Postman, we have a problem on Scarp

A scene from the 2004 film Rocket Post
A scene from the 2004 film Rocket Post
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Forty years ago next month the last inhabitants left the island of Scarp. But it’s another flight from there which really put the place on the map

YOU could almost see a teardrop fall into it. The capricious, choppy channel that had witnessed the evacuation of a tiny Outer Hebridean island – as well as one of the most bizarre headline-catching episodes in Western Isles history – had decided not to play ugly for the last family leaving. As if to teasingly deny them confirmation of the wisdom of their flight, the often angry Sound of Scarp was coolly well behaved on 2 December, 1971, when five well-wrapped figures pulled their stuffed suitcases into a 5m (17ft) open rowing boat, and drew away, for the last time, from the remote rocky islet of Scarp.

From a peak of 16 crofts and 213 Clearance refugees in the 1880s, the population of the tiny outpost, just off Harris, had sunk to 74 by 1951. Twennty years later Scarp became the last of 12 Scottish islands to be abandoned in four decades.

But aboard their boat, crofter-fisherman Angus MacInnes, his wife, Margaret, and three of their grown-up children, Norman, Murdo and Mary, were not entirely inconsolable despite the surprising tranquillity on a winter’s day of the half mile of muscular Atlantic currents between their island home and Harris.

“It was a sentimental journey of course,” says their third son, Donald, then 21, and at university in Glasgow. “But it had been a hard life on Scarp, where people had survived by crofting and fishing – without electricity and its conveniences. My family had decided to go years earlier and had just been hanging on for completion of a house they were having built on Harris. It was a simple, practical decision.”

The irony of that calm final crossing wasn’t lost on the MacInneses, who had seen their island’s lifeblood steadily drained over all their years there. Much of the exodus had been caused by that difficult stretch of water that often cut off their 12 square miles from Harris and the rest of the world.

On a fine day, the crossing would take a few minutes, but when weather and tides turned and churned the Sound into a heaving sea monster, the gap might as well have been 100 miles. “So near yet so far,” remarks Donald, who is a former chief executive of Scotland-Europa in Brussels and is now with Scottish Enterprise.

The challenge that the fiercely unpredictable Sound set for its struggling post office resulted in Scarp becoming known as Rocket Post Island. How so? Its communication problems brought it to Press attention in the 1930s, when a 26-year-old German rocket enthusiast attempted to bridge the gap between the islands with an experimental vehicle he hoped would establish the viability of an airborne service to carry mail and medicine.

The episode became something of a novel prism through which the island was later seen. There was even a feature film made of the story, entitled Rocket Post. “My family and their Scarp friends were often astonished to see their lives being defined by that funny, frivolous thing that happened in the 1930s,” says Donald. “They didn’t talk about it much; they were more concerned with their daily lot, the weather and whether they could cut peat in the morning.”

Was it really so frivolous? Despite its novelty, the plan initially looked caring enough, inspired by a widely reported story of childbirth tragedy narrowly averted. On 13 January, 1934, without a doctor but with the help of an octogenarian amateur midwife, crofter’s wife Christina Maclennan gave birth on Scarp to Mary, the first of twin girls. But the second was reluctant to appear and, after a brave volunteer crossed the Sound for help – in the absence of telephones – a doctor in Tarbert returned the order that the distressed mother should be rushed to Lewis on a stretcher. A rough boat crossing to Harris was followed by Mrs Maclennan lying on the floor of a bus then being bumped over an unfinished road by car – to hospital in Stornoway. And so Jessie and Mary Maclennan were born two days and 50 miles apart on separate islands.

Not that Gerhard Zucker could do much about such close shaves. But when he heard of it – and of Scarp’s generally primitive communication links – the rocketeer, who an already colourful past which included some failed experiments in his native land, saw a chance to promote his grand plan to create postal rocket bridges for island-dotted nations, like Canada, Denmark and Scotland, and between nations such as England and France.

When the Scarp story caught his eye he was busily impressing the British General Post Office with a plan to fire a “one-minute” mail-loaded rocket from Dover to Calais. Observers of two tests on the Sussex Downs confirmed that his rockets flew high enough to prompt headlines like, “The first British rocket mail”.

Zucker reckoned that, after the birth drama, there were first bigger headlines to be made in the Western Isles, and by July 1934, he was on the shore at Scarp ready to fire a post-loaded rocket over the Sound to the opposite beach on Harris.

The rocket, a finned, metre-long Flash Gordon-style cylinder, would carry 1200 letters addressed to friends, family and VIPs – including King George V. His motives were unclear. Was he an eccentric hero altruistically dedicated to improving the lot of islanders? Was he a spy audaciously checking out UK port defences? Or was he just a showman, a conman even, simply out to make a buck by selling his expensive self-made rocket mail stamps to rocket-post customers (see panel)?

In any event, as a crowd gathered on Scarp’s eastern shore on the drizzly launch day, 28 July, he had clearly been given the benefit of any doubt. The onlookers included post office and government officials, as well as curious islanders, many of whom had paid half-a-crown to get their letters on board the historic rocket, now perched at a 45-degree angle on its launch platform.

“The atmosphere was what we’d nowadays call electric,” says islander John Angus MacLeod, 70 years after witnessing the event at the age of 14. “I had to admit I was a little worried.” And well he might have been. For just after Zucker boasted to The Scotsman that his rocket could presage “a boon to the Western Isles”, he finally pressed the electric starter button.

Did he have lift-off? Well, no. There was a collective gasp, a flash of flame and a thumping bang as the rocket exploded on its ramp and everything was obscured by thick smoke. When it cleared, large parts of the shattered rocket lay among bits of its launch apparatus, and singed letters were scattered around like confetti.

Zucker’s credibility was also blown to bits and, although he tried again three days later – this time on Harris – his second rocket also exploded. The Inverness Courier reported sadly that “a piece of the rocket was found somewhere near the objective”.

Some letters singed from the blasts were salvaged – to be posted in the normal way or coveted by collectors (which they are to this day). But little could be salvaged of Zucker’s life. Having been found “a threat to the income of the post office and the security of the country”, he was deported – and immediately arrested by the Germans on suspicion of collaboration with Britain. He was forbidden to make further rocket experiments after release and became a furniture dealer. But before dying in 1985, he managed to dabble again in rocketry – briefly and fatally, for three people who got in the way of his launcher.

Zucker had blamed the Scarp failure on not being allowed to import his usual rocket fuel from Germany and so being forced to use far-too-volatile firework powder.

To test this excuse in 2005, the Scots TV historian Neil Oliver and his Coast series team recreated the exercise with a near-replica of Zucker’s rocket using a much more stable propellant. With the expert help of Scots rocketeer John Bonsor, the rocket was loaded with letters, ignited and launched – to shoot off on a graceful curve over the Sound and land on a Harris hill. “Our rocket flew at 200mph and easily covered the distance,” said Oliver proudly, having perhaps proved that it wasn’t, after all… er, rocket science.