Forgotten tale of Rocket Post
Back in the 1930s, a German scientist made an audacious attempt to modernise the Outer Hebrides postal service by sending letters by rocket across the Scarp Sound to Hushinish on Harris. Russell Leadbetter hears the amazing story from the director of a ne
THE Western Isles are replete with legends, and one of the most colourful involves an audacious attempt to modernise the Hebridean mail service using rocket power. Glasgow-based theatre-maker Lewis Hetherington was on holiday in Harris visiting relatives when he first heard about Gerhard Zucker, the long-dead German scientist who started it all. “I can’t pinpoint the exact moment,” says Hetherington. “At some point I heard about the story, and I think I read it quite quickly in a guidebook. It seemed like a little side-note, along the lines of, ‘Oh, an eccentric scientist’. But I always thought that there must be more to him.
“So I read it, and thought it was interesting, but then it just kept coming back to me, over and over again. The more I thought about it, the more interested I became, and I thought for Zucker it was not a side-note: it was his life, his whole vision, and I started to look into the man who had been written off as a silly, eccentric scientist.”
Zucker’s experiments with sending mail by rockets, back in the 1930s, didn’t amount to much, sadly, but they have lingered in the imagination. He has inspired a film, The Rocket Post – and, now, the latest theatre project by Hetherington. Called Rocket Post, the National Theatre of Scotland production opens at An Lanntair, in Stornoway, on September 23, following a brief preview at Glasgow’s Platform. It will then go on an extensive tour of Scotland.
So what was it about Zucker’s work that has led to a new stage play for families, more than 80 years on?
On June 7, 1934, The Glasgow Herald, reported that the young inventor had carried out his first rocket-mail experiment on the Sussex Downs, the previous day. “Beyond the fact that the tests proved successful – that was admitted by one of the spectators,” the paper reported, “nothing is known as the whole process is veiled in secrecy.”
Zucker is said to have been drawn to the Outer Hebrides for his next attempt by news stories related to the traumatic experience of a woman on the tiny island of Scarp, which is situated to the west of Harris. In labour but unable to summon a doctor from mainland Harris because of bad weather, she gave birth on Scarp then endured a hazardous journey by rowing boat, horse and cart then bus to Stornoway on Lewis, where her second twin was born the following day. The story made newspaper headlines, questions were asked in Parliament – and it’s believed this scandal helped persuade the government to fund Zucker’s trials.
Thus, on the last Saturday of July 1934, Zucker, watched by dignitaries including two MPs, attempted to send a rocket laden with parcels from Scarp across the Sound to Hushinish on Harris, half a mile away. More than 4,000 letters, according to the Herald, had been amassed for the experiment; four were addressed to the King and several others to the Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald and members of the government.
Reported the Herald: “Instead of the rocket shooting over the Sound of Scarpa there was a dull explosion, and when
Disaster strikes Gerhard Zucker’s Rocket Post experiement, leaving the letters singed and damaged