A fine weather trip to the beach last week resulted in an exciting find for Sandwick resident Euan Crawford and his children Elsie, seven, and Rory, five.
While the family enjoyed a sunny day visit to the nearby Cumliewick beach the trio stumbled across a handmade “St Kilda mailboat” which had washed ashore.
St Kilda mailboats have been in use for over 100 years. They are composed of a waterproof receptacle, containing a letter, attached to a buoyancy aid which is then launched into the sea.
The item was taken home for closer inspection and after unscrewing the lid of the “boat” the Crawford family found 11 postcards inside it, along with £25.
It turned out that the package had been on a 20-month journey from St Kilda, after being set on its way by a Scottish Natural Heritage working party who were based on the island in the summer of 2014.
Instructions on one postcard requested that whoever located the item should use the money to buy stamps and then return the postcards back to their senders. One postcard will be going as far as Melbourne, Australia.
Mr Crawford said that his children “were running about in the sand when they stumbled across it”.
At first the children were unsure what they had found but after their father read the message on the aluminum plaque on top of the mailboat to them Elsie “thought there might be treasure inside”.
Although the “treasure” turned out to be £25 and a few postcards the children were still delighted with their find, and Elsie even took it into school to show her class.
Mr Crawford sent the postcards – which had messages such as “Will anybody ever find me?” – back to their senders on Monday and after paying for postage found that there was “a bit of change leftover so the bairns bought sweets”.
“They got their treasure after all,” he added.
These mailboats have become a common ritual for visitors to St Kilda, both leisure visitors and working parties. They have also been deployed from a number of other areas, including six which were launched from Shetland in 2014 as a “distress signal” to highlight the plight of rural schools in the isles.
The history of the St Kilda mailboats can be traced back to 1876 when John Sands, a freelance journalist, spent time there working to draw attention to the plight of rural islanders.
In the winter of 1876 Mr Sands, along with a group Austrian sailors also stranded on St Kilda, became concerned that their presence was putting a strain on the resources at hand and that they may starve.
As a result of this fear Mr Sands and the Austrian sailors decided to deploy two “mailboats” to draw attention to their precarious position. These asked the finder of the letter to forward it on to the Austrian Consul.
One made it to Orkney within nine days while the other was discovered in Ross-Shire after 22 days. The letters were duly forwarded on and a short while later HMS Jackal arrived at St Kilda to rescue the marooned journalist and sailors.
Mr Sands, incidentally, also spent time working in Shetland islands including Papa Stour and Foula.
After this usage residents of and visitors to St Kilda took to deploying mailboats as a unique method of correspondence.
The senders hoped that their craft would make it to the mainland and then be forwarded on by the person who discovered them to their intended destinations.
The boats, carried by the Gulf Stream, regularly turned up on the British mainland, and on occasion made it to Shetland, Orkney and even Scandinavia.
In 1904 The Shetland Times reported on the discovery of a St Kilda mailboat in the isles.
The article stated: “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.
“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.”
Despite the establishment of a six-times-a-year mail service to and from St Kilda in the early 1900s the practice remained in use when this irregular service proved insufficient.
Modern St Kilda mailboats are now the result of appropriation, by tourists and workers in the isle, of this interesting part of St Kilda’s postal history.