Well, sincere apologies for my neglect of this blog! Two and a half years is a long gap between posts. However it has been a very busy time. My PhD thesis titled Shetland Vernacular Boats 1500-2000 went through the viva voce process in August 2017, with minimal corrections, and I graduated from Aberdeen University in November 2017, hoorah! I am currently in the process of producing an edited version of my thesis which will be published as a book by Shetland Amenity Trust hopefully in the summer of 2020.
During this past year I have been wanting to pursue more research around Shetland’s vernacular maritime history, and I have been struggling to work out how best to achieve this goal. Happily, I am one of a select group of recent Shetland based PhD graduates who are of a similar mindset, and who have complimentary skills and expertise. As a consequence we have begun our own Shetland maritime heritage Community Interest Company (CIC) called Moder Dy. We are a not-for-profit organisation. This does not mean we do not wish, or need to make a profit, of course we do, it just means that any profit we make goes back into Moder Dy and the local community: We will just take a salary from the business. Moder Dy is a limited company by guarantee, which means that there will be no fat cat share dividends or bonuses for us!
So, the combination of not posting a word on this blog for two and a half years, plus, the creation of Moder Dy CIC now makes this blog kinda redundant! This however, I hope, does not mean goodbye. Instead I would like to encourage you to visit us at Moder Dy; have a look around our website, subscribe to our quarterly Newsletter, read our frequent blog posts, and maybe if you are local, or perhaps visiting Shetland, take part in some of our events!
I am very much looking forward to welcoming you to Moder Dy.
Well, apologies for not posting anything for several months, it is the count down until my PhD funding ends, so, I am just focusing on writing the thesis, and tying-up research loose ends. One of which is the last boat I am documenting for the PhD called “Ann” LK15 a fourareen built by Laurence Goodlad in Lerwick in 1899. I measured the boat last week and started to draw her yesterday evening. I will post the drawings once they are completed in a couple of weeks.
This for me is a wonderful photograph taken in the early 1900’s. The fourern in the photo belonged to James Aitken, and was built by Da Houllsie (John Inkster of Houlls) at the dock at north Houlls. Of note in this photo is the fact that the mast is raised, Laurina says that whenever possible boats would sail from Burra to Quarff. The mast being stepped in the centre of the boat means that it was squaresail rigged. The sail can be seen rigged to the yard which is lying in the boat, forward of the mast. This along with the rudder being shipped suggests that the boat was sailed from Burra to Quarff. Obviously there is not a breath of wind in this photo, so the oars are near the kebs ready for use (perhaps the wind died on the way across and James rowed).
If you look carefully at the oars you will see the lovely long and slender blades. There is no spine on either face of the oar blades, which was normal practise in Shetland up until recent times. Having no spine on the face of the blades means that they will have been flexible, rather like the oars found in the region of Bjørnefjord, south of Bergen in Western Norway. Also of interest is the rudder stock which unlike Shetland boats of more recent times does not have a curved headstock (the curve allows easy shipping and removal of the helm).
This is an email I had the other day from Brian Wishart, who came across this boat a few years back on Barra. Brian has kindly given his permission for me to use the contents of this email correspondence and the photos he took of the boat when he was on Barra.
Just noticed your correspondence with the new owner of this boat, and thought to send you the pictures I took of her a few years ago when in Barra for a day. She is also known to Robert Tait and possibly Jack too. I think Robert has been there and seen her, so will be best placed to comment on the details of when and by whom built at Allcrafts.
Some interesting features I noticed – she was unusually high in freeboard c/f others of her size in Shetland of that era. She also has sidedecks and small foredeck in deteriorating ply which may or may not have been an original feature. I thought they looked original. The after deck/cuddy would be a distinct jimmy Smith feature, certainly original, This all seems to point at a one-off boat built as an extra-safe daysailer to a spec specified by the owner. Her condition was remarkably good beneath the cosmetics. Removing the ply and maybe not replacing it would nearly be enough to get her going again. I happened to meet the owner’s son at the time who spoke about a sailing rig, possibly gunter main and jib, stored inside.
A chap called Tom Edwards contacted me about a boat he has recently acquired, and he wanted to know some more about it. I am pretty certain this is a Jimmy Smith boat, may have even been built by one of his apprentices: Jack Duncan, Robbie Tait or Alan Moncrieff.
So, this is Tom’s story about this boat.
“My brother and I bought a skiff from a man on the Isle of Barra which is marked with a plate ‘Allcraft Lerwick’. The boat is about 16ft long stem to stern and came with a gunter rig and two oars, it’s in pretty poor condition. The boat is now in Edinburgh.
I have been told that the boat, which has no name, was bought in the 60s from Lerwick by an artist couple from London who visited Barra every summer. They used to sail with the local Doctor (Dr Hill) who also had the same type of boat, also bought directly from Lerwick, and were sufficiently impressed that they bought their own. I understand that the doctor’s boat has been restored and is owned by his family on the Isle of Seil. Our boat went through three hands on the Isle of Barra before it came to us. Most of this information came from the widow of Dr Hill who I believe is in her eighties.
