How a mail boat saved those stranded on the islands of St Kilda

When the journalist John Sands found himself marooned on the Scottish islands of St Kilda in 1876 he knew that he was completely cut off from the rest of the world. In the Victorian era communications technology was advancing at a rapid pace and fast communication was now a part of most people’s lives – the first Transatlantic telegraph cable had been completed in 1858, in 1872 it became possible to send a message by telegraph to far off Australia, and by the late 1870s millions of telegraphs were being sent up and down the British Isles by ordinary people using the national telegraph network, but St Kilda, just 40 miles off the north-west of Scotland, was not part of this network.

For the residents of St Kilda, used to a simple life of subsistence farming, this was the norm; their only means of communicating with the outside world was by mail, and even then they relied on the boats which called at the island during the summer months agreeing to take their letters. Sands probably found being unable to communicate with the mainland more testing, but after a short time in St Kilda he identified a possible solution to the problem.

Sands observed that the islanders used canes salvaged from the beach to make reeds for their hand looms. As the canes did not grow in Scotland he deduced that they were brought to the islands by the ocean currents (AKA the Gulf Stream). He reasoned that the currents could be harnessed to send a small craft containing mail to the mainland, and he launched an experimental “boat” in December 1876. It took nine months for the boat to be discovered, and even then it was found in Sortland, Norway, but this did not deter Sands. Indeed, in the intervening period the situation on the islands changed, and Sands had to try again.

In January 1877 nine shipwrecked Austrian sailors arrived on St Kilda, putting considerable strain on the islanders’ resources. Fearing they would all soon starve Sands with the Austrians constructed a canoe from a log and placed in it a letter encased in a pickle bottle, addressed to the Austrian Consul begging for their assistance. A small sail was attached to the craft and the words “Open This” were printed on the deck. Another boat containing a similar message was made and attached to a buoy from the wrecked Austrian ship.

Amazingly, the buoy reached Birsay in Orkney in just 9 days, and the canoe was discovered in Poolewe, Ross-shire, after 22 days. The messages were forwarded to the Austrian Counsel and shortly afterwards the HMS Jackal was sent to St Kilda to rescue Sands and the sailors. In his diary Sands recorded that the islanders were bemused by his experiments with mail boats and incredulous when the Jackal arrived. The islanders had never thought to try sending mail in this way, but within a decade it became common practice.

In September 1885 the islanders again faced starvation when a severe storm ruined their food stores. A 14 year old school boy called Alexander Gillies Ferguson, who had heard of Sands’ mailboats, launched five such crafts containing messages asking for help. One of the boats quickly arrived in Gallan Head, Lewis, and the resultant publicity saw £110 raised, provisions bought and a boat chartered. This was not the end of the islanders’ problems or their use of mailboats, though, and we will explore that in a future blog post.

A St Kilda mail boat used by the islanders after Sands’ and Ferguson’s experiments, c. 1900.

A St Kilda mail boat used by the islanders after Sands’ and Ferguson’s experiments, c. 1900.

– Alison Bean, Web Officer

This blog was researched at the Royal Mail Archive, located at BPMA’s headquarters in Clerkenwell, London. There are millions of stories to uncover at the Royal Mail Archive, see our website for Archive opening hours and visitor information.

One response to “How a mail boat saved those stranded on the islands of St Kilda

  1. What a fabulous story! Thank you for sharing.

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