Tag Archives: John Sands

The mail boats of St Kilda

By the late 1890s a unique system of mail dispatch had developed on the remote Scottish islands of St Kilda: letters were enclosed in a waterproof receptacle attached to a homemade buoy or buoyant object and launched into the sea in the hope that they would wash ashore and be forwarded on by whoever chanced upon them.

The idea had been developed by John Sands, a journalist who found himself stranded on the islands in 1876. In the years that followed Sand’s experiments the St Kilda “mail boats” were regularly used by the islanders. An article in The Sketch in 1906 recorded that during the longer winter months when vessels did not call at the islands letters were dispatched by placing them…

…in a waterproof, buoyant case and cast upon the waters. Usually this remarkable mail-packet is picked up on the coast of Norway, to be forwarded later to the Foreign Office. Four packages out of six reach their destination.

The St Kilda islanders constructed many types of mail boats using the materials they had to hand. The letters and coins might be placed in bottles, cocoa tins or leather bags – any container that was waterproof – while the waterproof container would be attached to something that would survive the journey, such as a wooden vessel, a hollowed log or a buoy made from an inflated sheepskin.

A St Kilda "mail boat".

A St Kilda “mail boat”.

Some of these crafts made it to British shores, a Shetland Islands newspaper c.1904 reported that:

There was picked up on St Ninian’s Isle Dunrossness, a St Kilda mail bag. The ‘bag’ is that usually employed by the St Kildians to communicate with the outside world, consisting of a sheepskin bag inflated to which was attached a tin canister, wrapped round with cotton wool, and covered with cotton sewn around it end tarred, the served with stout twine. The bag was forwarded to Lerwick Post Office. The tin was found to contain two letters and eight postcards, which were duly forwarded to their destination. A shilling was also enclosed. The bag had been sent off on 21st June so that it had taken two months and one day between St Kilda and Shetland.

Another type of St Kilda "mail boat".

Another type of St Kilda “mail boat”.

The mail boats weren’t just used by the islanders, tourists who came to St Kilda by steamer in the summer months would make a mail boat as part of the St Kilda experience. But for the locals the boats were more than a novelty, they were the best available option. According to files held in the Royal Mail Archive the General Post Office investigated establishing a regular mail service to improve communications between the islands and the mainland – one suggestion was to pay local fishing vessels to deliver and collect mail – but it was found to be too difficult to establish a regular service via these means. A sub post office was established on St Kilda in 1900 and by 1906 steam trawlers which visited the area were able to bring mail as often as six times a year, but the islanders still needed to use the mail boats.

A St Kilda islander launches a "mail boat". (Early 20th Century)

A St Kilda islander launches a “mail boat”. (Early 20th Century)

The ultimate problem for the GPO was that the small population on the islands did not justify the effort of establishing a regular service. Considerable efforts were made in the early 20th Century, but the First World War had a big impact on the islands: not only did the population decline as a result of men going off to fight, but the islanders’ expectations increase as communications technology improved.

After the war, more efforts were made to secure a regular mail service but by 1928 the population had declined to 37 and in 1930 the remaining residents were evacuated the mainline. A final mail boat was sent before the islanders left for good and three months later it landed in Norway.

St Kilda is now a UNESCO World Heritage site cared for by The National Trust for Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Ministry of Defence. Tourists visiting St Kilda still send mail boats as the St Kilda Ranger’s diary reported in 2011.

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.