Stornoway: The original mail shot

Today we might think our postal service mundane, but Gerhard Zucher had a dream: the Rocket Post. Simon Calder reports
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

The end of the world is nigh. Edging through the Hebridean wilderness, that conclusion is hard to escape. To the south, an incessant sea clashes with a ragged shoreline of ancient rock. Glance north, and a barricade of mountains sulks beneath an angry sky. This is the earth stripped of embellishment, reduced to its most elemental.

The end of the world is nigh. Edging through the Hebridean wilderness, that conclusion is hard to escape. To the south, an incessant sea clashes with a ragged shoreline of ancient rock. Glance north, and a barricade of mountains sulks beneath an angry sky. This is the earth stripped of embellishment, reduced to its most elemental.

On the map, the puny ribbon of Tarmac that threads along the coast enjoys the designation B887. For the Southern softie – which, here at 58°, means anyone residing further from the North Pole than Thurso or Alaska – the journey is, frankly, terrifying. Luckily, as the notion intensifies that human beings have no right to be here, the end of the road is nigh.

At Hushinish, a tiny village crouching beneath a 1,000ft mountain, the B-road downgrades into a sandy track. It limps across the machair, the scraggy veneer of grass that, in a few weeks, will explode with a million tiny flowers. Then it dissolves into a beach. A pair of dinghies, tidily painted green and blue to reflect the land and the sea, rests on the shore. Half a mile north, a low, barren island emerges from the water. Its name is Scarp, and it is the location for the most absurd experiment in postal history – the ultimate mail shot. You might think delivering letters is not exactly rocket science. But in 1934, it was.

Gerhard Zucher aimed higher than homing pigeons. He was a rocket man. Zucher was born in Austria in 1908, and grew up in the Harz mountains of Germany, too young to fight in the first great conflict of the 20th century. By the age of 26 he had achieved considerable fame with his work on solid-fuel rockets, which he aimed to develop for peaceful purposes.

Rocketing people into space was three decades away – but sending their mail through the skies was a reality. Several other inventors had demonstrated in trials in Europe and America that dispatches could be fired short distances. Zucher had a grander plan: to establish the Rocket Post across the English Channel, then, as now, the awkward buffer between two of the world's more significant nations.

Despite Europe's political turmoil in the early Thirties, which saw Hitler coming to power, the British government was persuaded to let the inventor try. But before he would be allowed a shot at the White Cliffs, Zucher had to prove his technology on the very edge of Britain – where the Rocket Post would meet a real need.

These days, the only signs of human habitation on Scarp are the crumbling remains of cottages and a scattering of holiday homes. But in 1934 over 100 people lived on this blunt volcanic relic, scratching a living from the sea and the thin soil. One of them was the grandfather of Katie Morrison, now a subpostmistress on Harris. "When the weather was bad," she says, "the boats couldn't get across with the mail." Their connection with the "mainland" – if Harris, a wild outpost of the British Isles, can be so described – depended upon being able to get a boat across the treacherous Scarp Sound to land on this very beach. (The concrete jetty here is a recent addition, a sorry afterthought that arrived too late to stave off the end of the world as Scarp knew it.)

Zucher proposed to protect the mail within a steel canister that would be propelled across the divide by a 20-horsepower motor. With hindsight, the sensible way to proceed with this experiment would have been to test it out with an empty container, or perhaps one loaded with a few of the rocks in such plentiful supply hereabouts. But that is to underestimate the public glee that surrounded the trials.

In July 1934, the time of year when the Hebridean dusk nearly collides with the dawn, Zucher cut a dashing figure – and he promised to make island life a notch or two less arduous. Contemporary reports describe the hunger of the community of Scarp to get on the Thirties equivalent of the information superhighway. In addition, plenty of people who had no intention of going anywhere near the Western Isles wanted their letters to be carried aboard the first island-to-shore rocket. Some 30,000 pieces of mail were compressed into the canister for the event.

"Unfortunately," says Katie Morrison with a touch of understatement, "the mail got a bit singed." In fact the rocket exploded, transforming most of the dispatches into confetti, which dissipated in the breeze. Some letters were salvaged and delivered, and now command astronomical sums among collectors.