We have discovered that it might have been made by Jimmy Smith and would be interested to know more about this boat.”
A couple of weeks ago I was lucky to be shown a lovely halv yoal called “Kelpie”. The boat belongs to Davy Johnson. “Kelpie” originally was the Laird’s boat and the boat was given by Mrs Valmai Bruce to Malcolm Smith. Davy acquired “Kelpie” when it seemed the boat was about to be burned. Continue reading ““Kelpie” Another halv yoal, Sandwick”→
This week I documented a rare kind of Dunrossness boat, termed a “peerie yoal”, which along with the rest of the collection not on display has recently moved to their new home (the new boat store, Staney Hill). The information in this blog post has been kindly provided by Laurie Goodlad, Collections Assistant, Shetland Museum & Archives.
Boat “Phar Lap”, white hull, blue gunwales, cream inside, blue tafts with circular cream sectrion in the middle and red tilfers. She has 6 oars, 3 tafts, 6 tilfers, 2 nameplates and 6 metal kabes. She is in need of a paint up. This boat was built by Geordie Eunson, Punds, Eastshore around 1890s. Was laterly LK 203.
Bought for £8 by Harry Young (Braeview, Virkie) c.1940. Left to donor (Harry’s son) in 1944. Sold to G. Eunson (Exnaboe) 1952 for £15; thought that he put LK 203 on her. Sold to B. Smith (Bressay) c.1972, sold to Young in 1974 for £30.
Won every longship race and Lerwick regatta rowing race that she was in 1979/80. (Sometimes against two dozen boats).
Named by Harry Young after famous Australian racehourse Phar Lap.
Original colour = dark green topsides, white below. fir ran inside. Briefly had iron mast step in 1940s. Iron tholes original since 1940s at least – thought kebs originally (Steel tholes recent, c.1990).1940s at least – thought kebs originally (Steel tholes recent, c.1990)
LOA 19ft 10 inches.
I am really looking forward to drawing the boat during the next week or two.
These are the completed drawings of “Spindrift”. As described in the previous post, the sheer of the boat had to be re-constructed by way of identifying sheer line landmarks (tops of baands, and tops of hinnyspots (breasthooks) etc… A batten was then wrapped around the boat thus re-establishing a sheer line. Where other parts of the boat were missing then these were not re-established.
Poor “Spindrift,” not much chance of saving this boat I am afraid, she was in such poor condition that rennovation was out of the question. This fact eased my conscience, as my plan was to thoroughly document this boat by first measuring, then carefully dismantling it in order to reveal construction details. Documentation of this boat began on the 12th September. Before I could begin measuring I had to re-establish the sheer line as most of this had rotted away. To solve the missing sheer problem I wrapped a batten around the boat using the remaining features as landmarks upon which to locate the sheer. The batten was secured in place using a combination of clamps, glue from a hot glue gun, and nails. Once I was happy that the sheer was as accurate as possible I was able to begin measuring. Measuring done I made the drawings, which I am at present inking, once done, these will be in the following blog post, along with some history of the boat.
Keel length: 10 feet (305 cm)
Length overall: 16 3/4 feet (513cm)
beam: 5 feet 1 inch (156.5 cm)
First observations: the stems.
The strange thing with this boat is the fact that the stems are the same height. I thought I must have made a mistake measuring, as normally Shetland boats have a slightly lower aft stem, but know, the stems were the same height. A friend, and Shetland model guru, Brian Wishart, explained that these early racing boats were ballasted towards the stern which made the stern sit lower in the water. This meant that they were therefore built with the stems the same height so that when on the water and ballasted they looked right. It seems that the view in the 1930’s was that boats sailed faster if they were trimmed stern down, this of course is not true, as trimming the boat by the stern actually increases the wetted surface area, therefore increasing drag and making the boat sail slower.
Each stem was constructed in two parts, from a grown curve of what looks to be larch. There was some short grain and this had been the cause of the aft stem failiure; fracturing at the level of the bottom rudder hanging. Indeed, short grain was also a problem on the baand (frame) heads too, and the majority of these had failed at just below the sheer. The tops of the stems had rotted away, and so, again using the vagueist of clues left on the stems I reconstructed the stem heads so that an overall length of the boat could be established. The stems were generally in very poor condition and the aft stem showed signs craking along the short grain towardst the apex of the curve. The rudder hanging fittings on the aft stem were intact, the top two were of black iron, corroded but serviceable, and the bottom fitting was made of copper also serviceable. There was the remains of a fitting on the fore stem and it seems that at some point “Spindrift” was fitted with a bow sprit.
Keel length from scarph end to scarph end was 10 feet (305 cm) made from larch. The keel was made in two-parts: a lower keel which had a 38mm thick hog ferrous fastened on top (300mm centred fastenings). The hog having the bevel on it for fastening the garibuird (garboard) strake to. There was no rabbet present on the keel or stems. Unlike many Shetland model boats the top of the keel hog was completely flat; ending abruptly with no transition to the inner stems. Noted at the aft keel skair with carbody filler.
