Friday, November 16, 2012

Message in a Bottle: The Tradition

A disorienting view of our bottle (too tall for Blogger). We inserted a page  with
"Message in this Bottle" written on it, just to be sure it was not mistaken for common beach garbage.

Love letters, castaways and, most mundane of all, mail. When Britain’s Royal Mail in 2008 admitted taking 31 years to deliver a missive penned by the Prince of Wales, a mere heir to the throne, a commentator for the Telegraph noted how much more efficient a message in a bottle would have been, one having been reported the same day as having traveled from Orkney to the beach at St Andrews in just 23 years.

It is not surprising that pilots, sailors and passengers on ships in distress might fling a message into the sea with the desperate hope of sending a few final words to family, friends and loved ones. As for the castaway theory, there have always been the practical obstacles, even assuming a good bottle has already washed onto the castaway’s beach, of writing materials and a way to seal the bottle so that it would be watertight, not to mention the vagaries of currents and weather that might delay the bottle’s arrival anywhere from ten, twenty or one hundred fifty years. (Note to modern mariners in distress: EPIRB (Electronic Position Indicating Radio Beacon) is a much more reliable means of alerting rescue agencies in event of shipwreck.)

Who knew there is such a long history of messages in bottles? I had thought it mostly a romantic and mythical notion with trivial practical overtones, like Capt Jack Sparrow escaping from the island on which he was marooned by lassoing a sea turtle with a rope braided from his own hair. Instead, we have a Greek philosopher-scientist, the Admiral of the Ocean Sea and Queen Elizabeth’s 16th century Royal Navy availing themselves of the bottle technology. Theophrastus sought to prove that the Mediterranean Sea had been filled by Atlantic Ocean currents when he set bottles adrift in 310 BC. Christopher Columbus was a Great Pretender who claimed credit for discovering lands already occupied as well as previously discovered by Europeans, and he failed to find the East Indies for which expedition the Spanish royals paid. During the return from his first voyage, having already grounded his own flagship, he dropped a bottle in the ocean during a storm he feared might sink his remaining ship so that his discovery would be known as he claimed it. Columbus arrived back in Spain; his bottle did not. Last, but most sensible, Queen Elizabeth I, to protect her military intelligence from the accidental eyes of commoners, established the royal office of “Uncorker of Ocean Bottles.” The unwieldy title enabled the homely and chronically irritable queen to execute anyone who opened a bottle from the Queen’s Navy.

We could wonder why the seafaring empire that created the Royal National Lifeboat Institution to rescue its island subjects did not also establish a Castaway Communication Commission to read, review and evaluate all of the realm’s messages in a bottle. Lying near the delta terminus of the Gulf Stream, messages are surely drawn to Her Majesty’s shores as herrings to a shoal. Then again, local basking sharks might accidentally inhale the slow-floating bottles when vacuuming plankton.

Boreray, St Kilda, rising over 1200 ft from the sea.
St Kilda is a remote open ocean cluster of islands located forty miles west of North Uist, Outer Hebrides of Scotland, North Uist itself being quite remote. [see Not named for any known saint, its appellation is likely the abuse of an old Norse place name meaning “sweet wellwater.” For more than two thousand years, the island was sparsely populated and rarely visited until its declining numbers resulted in a 1930 evacuation of all residents, except for the sheep of course. Currently a UNESCO World Heritage site, the archipelago boasts huge islets that jut abruptly from the sea, frosted by the guano of adorable puffins as well as stunning populations of gannets, petrels and fulmars. Ancient beehive shelters, stone cottages and stone walls stretch across the main island of Hirta in an arc above Village Bay.

The Street in The Village c. 1886
Because it was so difficult to access, and with an anchorage not well-protected from storms, residents created a novel means of communication, the St Kilda Mailboat. A letter was sealed in a tin of cocoa or similar container and attached to a small, rough wooden model of a boat. To be sure the message would float, the boat was buoyed with a sheep’s bladder, the sheep’s stomach and pluck having been reserved for a fine haggis, I presume. The “mailboats” fairly reliably landed on Scottish shores, but sometimes sailed to Norway.

Launching a St Kilda Mailboat. Note inflated sheep's bladder.
Such is the serendipity of messages in bottles. We thought it would be entertaining to put a message in a bottle; we did not appreciate or anticipate the tradition into which we had stepped. More later. [see next post for more on message bottles.]

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