Clint Buffington, John Sands, Mail Boat, message in a bottle, RIchard Kearton, Scotland, St. Kilda
St. Kilda: The Remotest Scottish Islands & Home of “Mail Boats”
Once upon a time, the remote islands of St. Kilda relied entirely on a unique postal system: Letters destined for the outside world were set adrift in tiny “mail boats”– essentially glorified messages in bottles–that carried them either to the Scottish mainland, or sometimes Norway. Each missive included money for the finder to send the beached message onward to its intended recipient. This system began with an emergency involving a shipwreck near St. Kilda (more on this below) and went on for decades with remarkable success. The original era of the “mail boat” spanned the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, tourists visiting the islands today still make and send both mail boats and messages in bottles successfully. Many of these letters drift east as intended, and reach the mainland just as they did over a century ago.
Here’s what these “mail boats” looked like back in the day:
And here you can see where the islands of St. Kilda lie in relation to the Scottish mainland:
Can’t see ’em yet? Let’s zoom in.
Okay–there are the St. Kilda islands, on the left. The big speck there is Hirta–the main island, and the one we are concerned with here. That’s where the village of St. Kilda lies in a bay. Hirta is insanely beautiful, like so:
The one street in the village (known as “The Street”) looked like this in the 1880s.
This group of islands, part of the Outer Hebrides, is the remotest part of the British Isles, and yet, people have been living in the St. Kilda archipelago for about 4,000 years.
Or they had been living there for 4,000 years, until 1930. By then, encroachment from tourism, WWI, and the modern world caused rampant illness and the evacuation of the islands, according to Wikipedia. So, today, that same street you just saw looks like this:
St. Kilda’s Mail Boats Innovate on Message in a Bottle Concept
Although St. Kilda’s islands were incredibly remote, folks living there prior to 1930 still needed to communicate with the outside world. But how could they? There was no infrastructure.
In the 1800s, St. Kilda used bonfires to communicate with nearby islands. But according to Wikipedia, a journalist named John Sands changed the communication game entirely.
John Sands stayed on the island during 1876 – 1877. Somewhere in there, 9 Australian sailors were shipwrecked and left stranded in St. Kilda. Soooo…supplies ran low, and John Sands decided to take a chance. He attached a message to a life buoy and, according to Wikipedia, “Nine days later it was picked up in Birsay, Orkney, and a rescue [of the Australian sailors] was arranged”. This gave St. Kildans an idea: they could drift their communication to islands east of them, when the wind came out of the west.
It’s not clear to me why St. Kilda’s residents ended up making the elaborate boats they made, when a message in a bottle would probably be more sturdy and keep the notes drier than the tin cans they used. Perhaps there weren’t many glass bottles lying around St. Kilda, since it was so remote? Or, maybe they preferred to use the materials that were more readily available, like wood, sheep’s bladders, tin cans, etc.? It could also be that the whole apparatus, fairly large compared to a bottled mess, was deemed more visible, more likely to be found and picked up. Who knows?
In any case, Just a decade later, a “field naturalist” named Richard Kearton adventured to St. Kilda with his brother, a photographer. Richard Kearton wrote a book about the experience, With Nature and a Camera, published in 1897.
In the book, Kearton explains that the use of “toy boats” or “mail boats” by then constituted the entirety of St. Kilda’s postal system.
The Success of St. Kilda’s Coastal Postal Service
Here’s how Kearton describes it in his book:
When 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), they nail a lid or hatch over the cavity, with… “Please open” crudely cut on the top of it. To the boat is attached a bladder made from a sheep’s skin, and the whole is cast into the sea during the prevalence of a westerly wind. I was assured that an average of four out of six of these interesting little mailboats are picked up either on the shores of Long Island or Norway, and their contents forwarded to the people whose hands they are intended to reach…
Kearton goes on to share that, when he left the island, he requested his St. Kilda friends try to contact him using a mail boat.
As I had expressed a desire to hear from the St Kildans during the winter by means of one of their miniature mailboats, they dispatched one containing three letters for me at eleven o’clock on the morning of March 24th, during the prevalence of a north-westerly wind. On the 31st of the same month it was picked up by a shepherd in a little bay at Vahlay, North Uist, and its contents forwarded to me by post.
The letters had been placed in a small tin canister, and despite the fact that they had become soaked with sea water, they still retained a delightful aroma of peat smoke when they reached my hands, reminding me forcibly of my stay on the island.
The letter is very sweet and a little funny, I think 🙂
Here’s a St. Kilda villager, at the “Post Office,” so to speak, in 1896.
Like the one from Kearton’s account above, many of St. Kilda’s tiny “mail boats” were simple, consisting of just a floating toy boat, an inflated “bladder” of air, and a canister to contain the letter:
But some of the mail boats devised by St. Kildans were more elaborate than the simple kind above:
The Legacy of St. Kilda’s Mail Boats
According to the British Postal Museum Archive and Blog, by 1906, mail was delivered up to six times a year on St. Kilda, “but the islanders still needed to use the mail boats”. They did so until the last islanders left in 1930. Now, all that remains is the skeleton of the village, and the military base. Apparently, an example of a St. Kilda mail boat can be seen today in the West Highland Museum.
Island life can be harrowing. St. Kildans lived right in the midst of the elements–the wild sea raging outside their front door, hills raring up around them, starvation always looming. The fact that they had a 67% success rate of getting these letters to their destinations speaks to how clever and resourceful they were. They understood weather and surface currents; they built, by hand, these sturdy little vessels to withstand the savage sea.
There might not be anyone left alive today who was born on St. Kilda. But something lives on from the people who called that fantastic island home: The desire to connect with the world beyond our walls, the willingness to believe in the kindness of strangers. These traits make us human. As long as we hold on to these traits, on which the success of the mail boat operation relied entirely, the spirit of St. Kilda lives on–and so do we.
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Lenore Frost said:
So interesting to read this story, Clint. Thank you.
Steve Hansen said:
How cool is this! Thanks for posting Clint!
Richard Kaplan said:
Hey Clint. This is an amazing post! Great piece of info.
I always want to toss a bottle overboard on every cruise we take, but the ship warns everyone not to. Of course I would still do it as you well know, but there are cameras all over the place and I don’t want to take a chance.
Have a great Thanksgiving!