Was constructed of two types of timber, the upper four strakes were made from a very light (in weight) white, fir wood, possibly spruce, and the lower three strakes were constructed from larch. Planking thickness varried between 11-13 mm along the strakes which suggests that these strakes. The hull was through riveted by means of copper nail and rove fastenings, and the distance between the fastenings was not consistant: ranging from 90mm – 130mm centres. Plank landing width on the three lower larch strakes was 30mm and 20mm on the upper four white wood strakes.
There were numerous skair (scarph) joints that were not symetrical from one side of the boat to the other. There were some plywood patches on the inside of the boat that were rotten. These patches had been rivet fastened using copper nails and roves. The patches covered splits that had formed along the plank lands. a common problem with larch (which is known for splitting easily along its grain). Plank scarphs were 60mm in length and all scarph joints were aft facing except one, located on the port side aft on the hassin (second strake up from the keel) board. This was in the area of the boat called the shot (the space between the last baand aft and the middle baand). It is not clear if this was a boatbuilder error or was following the west Norwegian tradition of having forward facing skairs at this part of the boat on the halsane strake (gairbuird). I have seen this feature on a few Shetland models and this is an interesting remnant of a very old west Norwegian boatbuilding tradition which only exisits in the Oselvar boats of Os today. There was a nile (drain) hole on the starboard side well aft and this had a diameter of 13mm.
On Monday the 31st August I went for a sail with Brian Whishart around Mousa in a maid class Shetland model. This boat, along with seven other maids, was built over a period of two winters in the 1980’s as a community project. The idea being to engage the residents of Sandwick in sailing. These boats are constructed from 6mm ply which is epoxy glued. The boats have built-in bouancy tanks and can be sailed either using a fore and aft bermudam rig or sailed with the traditional dipping lug. The boat we were sailing had the dipping lug rig. The sail was made in the 1930s, of cotton, and had an area of about 100sq feet . It was in extremely good condiiton and was a joy and a privilege to use. I shared the helming with Brian and was amazed by the boats upwind performance, and the helm was positive and light. I could not believe this was a long, shallow draft keeled boat. Like the siaxareen “Vaila Mae” that I sailed on the other week the boats performance was extraordinary!
We had a great sail around Mousa and, as before, as soon as I was ashore I was itching to get back on the water again. Fantastic, thank you Brian.
On the extremely wet evening of the 26th August I arrived at the marina in Walls to go for my first ever sail on a sixareen, in fact, this was my first ever sail on a dipping lug rigged boat. I had been invited along by Brian Wishart, whose family are from Walls and where he grew-up sailing and rowing on the west side. Brian is still a keen sailor, and has promoted and taught sailing in Shetland for a great part of his life. Brian was skipper of “Vaila Mae” for the evening sail. There were 11 of us in total sailing on the boat, and even with all of us aboard she did not feel crowded. the breeze was light and out at sea there was a slight sea running, but even in these wet and light condiditons I was amazed by the boat’s responsiveness and her high winded performance, I think Rory (professional skipper of the “Swan”) logged just over five knots to windward, and off wind the boat flew, and to be honest felt like a very stable and big sailing dinghy. Once out at sea I was delighted by the boat’s sea kindly motion. The previous Sunday (not sure of the wind strength) with two reefs in the sail “Vaila Mae” achieved 9 knots. Tacking and gybing was slow, as you would expect with a rookie crew, but it is easy to see how with practice this would be a quick and painless procedure. Unfortuanately, due to the inclement weather condiditons I only took a couple of photos, and these doe not do justice to the evening sail.
“Vaila Mae” was built by Robbie Tait and Jack Duncan, who are shipwrights who served their time under the much admired Jimmy Smith, in Lerwick. “Vaila Mae”, built at Shetland Museum, and launched on the 21st of June 2008 is a replica of the Sixareen the “Industry” LK 718 (Shetland Museum collection) which was built in Lerwick in 1891, and was the Walls to Foula mail boat before becoming a peat flitt boat (flitting peats between Walls via Vaila Sound and Gruting Voe).
It was a real privellage to have been invited to go for a sail on “Vaila Mae” and to hear stories of flitting peats, sailing, and rowing in and around the Walls area. What became very clear from talking with people, is the fact, that for those living in Walls even in the 1950’s and 1960’s travel by small open boat was normal and prior to the advent of the engine everyone, young and old, will have been capable of handling a boat under oar and sail.
Brian Wishart told me a story of his childhood, about an elderly lady who used to ask him when he was a 12-year old, to sail her the half-mile or so across the voe to visit her relations in a 17 foot boat. Brian said, “what strikes me as significant about this is that she was prepared to put her trust in someone so young, based on her wont, rather than out of any ignorance of the risks. This was in the early 1960s, and I cannot but reflect on the rapid change of lifestyle which followed, in so many ways, but almost always taking people away from their inherited experience of waterborne activity.
