Two St Kilda mailboats have been discovered washed up on the shores of Orkney, within days of the 88th anniversary of the island’s evacuation.
The last inhabitants of St Kilda, or Hirta, were taken off by boat on August 29th 1930. They included 15 children, the last of whom, Rachel Johnson (née Gillies) died in 2016.
Since 1930, tourists, researchers, National Trust for Scotland (NTS) volunteers and Ministry of Defence staff have been the main visitors to the island, with day-trips run from Harris and small cruise ships making the island a stopping point. Launching a ‘St Kilda mailboat’ – a floating container containing postcards or messages – is a regular ritual for visitors.
This week two of the mailboats were reported discovered in Orkney. A hand-built wooden catamaran-style arrived in pieces, one part discovered on July 31st and another on August 18th. Both had been launched by members of an NTS work party in June this year as they left the island with Harris-based Kilda Cruises.
The pieces were found by walkers on South Ronaldsay and Sanday in Orkney, but the central section containing the actual mail from the group is still missing. Work party volunteer Charlotte Barry said: “We launched the mailboat as our work party left St Kilda at dawn on Wednesday 13th June. We were running ahead of a severe south westerly and just got back to Leverburgh in time. Inside the mailboat were our postcards (stamped and all!) so we hope someone finds the rest of the boat and posts them back to us!”
There was better luck for a mailboat launched from Kilda Cruises’ vessel MV Hirta by day-visitor Hannah Foster, on a trip organised by St Kilda enthusiast Alasdair MacEachan. Housed in a plastic container with a buoy attached, the collection of stamped postcards went into the water off Boreray on August 10th and were found by dedicated beach-comber Martin Gray at Birsay in Orkney on Monday (27th August).
Martin said: “The end of a 40+ year quest today when I stumbled across a St Kilda Mailboat ashore in Birsay. The Mailboat was launched from the MV Hirta just off Boreray on 10/08/18: 125 statute miles from where it washed up (though Lewis is in the way of a direct passage so perhaps closer to 150 miles travelled). The finder was asked to write on the stamped and addressed postcards saying where & when found. This done I dutifully posted them all onwards.”
Of the many St Kilda mailboats launched every summer, only a handful are reported found. Winds and currents influence the direction and speed they travel and they can land anywhere around the Atlantic. Earlier this year a mailboat launched in 2005 was found in Norway, 12 years after being cast adrift. The St Kildans’ launch point, from rocks near the base of Oiseval, is no longer used but is thought to have been a more reliable sending point.
St Kilda NTS work party members at work in June 2018
The work party’s mailboat before launch and a piece of the mailboat as found in Sanday this month.
Day-visitor Hannah Foster launches a mailboat from MV Hirta on August 10th, with the islands of St Kilda on the skyline.
The mailboat as found in Birsay, Orkney and postcards on their way by Royal Mail.