted the practice and the mailboats became famous in popular culture, representing a fascination for the island, its people and their way of life.

Black and white photo of a bearded man sitting on a rock with his feet in the sea launching a St Kilda mailboat.
One of the original St Kilda mailboats being launched

In the summer of 2020, the boat that we last saw on St Kilda in August 2010 was found by four children and their grandfather. It had washed up on a beach on Andøya, the northernmost island in the Vesterålen archipelago of Norway, about 180 miles inside the Arctic Circle and over 1,000 miles from St Kilda.

Amazingly, after 10 years at sea, the boat had protected the postcards which were still intact. The children’s grandfather, Geir Kristian Søreng, sent us the cards saying:

My four grandkids found a treasure at the beach on Andøya, north of Norway. It was a postboat in wood, sent from St Kilda in 2010. Emil (9), Ask (9), Tiril (6) and Erling (4) were excited when they found a secret room in the boat, with cards. We would be grateful if you could please post the cards. This is a special story for both kids and the rest of their families. Hopefully we will have the opportunity to visit Scotland and St Kilda some day in the future. We had never heard of this fabulous island and are fascinated by the story.

We then spent several weeks finding out who the cards had been written to, making sure the addresses were still correct and sending them on. Now, on the 90th anniversary of the evacuation of St Kilda, the cards have finally been delivered to their recipients.

Seven postcards with pictures of St Kilda were placed inside the vessel by Ian McHardy, the archaeologist on St Kilda at the time, who also made the boat.

As well as enclosing cards to his family and friends, Ian also included cards to a number of people with links to St Kilda.

Norman John Gillies, one of the last remaining St Kildans, was 5 at the time of the evacuation. It was his mother’s death in 1930 that is believed to have been the final prompt for the islanders to leave St Kilda. Norman died in 2013, but we forwarded his card to his son John Gillies in Ipswich.

It was one of John’s relatives – the schoolboy Alexander Gillies Ferguson – who launched the 1885 mailboat that started the St Kildan tradition.

Two men standing in front of a hedge, holding a postcard sent from a St Kilda mailboat
John Gillies with his son Alexander. Both have visited St Kilda and are hoping to return in 2021 after a trip in 2020 was cancelled due to the pandemic.

Another card was sent to Dr Murdo Macdonald. Murdo’s great-great-grandfather Donald Mackinnon lived on St Kilda until the 1820s and then moved to Harris. The card to Murdo was written by his sister Janette Macdonald, who visited St Kilda on a day trip in 2010.

A man sitting in a garden holding a postcard from a St Kilda mailboat.
Murdo Macdonald with his St Kilda mailboat postcard

The final card was written by Susan Bain, our Western Isles Manager, to our Patron, HRH Prince Charles, The Duke of Rothesay, who visited St Kilda in 1971 with the Queen.

Black and white photo of five men on St Kilda, including Prince Charles.
HRH Prince Charles on his visit to St Kilda in 1971

His Royal Highness’s card was delivered to Birkhall, his Scottish home on the Balmoral Estate. He replied to Susan saying:

I was delighted to receive your postcard and fascinated to hear about its decade-long journey to reach me, via the Arctic Circle no less! In such a fast-moving world it is touching to know that the tradition of a simple “mail-boat” from the remote Island of St Kilda can safely travel so far.

I have never forgotten my visit to this amazing archipelago in 1971 and I so look forward to returning one day, not only to remind myself of its rugged beauty, but also its extraordinary history and breathtaking bird life. As Patron of the National Trust for Scotland, I am immensely grateful to all those who work to preserve our heritage through caring for special places like St Kilda.’

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