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Cloud Mailboat


Hebridean Mailboat Collection

This collection is associated with stories of the St Kilda Mailboat - islanders on this remote archipelago would send a letter in a sealed tin placed within a wooden box, attached to a sheep bladder float. The box and float would be hurled into the sea on a favourable current in an attempt to reach the mainland and the regular mail service. This curious method of communication has been adopted by others, including tourists who came to St Kilda in steamers in the early 1900s. This new collection does not compress the idea into a novelty, but rather, add another layer. These souvenirs are tasked with an action and encourage duplication - each one combines both an island narrative and the visit of an individual maker. These small vessels were sent into the unknown, into the surrounding seas that are slow, inviting and incubating.

Book Mailboat (late 1950s)

Slatted raft and carved wooden book with detachable spine, connected to a hollow ‘rocket’ float - holding a first edition copy of Compton Mackenzie’s book ‘Rockets Galore’ within. Believed to be sent by a Douglas M. and Maggie G., visitors to South Uist from Glasgow.

The mailboat is one of five believed to have been posted from the shore at Ushenish Lighthouse - this one was found in Kentra Bay, on the Ardnamurchan peninsular. The exact reason for the mailings are unknown, but current speculation makes a link with either the direct protest events at the proposed missile range in South Uist, the publication of Compton Mackenzie’s book, or the release of the comedy film based on the same novel. Due to the slow delivery time of a mailboat it is unclear whether the boat was ‘posted’ in 1957 or 1958.

Cloud Mailboat (mid 1950s)

A carved wooden boat with detachable white elm burr cloud (with air cavity), connected to a small ballcock float - holding a rubber Russian toy monkey within. Believed to be sent from a passing Russian trawler as a form of Cold War jest.

The sea mailing point is unknown, but it was found by a Mr R. McNeill at a beach on the west of Lewis. It is believed the mailboat was sent as a comment on the Operation Cauldron warfare trials carried out off the east coast of Tolsta Bay in 1952. These secret Ministry of Defence experiments released a mist of poison gases over monkeys and guinea pigs lined up in cages on a floating pontoon a short distance from the shoreline. It is difficult to keep a secret on an island, but it is curious to think that whispers drifted out on a westerly wind, only to be returned via the Barents Sea by the hand of a Soviet fisherman.

Submarine Mailboat (about 1918)

A wooden submarine with detachable top entry deck, connected to a toffee tin float (possibly one of two tins) - holding a hand drawn poster within. Believed to be sent by a young German naval officer as a propaganda message to the Scottish mainland.

This mailboat was handed in to a police constable in Torrisdale, Sutherland, and is believed to have been ‘posted’ from North Rona - stories at the time recount German U- boats stopping at the island to shoot sheep for on-board consumption during long Atlantic voyages.

There may also be a link to shared on-board stories of the U-90 shelling the Hirta wireless station on St Kilda in May 1918.

Mailboats dried and restored at the Silverdale Trust

made by Chris Biddlecombe

Chris is an artist based in Glasgow, Scotland, with a history of making work in the form of site specific interventions using a variety of techniques that create ambiguous dialogues with the viewer using cultural, historical or social references. His mixed media installations have been exhibited in the UK and internationally, encouraging genuine collaborations with architects, engineers, museum curators, writers, performers and other creative makers.