Early in 1877 an Austrian ship, the “Peti Dubrivacki”, was wrecked off St Kilda. The St Kildans were already short of food but looked after the marooned crew. By early February food supplies were dangerously low and starvation threatened and in desperate situation the first St Kilda mailboat was launched on 5th February 1877. A message asked for help was addressed to the Austrian Consul in Glasgow, attached to a lifebelt from the “Peti Dubrivacki” and thrown into the sea. It was found nine days later in Birsay, Orkney. The message was relayed to Glasgow via the Lloyd’s agent at Stromness and HMS Jackal was sent to St Kilda with food supplies and to rescue the Austrians.
From this beginning a ‘standard’ mailboat was developed. The letter was placed in a bottle or tin with instructions to the finder to post it; a penny for the stamp was also included. The container was sealed, waterproofed with grease and placed in a cavity which had been hollowed out of a block of wood shaped like a boat. PLEASE OPEN was burnt with a hot wire of a wooden hatch, which was then battened down. A small red flag was attached to the hull and the finished mailboat was then tied to an inflated sheep’s bladder.
Mailboats were launched when the wind was in the north-west and about two-thirds were eventually found, mostly on the shores of Harris or Lewis but also in Orkney and Shetland and sometimes even in Norway. They were used in emergencies right up to the evacuation of St Kilda in 1930.
The work parties on St Kilda, release their mailboats as they leave St Kilda, how far has yours gone, and how long did it take to get found? In 1978 the longest period between launch and finding was 15 and a half months, this month, a work party in 2005, have just received the postcards from their mailboat, found in 2017! 12 years later! More details on this next month!