The “Brothers” is the first boat I have fully documented for the PhD. I will be documenting another three boats during the course of this winter. The haddock boat the “Brothers” LK 96 was built in 1888 by Davie Leask in Lerwick for Lowrie, Willie & Tammie Hutchison of Traebs, Skaw, Whalsay. LOA 21′, Keel length 13′, Beam 6’5″
Besides fishing the boat was used for: flitting sheep; fetching the doctor from Nesting etc… By mid 20th cent. she was the biggest boat in Skaw noust. Dropped out of the fishing register in 1910 and re-registered in 1940. Austin 7 engine installed in 1945, heightened by one board. Boat used by Lowrie Shearer until 1990/92. Boat laid ashore at Challister.
The “Brothers” waas then donanted to Shetland Museum and she was restored by Robbie Tait & Jack Duncan. Thanks to Laurie Goodlad, Shetland Muesum, for this information. Original information provided by Lowrie Shearer, grandson of Lowrie Hutchison, to Malcolm Hutchison, the great grandson of Willie Hutchison.
Last summer I photographed a boat shed at Cullivoe on Yell. A friend, Angus McNeil, told me that the boat which formed the roof of the shed was called the True Love. At the time of photographing the I realised what poor shape the boat was in. I was planning on getting back to Yell before winter to try to document the boat, but unfortunately, this was not to be, and sadly the boat did not stand-up to last winter’s gales as the photos at the end of this post illustrate.
If you have any information or stories about the boat or shed, or both, I would be delighted to hear from you. In particular, I would like to know who built the boat and when. I would also like to know what her fishing number was, and also, who owned and skippered her, and who were the crew.
Walter Duncan’s boatbuilding shed photographed today.
Walter Duncan’s shed circa 1910.
Old Walter Duncan founded the business in 1887/89. He completed is apprenticeship at Laurenson Brothers, Scalloway. On completion of his apprenticeship he built boats in the open at one of the herring stations. In 1893 he built his own shed, levelling the building floor, which was cut from the hillside and then erecting the shed over this floor. The Shed was slightly extended in 1910 but otherwise remains unchanged.
Osler, A, G. (1978) ‘Boatbuilding by the Duncans of Hamnavoe’. In, Scandinavian Shetland an Ongoing Tradition? Baldwin, J, R, Edinburgh, Scottish Society for Northern Studies.
Last Saturday Malcolm, Angus, and I headed for the ferry terminal at Laxo where we caught the 08:30 ferry to Symbister, Whalsay. Malcolm had lined-up a full boat oggling schedule and the pressure was on to get round and see all the boats and meet folk before leaving on the 14:45 ferry! It was a great day and I had a great time. It was impossible for me to remember who had built which boat and when.everything that had been discussed. Malcolm and Angus are very knowledgeable on the subject of Shetland boats. By the end of the day my brain was awash with boat information, and I was very confused about who built which boat and when. So, first thing Sunday morning I was on Facebook messenger asking Malcolm to refresh my dull memory, thank goodness for facebbook messenger! So, Malcolm Hutchison must be given all the credit for the information provided on this post! Here are the photos with captions which hopefully cover all the details of our boat oggling trip.
Joe told a story about when he was a boy and he helped his dad flit shingle in this boat which was so full that there was just a few inches of freeboard left. Malcolm pointed out that this boat was very flat midships making it ideal for carrying heavy loads. Joe reckoned the boat could hold about a ton of cargo.
Last Saturday I had a great day out looking at boats on Yell with Angus McNeil, Malcolm Hutchison and Gordon Johnson. Angus, Malcolm and Gordon’s knoweldge of the boats and their builders left me awe inspired. It was great beginning to learn the various boat builder signatures, and I realised that this is going to be a long process. The lads, it has to be said, were very patient, and I enjoyed listening to their stories about boats, sailing, rowing and the boat builders; I just wish I had recorded the conversations.
Now, I am hoping that I have got the facts right, but if I haven’t, then please tell me. Before writing this post I did ask Malcolm and Angus to remind me who built which boat, so hopefully, this will reduce the number of howlers. This is a lame excuse I know, but, I have to be honest, we saw so many boats, that by the end of the day I was overloaded with so much information that my brain was more of a mush like substence than usual! And this is my excuse for why I did not take any photos of the boats in Angus’ shed!
On the way home we stopped off to pay our repsects to the men who died in the Delting fishing disaster of 1900. Four boats and 22 men lost their lives on the 21st December 1900. Malcolm pointed out that this disaster left so many widows and orphans that the village became unsustainable and was eventually abandoned. When the memorial was constructed a stone from each of the crofts where a man or men had died was taken and used in the construction of the monument.
Shetland’s trade links with Norway. Until recently it has generally been accepted that boat building did not begin in earnest on Shetland until the early nineteenth century, when a trade embargo imposed against Norway by Britain halted the timber and boat trade between the years 1807-1814.¹ This trade embargo is sometimes cited as the impetus that forced Shetlanders into building boats for themselves. The reason for this assumption is that it was thought that boats, timber and other wood products only came from Norway.2 This is not strictly true, as recently I have come across eighteenth century archive evidence of invoices and bills of lading which have timber and wood products, such as oars, listed amongst cargoes that were imported from Hamburg to Shetland.3 This discovery however does not belittle the fact that Norway was undeniably the main source of timber, wood products, and the only source of four and six oared boat imports into Shetland up until the late eighteenth and mid nineteenth centuries.
