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Some very special postal deliveries were made recently, helping mark the 90th anniversary of the evacuation of St Kilda.
Ten years previously, in 2010, to mark the 80th anniversary of the evacuation, the National Trust for Scotland made a miniature replica ‘mailboat’, filled it with postcards and launched it into the Atlantic Ocean.
Incredibly, in the August week of the 90th anniversary of the evacuation in 2020, the cards were finally delivered to their destinations, including royalty and the descendants of the original St Kildans.
And the trust had a group of Norwegian children to thank for helping get the mail delivered.
Mailboats are an old St Kilda tradition where the islanders launched their mail into the sea in tiny waterproof boats in the hope they would be picked up by passing ships or make it to more populated places and be sent on.
In August, the mini mailboat last seen on St Kilda a decade previously was found by four children and their grandfather on a beach on Andøya, the northernmost island in the Vesterålen archipelago of Norway, about 180 miles inside the Arctic Circle and more than 1,000 miles from St Kilda.
Amazingly, after 10 years at sea, the boat had protected the postcards which were still intact. The children’s grandfather, Geir Kristian Søreng, sent the NTS the cards commenting: ‘My four grandkids found a treasure at the beach on Andøya, north of Norway. It was a postboat in wood, sent from St Kilda in 2010.
‘Emil, 9, Ask 9, Tiril, 6 and Erling, 4, were excited when they found a secret room in the boat, with cards saying ‘We would be grateful if you could please post the cards’.
‘This is a special story for the children and their families. Hopefully we will have the opportunity to visit Scotland and St Kilda in future. We had never heard of this fabulous island and are fascinated by the story.’
The NTS spent several weeks finding out who the cards had been written to, making sure the addresses were still correct and sending them on. Then, on the 90th anniversary of the evacuation of St Kilda, the cards were delivered to their recipients.
Seven postcards with pictures of St Kilda were placed inside the vessel by Ian McHardy, the archaeologist on St Kilda at the time, who had also made the boat.
As well as enclosing cards to his family and friends, Ian included cards to a number of people with links to St Kilda.
Norman John Gillies, one of the last remaining St Kildans, was five at the time of the evacuation. It was his mother’s death in 1930 that is believed to have been the final prompt for the islanders to leave St Kilda. Mr Gillies died in 2013, but the NTS forwarded his card on to his son John Gillies in Ipswich.
It was one of John’s relatives – the schoolboy Alexander Gillies Ferguson – who launched the 1885 mailboat that started the St Kildan tradition.
The final card was written by Susan Bain, NTS’ Western Isles Manager, to the charity’s Patron, HRH Prince Charles, The Duke of Rothesay, who had famously visited St Kilda in 1971 with the Queen.
Prince Charles’ card was delivered to Birkhall, his Scottish home on the Balmoral Estate. He replied to Ms Bain saying: ‘I was delighted to receive your postcard and fascinated to hear about its decade-long journey to reach me, via the Arctic Circle no less!
‘In such a fast-moving world, it is touching to know the tradition of a simple ‘mail-boat’ from the remote island of St Kilda can safely travel so far.
‘I have never forgotten my visit to this amazing archipelago in 1971 and I so look forward to returning one day, not only to remind myself of its rugged beauty, but also its extraordinary history and breathtaking bird life.
‘As Patron of the National Trust for Scotland, I am immensely grateful to all those who work to preserve our heritage through caring for special places like St Kilda.’
Ms Bain, Western Isles Manager, told the Lochaber Times: ‘Sometimes the mailboats worked very well as a means of communication and they got help within two weeks, but other times they took 10 years.
‘It was an amazing connection that people on a small remote island in Norway found the boat that had come from a small remote island in Scotland.’
Norwegian youngsters Emil, Ask, Tiril and Erling were excited when they found a secret room in the boat, with cards. Photograph: NTS NO F06 BOAT FOUND 2020 01.
An older man launching the St Kilda mail boat from Hirta, St Kilda. Photograph: NTS NO-F06-BOAT-LAUNCH-NTS-ARCHIVE-launching-mailboat.jpg
Geir Soreng with the battered wooden mailboat from St Kilda. Photograph: NTS NO F06 BOAT FOUND 2020 Geir Soreng
Ian McHardy with the mailboat he made for the anniversary. Photograph: NTS NO-F06-BOAT-LAUNCH-Ian-McHardy.jpg
John Gillies and his son with their postcard. Photograph: NTS NO F06 BOAT Launch CARD ARRIVED 2020 John Gillies and son
Prince Charles on St Kilda in 1971. Photograph: NTS NO F06 BOAT LAUNCH Prince Charles at St Kilda 1971
View of St Kilda from the Sea. Photograph: NTS NO-F06-St-Kilda-02-scaled.jpg