But after a second unsuccessful trial a few days later, it was the end of the road for the Rocket Post – and for Gerhard Zucher's Hebridean adventures. History does not record his final words as he left Harris, but they are unlikely to have been " Vorsprung durch Technik".

The Rocket Post dispatch did not end there, though. A lifetime after Scarp served as an unlikely Cape Canaveral for the Western Isles, Harris has become the Hollywood of the Hebrides. For the past two summers, film crews have been almost as numerous as tourists, at least on the island of Taransay.

Climbing away from Hushinish, the stump of Taransay soon becomes visible. It stands just two miles offshore. But the island is accessible only from Seilebost: four miles as the Rocket Post flies, therefore two hours away as the rented Astra drives.

Taransay, you may recall, became the backdrop to some pretty unsavoury social dynamics in Castaway. Thirtysomething strangers were dumped on the island of Taransay by the BBC. They proceeded to dump on each other, amid tabloid glee, throughout 2000 as they fought for survival with only a few thousand licence fees for support. Last summer, Taransay served as location for a more dignified project, a film that promises to be the successor to Whisky Galore! and Gregory's Girl. The title: The Rocket Post.

The director, Stephen Whittaker, has taken the story of Gerhard Zucher, added a fictional local schoolmistress to provide love interest, plus the inevitable nasty Nazi (Zucher's Fascist-sympathising sidekick), and has recreated Thirties life on a barren isle.

The film is coming to the Hebrides in advance of its release this summer. The best cinema in the Western Isles has 110 seats, air conditioning, widescreen and digital surround-sound. No Empire or Odeon, this; its name is R362 SST. If that reads like a registration number, that's because it is a mobile cinema. The articulated auditorium – whose slogan is "Movies on the Move" – takes film to far-flung communities in the Western Isles. The first thing that the locals will spot when the titles roll is that the island is an imposter.

Taransay was chosen to stand in for Scarp because of two advantages: a track record as filming location, and easier access to the 21st century. Ashore at Seilebost, from where you get a widescreen view of Taransay, there is even a post office. It is the smallest you have ever seen, mind – really no more than a shed in the back garden of a B&B, and is run by none other than Katie Morrison, granddaughter of one of Scarp's lost souls.

There is a third advantage for film-makers. Luskentyre beach, which faces out to Taransay, is much prettier than the one opposite Scarp. Let me try that description again. Luskentyre is the most beautiful beach I have ever seen.

No studio could ever create such a location. Tenacious grasses bind together a backdrop of dunes. Below them, ice-white sand has been sculpted into unworldly shapes by the wind. When a blade of sunlight slices through the cloud, the dazzle of the beach turns the Atlantic to deep blue ink. The light dances on the surf, while the soundtrack rumbles with the roar of an ocean smashing into the Hebrides after a 3,000-mile journey.

Through the middle of this picture-perfect image flows a river, which embraces the sea in a swirl of turquoise.

"You've got the Seychelles, the Caribbean, and now the Outer Hebrides," says Mike Blair of Caledonian MacBrayne, the ferry company that binds the Hebrides together. Southerners may scoff at such optimism for tourism to the islands – but, in a Castaway-meets-Consignia, Rocket-Post- meets-real-post twist, this beach is now landing on millions of doormats.

On Tuesday this week, the Royal Mail issued a set of 10 first-class stamps of the British coastline. Framed between Studland Bay in Dorset and the White Cliffs of Dover is the virgin sand of Luskentyre.

The image that is shown between the perforations is very different from Katie Morrison's perspective of the beach. The photographer Richard Cooke captured it from the door of a tightly turning helicopter, 1,000 feet above sea level.

The image captivated him: "It's where God washes out His paintbrushes." That this image could be a fragment of Britain seems nigh impossible. As unlikely as, say, sending the post by rocket.

Travellers' Guide

Getting there: Simon Calder paid £329 for a two-night package through Scotia Travel (0141-305 5050,; this included flights from Heathrow via Glasgow to Stornoway and two nights with dinner, bed and breakfast at the Cabarfeigh Hotel. He rented an Astra from Stornoway Car Hire (01851 702658) for £29 per day. Boat trips to Taransay operate from Seilebost, weather permitting.

More information: The Rocket Post is an Ultimate Pictures production, directed by Stephen Whittaker. It is likely to be released in June.