Shetland’s trading relationship with Norway is presumed to extend a long way back in history, possibly dating from when the first Norwegian Vikings began to settle on Shetland around AD800. When the Norse first arrived there will have been little in the way of woodland, and what trees existed were not suitable for boat construction as they were of the species rowan, birch and willow. These tree species are similar to the trees that were found in the forests of Iceland when the Norse first began to settle there around AD870. Evidence from this period indicates that a timber trade between Iceland and Norway existed, presumably because the trees found there were not suitable for the construction needs of the Norse.4 Early records for a Shetland and Norway timber and boat trade do not exist, but it is reasonable to presume that this trade took place. Shetland, afterall, is a close neighbour of Norway with Lerwick lying just 225 miles due west of Bergen, and to sail this distance with fair winds will have taken no more than two days. Boat building and boat repair must have taken place in Shetland during the Norse period, and it must be assumed that the raw materials for this activity will have been brought from western Norway. Unfortunatley there is no evidence to support this assumption apart from two boat nail finds that were discovered at Jarlshoff, and all these tell us, are that the boats being used were of a clinker (lapstrake) constructed type.5
The first documented evidence for the Norwegian timber and boat export trade appears in the sixteenth century when a ship is recorded as arriving in Bergen from Shetland in 1519, and this is followed by two more ships in 1521.6 Between 1566-67 there is documentary evidence that mentions the loading of timber and boats onto ships in Sunnhordlandbound which were bound for Shetland and Orkney.7The small, double ended, and clinker constructed boats imported from Norway were of the generic four-oared and six-oared boat types. In Norwegian a four-oared boat is called a færing and a six-oared boat is called a seksæring, these Norwegian words simply mean four-oared and six-oared boat.
The Shetland boat types keep the convention of naming the boat by the number of oars the boat uses. So the four-oared Norwegian færing in Shetland becomes known as the fourareen, and the six-oared seksæring becomes called the sixareen. In Shetland there are variations in boat nomenclature which can cause confusion. For example, there are two types of six-oared boat that are known as yoals, and these boats are called by the name of the parishes in which they were used; these parishes being Dunrossness and Fair Isle. These yoal type boats are commonly known as the Ness yoal and the Fair Isle yoal. There are also some four and six-oared boat types known by the name of the fish that the fishermen using these boats specialised in catching, an example being, the haddock boat. To confuse matters further the later nineteenth century larger sixareens used eight oars instead of six, but they were still called sixareens. A further complication is that in Shetland it has generally been believed that the only boats used were of the four and six oared types. This is not true, as Stuart Bruce points out in his 1934 Mariner’s Mirror article about the sixern. In this article he discusses the use of an åttring, (eight-oared Norwegian boat) which is mentioned in the 1640 correspondence between James Omand (factor) to Laurence Sinclair of Brough, Nesting (landowner).8
“Right Honourall Sir and Loving Maister … the men of Builzesetter being unsaild [i.e. Sinclair of Bullister’s vessel not having sailed] I took so meikle of it [i.e. the butter] as was lyeing in Brugh,and put it into the aucht oaring [8-oared boat], and went and imbarkit it in the ship of Builzesetter to have gone to Norroway…. ” (Stuart Bruce 1934: 317).
It seems that eight-oared boats were still in use 100 years later, as this letter dated 31st July 1742 from Margaret Bruce to William John Nivane of Windhouse illustrates.9 In this letter Margaret Bruce gives William John Nivane instructions for the voyage to Hamburg and tells him:
“You’ll receive from on board Lunas sloup twenty six short hundred ling and in the eight oaring six hundred and forty ditto hundreds; all which after delivery you’ll give receipt for: …”
This evidence suggests that eight-oared boats were being used as flit boats ferrying goods from one place to another. Unfortunately there is currently limited evidence to determine the full extent of the use of these eight-oared boats in Shetland, although Osler suggests these boats may have had a function as a lairds barge, and may have been similar to the eight-oared vengbåt of south western Norway.10 Having now estalished the types of boats that were coming from Norway to Shetland let us examine the evidence for the ways in which these four, six and eight oared boats were transported.
