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The Mailboats

The Mailboats was a project conceived by John Cumming, a Shetland born artist who lives in Orkney.  It was a collaboration between sculptors and poets in Orkney and Shetland.  The project was inspired by a scene from Michael Powell’s film The Edge of the World.  A similar project was conceived in 2002 by Doug Robertson and as stated by the Hansel Art-Poetry Collective,   “. . . we  would like to pay respect to the artists involved and ask their indulgence as we, unwittingly, sail in their wake.”


The mailboats were launched from Skerries, Shetland on August 9th 2008. A catalogue, which included the poems, was published. 


The project paired a writer and a sculptor, the poet wrote a poem, or poems, linked to the theme of Mailboats and the paired sculptor created a ‘vessel’ to carry the poem. Prior to the ‘launch’ of these works, there were exhibitions in Orkney and in Shetland.  I was paired with James Sinclair.  You can read some of the poems that he wrote for our mailboat here.

I chose aluminium bottles to carry the poems because they could be recycled.  I must confess we had a crisis of conscience about the work because of issues around marine pollution.  However, the aluminium bottles were very lightweight and would easily skim across the ocean surface and hopefully reach land quickly.   With hindsight I feel we should have launched the boats without the base that James made to hold the bottles, trying to make the work look like a 'boat', and in fact I suspect that if we did the project today, all the artists might have approached the materials used quite differently, e.g., biodegradable over time so that there was no pollution or contamination to the sea.

I inscribed each of James's poems on embossing tin, rolled them tightly and placed one each in a bottle along with a short text about the project, including contact details. Luis Strachan (age 6) found eight of our Mailboat messages at the remote Birrier Cove between Aywick and Vatster, Yell, Shetland. His was the first sighting. I was as delighted as Luis and his young brother Ethan (age 4) who shared the find.  Kyle Brooke-Freeman found another one of our Mailboat messages on Yell.  And I've heard no further news of any other finds, although I hope by now they have all found a home. 

Shetland: James Sinclair & Roxane Permar, Mark Ryan Smith & John Hunter, Laureen Johnson & Mike Finnie, Jim Mainland & Jo Jack 

Orkney: Alison Flett & Laura Drever, Yvonne Gray & Colin Kirkpatrick, Morag MacInnes & John Cumming, John Aberdein & Frances Pelly

Click on an image to enlarge, and for further information.

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