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.

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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 the smoke cleared the wreckage of the runway and the rocket was seen on the shore with the letters strewn about.

“The rocket was split open and twisted out of recognition, but although most of the letters were charred few were badly damaged.” Zucker hoped to make another attempt on the Monday “if the supply of cartridges can be obtained in time”.

The Post Office was interested in Zucker’s invention, the report added, “because there are many places in the Hebrides such as Scarpa itself which are without mails in the winter for a week or more at the time”.

Zucker made another attempt on Tuesday, at Amhuinnsuidh Castle, bound for Scarp, but it, too, failed. Zucker said he had been hampered by the German government’s refusal to permit the export of cartridges which he had used in earlier experiments in his homeland.

According to the Isle of Harris website, the German made a further attempt in Hampshire, hoping to send a rocket across to the Isle of Wight, but it veered off course after being caught by a gust of wind.

Other online sources suggest that Zucker was deported back to Germany for postal fraud, only to be detained by the German government for having co-operated with the British. It is said that he joined the Luftwaffe during the war, was badly wounded in 1944, and ended up working as a furniture dealer in West Germany.

In 2001 a film, the Rocket Post, was made, with a cast including Eddie Marsan, Gary Lewis, Kevin McKidd, Shauna Macdonald and, as Zucker, Ulrich Thomsen, and though it won an award at the 2002 Stony Brook Film Festival in New York State, it wasn’t released in British cinemas until 2006. Film magazine Empire said: “A slow-burning sentimental tale of love in a remote community, this is too stilted to really engage despite the talents of its cast although it may win over elderly patriots.”

Now audiences across Scotland will be learning afresh about Zucker’s exploits. “I wanted to explore,” says Hetherington, “what impact did he make, and what did people make of him?

“I suppose it struck a chord with me in terms of the remoteness of the islands. They’ve still got that feeling, but they are really connected. You can fly into Stornoway now, of course, and with digital technology you’re connected to the whole world.

“This is such a sharp difference with 1934, when things were so remote, and there was just one postal service a week to Scarp. I think that’s why the story captured my attention: who was this guy? Were the people on the island excited by his vision? Did they believe him or did they think he was ridiculous?

“From my research, which is partly based on testimony that has been passed down orally by families, the sense is that the children were really caught up in it – they thought, ‘This is it, this is the future’ – and adults tended to be more sceptical in a good-natured way, but broadly open and warm towards him.

“There’s a story that a local carpenter helped him build his launch mechanism for free.

“Added to all of which, there were all the tensions related to the fact that Zucker was a German in Britain, and it wasn’t long after the First World War and it wasn’t long before the Second.

“It just felt like an interesting way to explore lots of big questions about globalisation and communication, but done in a way that feels really fun and playful, because you’ve got rockets, and that was his vision.”

As for the legacy of the Rocket Post’s inventor, Hetherington says: “People argue about whether Zucker was a great scientist or a terrible one, but people generally agree that he was a great showman, or impresario. He talked the Daily Express into assigning a photographer to him for the launch on the South Downs.”

Rocket Post has been created by Lewis Hetherington in collaboration with Ailie Cohen, MJ McCarthy and Kane Husbands. The publicity material describes it as a fun show for everyone aged six and over. Part-play, part-gig and part-hoedown, it is “full of humour, heart and hope for the future, it’s a tale of miscommunication, vaulting ambition and the joyous discoveries that can happen when everything goes wrong”.

The “big heart” of the story, Hetherington says, “is about a young girl and her mum, and how [Zucker’s experiments] suddenly makes the young girl think of the whole world beyond the island, and how it shifts her focus and makes her question whether she wants to stay [on the island], and what her ambitions and hopes are. The mum has to respond and try to make sense of the fact that suddenly this man blows in and her daughter realises that there’s a whole world out there.”

Hetherington is the first to concede that a story such as Zucker-in-the-Outer-Hebrides, in such a specific setting in such a specific pre-war age, might be difficult to stage. But then, he says, he is drawn to such projects.

“You’ve got rockets, you’ve got islands, and it’s a period drama. But I am most excited about theatre that is an invitation to imagine. We can’t show a real rocket shooting up into the sky, as you would do in a film.

“But this is a strong storytelling kind of piece, and it’s about inviting the audience to imagine, to capture the feeling of it all, and try to make them feel as if they are there, rather than just showing them what happened.

“I keep saying to the cast, we’re not doing a period drama, we’re not trying to open a window onto history; we’re telling a story right now, in the present day. You’re looking the audience in the eye and talking to them directly.”

Zucker even warrants a brief mention in the Royal Mail website, to the effect that he sought to convince the GPO that postal delivery by rocket was viable. “Although initial tests were a success, rockets on longer flights exploded before reaching their intended destinations and as such it has never been seen as a feasible way of delivering the post.”

The means of communication we have at our disposal now, of course, are staggering, and this is something else that the new play cannot help touching on.

“The big question that we keep talking about now,” says Hetherington, “is, just because we have really efficient technology to communicate with – emails, and texts – has it actually made us better communicators as a result?

“Without wishing to go too much into the world of global politics, we’re in a particular place now where digital technology is now so prolific, but is it actually helping us to communicate? Is Twitter helping us to better understand people?

“I think you can argue both ‘yes’ and ‘no’.

“But I think there’s something interesting in a time when communities were more isolated – yes, they were less connected to the outside world, but they worked closely together. They had to, because life was so hard and they looked out for each other, because it was your whole world. It was all you had.”

Rocket Post previews at Platform, Easterhouse, Glasgow (September 19 & 20) opens at An Lanntair, Stornoway (September 23) then tours Scotland until October 21, 2017. For full tour details, workshop and ticket information, visit nationaltheatrescotland.com. #RocketPost