Flat-packed boats from Norway? These boats were exported from Os, Tysnes, Fusa, Strandvik, and Samnanger in the Hordaland region of Norway. It was in Tysnes that the specialty trade of the export of boats to Shetland flourished. Fenton describes an account taken from a manuscript dated 12 June 1714, held in the library in Copenhagen in which the loading of boats on to Shetland ships is portrayed. These boats being loaded were delivered to the quay loosely clinked together with a few nails. Before being loaded the planks were numbered and marked. Once loaded aboard the ship they were dismantled and once delivered to their destination reassembled according to the numbers and marks.11 Reassembling boats according to their marks might suggest a ‘flat-packed’ approach to boat transportation, but reassembling a boat is not the same as assembling ‘flat-packed’ furniture, and there is currently a debate being led by Kjell Magnus Økland in respect of the form in which the boats were transported to Shetland and Orkney.12 It has to be borne in mind that there is a large amount of highly skilled work involved in constructing a boat, and there is also a large amount of careful work in taking a boat apart. To reconstruct a boat that has been disassembled is as skilled, and time consuming, as building it the first time around. The chances are that during the boats reconstruction the strakes that fitted perfectly in Norway will not fit perfectly now and will need to be adjusted to ensure a watertight fit is achieved whilst also maintaining the correct fairness of the hull form. As Kjell Magnus points out, why would perfectly good and expensive fastenings be sacrificed by taking newly built boats apart?13 In the Shetland Archive I have come across invoices which specify that the Norwegian boatbuilders were employed in preparing and loading cargos of boats onto the Shetland ships. Within these primary sources there are references to cargoes of boats in boards, cargoes of boats set up, and references to cargoes of boats being dismantled before being loaded. A bill of loading of goods, on board the ship, the ‘Thomas & Elizabeth’ on the 15th April 1783, by Alexander Wallace & Son on behalf of Gideon Gifford sates the cargo amongst other things consisted of 4 boats in boards.14 Stuart Brucein 1914 briefly discusses in his article on the Shetland Sixern the import of boats from Norway in which he states:15
“All Shetland boats are to the present day, clincher built, and it used formerly to be the practice to import from Norway six-oared and four-oared boats ” unset-up,” i.e., in bundles all ready to be put together, each piece being properly numbered.”
Norway boat imports are also mentioned in the 1791-1799 Statistical Account of Scotland. The Reverend James Barclay in the Parish of Unst states:16
“The boats are put together here, but the boards are brought, ready shaped and dressed, from Norway.” (p.505).
This concurs with some of the other primary sources I have examined where the buying and selling of Norway boats is in boards as illustrated in in this document, which is a letter dated the 5th March 1778 from John Mitchell to one of the Gifford’s of Busta. In this letter Mitchell states that:
“John Frazer and five other men will apply at your booth for the boards of a six oared boat, be so good as order that they get them.” (GD144/237/73, Shetland Archive)
This then is likely to be one of the kit boats that are frequently described in the literature. The keel and stems could have been fashioned along with the boat furniture in Norway, the strakes being cut from a pattern and made ready for construction in Shetland. This would be commercially more sensible and would take the same amount of time to construct, or might even be quicker, than reassembling a deconstructed boat. An invoice of goods shipped on board the ‘Diligence’ on the 14th July 1769, by Captain Thomas Brown by order and for the account and risk of Mr William Mouat, provides us with evidence of the amount and the size of boats being shipped. In this instance there are 40 boats, and as the keel sizes are also specified this allows us to make an educated guess about the length of the boats. This educated guess is based on the principal that the length of keel is roughly 2/3 the length of the boat. So the boats with a keel of 17 ½ foot are about 26 foot long, boats with a keel of 16 ½ foot are 25 foot long and boats with a keel of 14 foot are about 21 foot long. An important fact in this document is that Captain Brown states that the boats were taken to pieces by the ‘dowers’ who were given ale and brandy as payment.17 Evidence of another method of transporting boats is provided in the invoice of goods shipped on the 12th April 1769. Amongst this cargo are 38 boats that were shipped on the ‘Dolphin’ at Bergen for Mr John Henry. In this invoice the cargo of boats are described as being ‘set up’. It has to be assumed that the term ‘set up’ refers to the stacking of smaller boats inside of larger ones in a ‘tupperware’ fashion. The baands (boat timbers or frames) and becks (the athwartship beams which sit on top of the frames onto which the tafts or seat benches are fitted) will first have to have been removed. Within this invoice there was only one boat listed as being ‘set up’ on the deck, and so it has to be assumed that the rest of the boats were stowed ‘set up’ below deck, with the other cargo stowed in and around them. Unfortunatley the size of the boats is not listed so it is not possible to determine how many boats were stacked one inside the other.18 Nineteenth century evidence of this ‘tupperware’ style of boat transport is provided by Nicholson,who through his analysis of the records from Hay and Company tells of a trip made in 1847 by Captain James Ollason, who was sent to Bergen for a cargo of boats.19
“… Captain Ollason was told to take a deck cargo of “upset” boats, 10, 11 and 12 feet long of keel, Carpenter James Arcus was sent as supercargo and he was told to remove the timbers from the “upset” boats after first numbering them carefully so that the boats could stand one within another as compact as possible.”
It is interesting to note that the term’upset’ is used here for the stacking of boats. The term ‘upset’ implies that the boats were turned upside down and then stacked one on top of the other, but in the citation it is clear that the boats were stacked one inside and that they were stacked the correct way up. This is confusing, and speculatively the terms ‘up set’ and ‘setup’ might mean the same thing, the term changing over time, or that both terms were used interchangeably according to either a regional or personal preference.
