Haswell-Smith reveals how a haven of peace and great natural beauty became the focus of an explosive,

ill-fated venture

On January 14, 1934, attended by an 85-year-old midwife in her home on Scarp, Mrs Christina Maclennan gave birth to a healthy child but, as the mother was still suffering the next day, it was decided to call the doctor. There was no telephone on Scarp so an islander crossed to Hushinish on Harris where he found the telephone out of order and had to send the postman's son by bus to Tarbert with a message for the doctor. The doctor decided that Mrs Maclennan should really be in hospital.

The sea was rough so she had to be tied to a stretcher laid across an open boat and from Hushinish she travelled the 17 miles of bumpy road to Tarbert on the floor of the bus. From there she was driven by car to Stornoway.

At the hospital the cause of her distress was quickly discovered for she gave birth to a second healthy child, and felt much better for it! Thus twins were born on different islands, in different counties and on different dates.

This story, widely reported in the press at the time, came to the ears of a young German (who was later to become prominent in the Nazi V2 rocket programme during the Second World War). On July 28, 1934, remembered in the islands as Latha na Rocait - the day of the rocket - Herr Gerhard Zucker chose to demonstrate his new method of communication on Scarp . . . rocket-mail.

Special stamps were printed for the occasion and a letter was written to the King. The one-metre-long solid-fuel rocket could carry several thousand letters at 1000mph, but when Gerhard lit the fuse the rocket exploded, scattering mail over a wide area. The local postmaster had the letters collected and stamped with violet ink reading: ''Damaged by first explosion at Scarp - Harris.''

A second experiment with the same mail fired from Harris back to Scarp was successful, but the project was abandoned, although a few letters addressed to Orkney eventually reached their destination after travelling by rocket, ferry, car, mail-steamer, railway, and Highland Airways.

Scarp is an Old Norse name meaning sharp, stony, mountain terrain which is a good description of this 2500-acre island, which rises to more than 1000ft. In the 1930s geologists discovered that some of the rock was unique for the region as it has an asbestos content.

The island was settled by eight farming families in 1810 and the population increased after clearances on Harris, rising in due course to more than two hundred. That number could not be supported as there is very little cultivatable land and no all-weather harbour so many families drifted away. Even in the 1950s the economy was still very basic, relying on potatoes, cabbages, oats, turnips, milk, fish, and some lobster fishing.

There was some piped water, one small shop, and a telephone (installed in 1946), but no electricity. The last seven crofters sadly packed their bags in 1971, leaving the village, which is in the south-east corner and partly sheltered from the Atlantic winds by a low hill, to be turned into holiday accommodation.

Scarp is yet another island with an unfortunate recent history of ownership. It was bought by a Panamanian company for #100 in 1978 as a speculation, sold in 1983 for #50,000 to Libco Ltd, then resold almost immediately to Orbitglen Ltd for #500,000. Both these latter deals were by Mazmudin Virani who was a director of BCCI, the bank which put up the money. When BCCI collapsed the property was resold for #155,000.

Although the Kyle of Scarp is a short crossing from Harris, landing at the pier can sometimes be difficult as the very shallow sea exaggerates the swell. But the island itself is unspoiled, with coastal caves and waterfalls, and a delightful walk up the central glen past the mill loch and Loch Uidemul, with only skylarks and sheep for company.

From the height of Sron Romul it is possible to see the peaks of St Kilda and, when the weather is kind and the eyes keen, even the Flannan Isles are a small interruption on the vast, empty ocean.