James Aitken, Da Houllsie, and a thought about oars

James Aitken standing in his fourern (built by Da Houllsie) at Quarff. James was Laurina Hecrculson of Houlls (East Burra Isle) great uncle. According to Laurina , James emigrated to New Zealand in 1910, so this photo must have been taken during the early 1900’s (Thank you to Laurina Herculson for this information).  Photo: ©Laurina Herculson, Houlls, East Burra Isle, Shetland.

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).

Rudder from the halv yoal “Phar-Lapp”. Note the curved rudder headstock which allows easy shipping and un-shipping of the helm (tiller). Photo: ©Marc Chivers
One of a set of four-oars made by Johnny Bruce, Whalsay, for a fourern built on spec in 1945, now owned by Allister Rendal. Photo: ©Marc Chivers
Blade of the Bruce oar, note no spine on the oar face. Oar length = 318cm, blade length = 106cm,  blade width at tip = 9.5cm, blade thickness = 8mm at blade tip. This blade is very flexible. Photo: ©Marc Chivers


This pair of unfinished oars was begun by Robert Rendall, who used to make oars for Hay & Co (1959-1973). Note the absence of any spine on the blade face. Robert used to be paid 10 shillings (50p) for a pair of oars which would normally take a couple of nights to make, but  if a customer was in a hurry ,then Robert could make a pair, ready for finishing in five hours. (Thank you to Allister Rendall for this information). Photo: ©Marc Chivers



3 thoughts on “James Aitken, Da Houllsie, and a thought about oars

  1. Hello
    I’m Fred & i’m very interested in your blog. I belong to a shetland’s boat in Brittany (www.yolingclub.fr). We are looking for photographs of old shetland boats for a exhibition in July in Brest.
    Have you free photographs to give us for that ?
    Thanks a lot for your answer.

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