In Shetland as the off-shore white fishing industry developed during the eighteenth century these four-oared and six-oared type boats gradually become longer, wider and deeper. This deep sea fishing was known as the haaf which is an Old Norse word meaning deep ocean. As fishermen began rowing or sailing greater distances offshore this haaf fishing became known as the far haaf. The development of the haaf fishing meant that boats were being rowed or sailed by six men up to 50 miles to the fishing grounds which explains why the boats became larger in order that they could handle better the sea conditions and were able to carry more fish.20Intitially these larger boats are recorded as being built in Tysnes in 1836 and were called in Norway Hjeltebåt (Hjaltland is Old Norse for Shetland, and so Hjeltebåt simply means Shetlandboat). Now it is not known how big the Hjeltebåt was and what it looked like.21 It seems probable that this boat type was a Shetland instigated design22 and I have come across an interesting document from Alexander Wallace & Son in Bergen, to Gideon Gifford dated the 15th April 1783. Within this letter there is the following sentence:
“We have ordered the __ boat to be built, have received for answer that it will take some time before she can be ready being uncommonly large.” (GD144/57/25/2 Shetland Archive).
This sentence is intriguing, referring as it does, to an ‘uncommonly large boat’ which Gideon Gifford has requested to be built. Now at the moment there is no context for this boat building request, and there is an important word, which is not legible and is represented by the underscored line in the citation, but nevertheless it is a fascinating sentence and might be a clue as to when six-oared boats began to further increase in size. Professor Arne Emil Christensen has noted that the later Shetland boats bear a resemblence to east Norwegian boat types.23 This possible boat influence from east Norway leads me onto another letter in the Bruce of Symbister papers dated 15th June 1771 again from Alexander Wallace & Son to Gideon Gifford in which the purchase of an east sea boat is discussed.
“Salt was so very high here that we could not venture to ship any; the East Sea boat was not to be got here it seldom happens that any are brought here for sale.” (GD144/104/19 Shetland Archive).
This sentence suggests that there was not a reliance on boats from a particular region, and it suggests that there may have been some boat experimentation going on, who knows, as like the previous citation this is an isolated sentence with no context in which to frame it, and therefore is somewhat circumstancial. I am aware that some readers might consider these last two hypotheses as being ‘woolly headed thinking’, and all I can say in my defence is that this is research in progress, and this is my forum for airing possibilities, even if they appear ‘woolly’ in the extreme.
Evidence for boatbuilding in Shetland. Evidence of boatbuilding taking place in the eighteenth century in Shetland is to be found in the 1791-1799 Statistical Account of Scotland. Within this account there is continual remarks made as to the resourcefulness and abiltiy of Shetlander’s to teach themsleves new skills and trades without being formerly taught. The mention of boatbuilders is also made several times within this statistical account, the first being made by the Reverend Mr Patrick Barclay from the parish of Aithsting and Sandsting who states:
“There are 3 blacksmiths, 4 masons, many taylors, weavers, wrights, boat-builders, shoe-makers, etc.; but none earn their bread by that occupation alone: Every man almost is fisher, farmer, and artificer; so that hardly any man in the parish, except the minister, makes his bread by one trade.” (p. 387).
In the parish of Northmaven, the Reverend William Jack also comments on the resourcefullness of the men and mentions boatbuilding as a distinct trade.
“The province of the men is managing their small farms, the fishing, boat building, cutting peats, which are their only fuel, besides, they are generally tailor, shoemaker, weaver, &c. to their own family, and many are smith and wright.”(p. 464).
In the Parish of Dunrossness, the Reverend John Mill makes special mention of the building of a small sloop by an ex schoolmaster and former resident of Fair Isle.
“Of late, a small sloop that goes upon the fishing, and to different parts of the country, was built by one Robert Thompson, a native of Fair Isle, and was for several years a schoolmaster there, under the society for propagating Christian knowledge. He is now a farmer and mariner, an excellent cooper, a wright, and mason, by the force of a mechanical genius, without having ever been an apprentice to any of these professions. His sloop was built from the keel, and completely rigged and equipped by himself.” (p.432).
As well as this evidence from the 1791 -1799 stasitical account of Scotland there is also archive evidence which illustrates that boat repair and boatbuilding was taking place in Shetland during the eighteenth century as the following two letters illlustrate.
Sir Houss June 25th 1726
I Design to see you on Munday in order to concert some affairs anent your fish my boat is gone to Sumburgh this night I request you will len me 6 or 7 barrels of salt for I am afraid I will be ____ & you shall be as welcome to me again I expect the hollander daily.
I most beg pardon that your boat is not att your own hand mended which was for want of seam & rove Munday I shall have a boat for carrying your oxen to Havera ____ saluting you & lady I am
P.S. If you give me the salt you’l order and deliver of it on Munday Your Hum Seratt
As I am disapoint of a Boat Builders from Wall, his wife being ill prevents his coming, I must therefore apply to you, & begs the favour that you will allow me to send the Bearer to Christopher Tullock at Steness, who I am informed is your tenant, to come here immediately / as I am informed he can easily leave his labourings / in case you are not imploying him, & I must likeways beg the favour that you will inforce my application by a line to him to that purpose; if he cannot come along with the bearer I will be greatly obliged to you if you will send another good Boat Builder that is near you, that can be spared.
I want those Boats built immidiately as I intend they should try their fortune betwixt the fair isle & foula before they go to Steness
Lady Mitchell & my wife join me in presenting our best compliments to you. I am with regard
Your most obed Humbl Servt
Sandhous 23rd April 1771 John Mitchell
This last letter is a very important as it provides us with an actual Shetland eighteenth century boatbuilder called Christopher Tullock. Christopher is at present the earliest named Shetland boatbuilder I have come across, and I hope to find out more information about him in the archive records. This letter also demonstrates that boabuilders were plentiful as Mitchell requests that if Tullock is not able to come then another good boatbuilder is to be sent. This is fascinanting stuff and confirms Adrian Osler’s view that boatbuilding was an established trade by the late 1700’s.24 Indeed it is possible that Shetlanders have always been competent boatbuilders. As I have already stated building a boat from boards was as skilled as building a boat from scratch. To empahasise this fact we do not know how the methods in building boats in boards (or kits) differed from the building of boats in Norway. Did Shetland boatbuilders use the same techniques as their Norwegian counterparts? This is an important question, and I have a hunch that the construction techniques in Norway were different, which will mean that Shetland has its own unique boatbuilding tradition, but this is part of the ongoing research for this PhD.
What is now apparent is that boatbuilding was taking place in the eighteenth century on Shetland, and it is clear that Shetland boatbuilders were skilled and able to build boats from scratch but that the convenience of the boat trade with Norway suited the needs of the fishing industry at that time, and it was only when the needs of the fishing industry changed that Shetlanders began to build boats to their own specifications.
1. Thowsen, A. (1969) ‘The Norwegian Export of Boats to Shetland, and its Influence Upon Shetland Boat Building and Usage’. In Norwegian Yearbook of Maritime History. ed. Peterson, L.; Thowsen, A. Bergen- Sjøfartshistrisk Årbok, 145-208.
2. Fenton, A. (1978) The Northern Isles: Orkney and Shetland. John Donaldson Publishing. Edinburgh. (p. 552-562).
GD144/102/21. Invoice, Hamburg, 28 Nov 1753 – among items listed were: 1/12 mill best double crown pipe staves 320 or 1200 staves, 30 fir beams, 20 planks slitt 16 feet, 80 ditto one and half inch 16 feet long, 6 wine scotts planks. Shetland Archive.
GD144/94/15. Items to be purchased in Hamburg (Hillswick, Oct 1770) – 200ft one and a quarter inch oak planks, 150ft of oak fit for small boats timbers, 20ft ditto, plank one and a half feet broad x two and half inch oak for a stem and stern post. Shetland Archive.
GD144/95/70. Bill of lading, Hamburg, 1771 – among items listed were: one seamans chest, one half hundred and twenty six barrels, four dozen oars and thirty two oak planks. Shetland Archive.
GD144/104/3. Invoice, Hamburg, Dec 1771 – 120 oars of 13 feet long.
4. Fenton, A. The Northern Isles: Orkney and Shetland. (Edinburgh, 1978), p. 554.
5. Økland, K, M. (2014) Oselvar – the living boat, Publication forthcoming.
6. Thowsen, A. (1969) ‘The Norwegian Export of Boats to Shetland, and its Influence Upon Shetland Boat Building and Usage’.
7. Fenton, A. The Northern Isles: Orkney and Shetland. (Edinburgh, 1978), p. 554.
8. Stuart Bruce, R. (1934) More about the sixerns. The Mariner’s Mirror, 20 (3) 312-322.
9. GD144/15/14. Shetland Archive.
10. Osler, A, G. (1983) The Shetland Boat: South Mainland and Fair Isle.Greenwich: The Trustees of the National Maritime Museum. (p.26).
11. Fenton, A. The Northern Isles: Orkney and Shetland. (Edinburgh, 1978), p. 554
12. Økland, K, M. (2014) Oselvar – the living boat, Publication forthcoming.
14. GD144/95/10. Shetland Archive.
15. Stuart Bruce, R. (1914) The Sixern of Shetland. The Mariner’s Mirror, 4 (9) 289-300.
16. Withrington D, J., Grant, I, R., Sinclair, J. (Sir). (eds). (1978) The Statistical Account of Scotland 1791-1799 Volume XIX Orkney and Shetland. Ilkley: E. P Publishing Limited.
17. GD144/59/12/2. Shetland Archive.
18. GD144/112/22. Shetland Archive.
19. Nicholson, J, R. (1982) Hay & Company Merchants in Shetland. Hay & Company, Lerwick.
20. Sandison, C. (2005) The Sixareen and Her racing Descandants. Facsimile Edition. The Shetland Times, Ltd. First Edition (1954) T. & J. Manson, Lerwick.
22. Smith, H, D (1978) ‘The Scandinavian Influence in the Making of Shetland’, in Scandinavian Shetland. An ongoing Tradition? Scottish Society for Northern Studies, ed, Baldwin, J, R. Edinburgh, 23-40.
23. Christensen, A, E. (2014) Hjeltebåt questions, please can you help? [email] to Chivers, M. [08 January, 2014].
24. Osler, A, G. (1983) The Shetland Boat: South Mainland and Fair Isle.Greenwich: The Trustees of the National Maritime Museum. (p. 16, 47, 48, 49)