The Swan: Shetland's Legacy of Sail

by Elizabeth Atia -

Do you ever have those moments where you sit back, take stock of what's going on around you and say to yourself, grinning widely: I love my life?

I had one of those moments recently while sitting on the sun-warmed wooden deck of the Swan, sheltering from the crisp North Sea wind as we cruised at a leisurely 2.8 knots up the east coast of Shetland. I sat there, a mug of filter coffee warming my fingers, chatting with a lovely husband and wife couple visiting Shetland from Worcestershire and watching the pure white gannets dive into the sea around me, fishing for their dinner.

The Swan is an old Shetland herring fishing boat; one of only a few unique survivors from the times when the sail herring drifters fished these waters. Launched in 1900 she has survived two world wars and the threat of destruction and she has now been authentically restored to her former glory by The Swan Trust, a team of dedicated volunteers.

Shetland has a rich herring fishery history, with thriving periods followed by lulls. After a particularly quiet spell a sudden boom hit the herring industry in the late 1800s and this led to an increase in demand for larger, better designed fishing boats, similar to the ones used in Orkney and the west coast of Scotland. This demand led Shetland merchants Hay & Company to resume the construction of herring boats in Lerwick in their boatshed near to where the present Museum & Archives are located.

Boat builder David Leask supervised the construction of a new vessel, commissioned by Hay & Company and one of Lerwick's top skippers, insisting that the best materials and workmanship should go into her. She was going to be something special.

The Shetland Times article about the official launch of the vessel described the Swan LK243 as one of the finest boats afloat in the North of Scotland with regards to model, strength and workmanship. A sail Fifie constructed from oak keel and frames, pitch pine planking and a deck made of larch and fitted with a steam capstan and the latest in labour saving appliances, she would have been a sight to behold when she was launched on May 3rd 1900.

Painted green with a red bottom and a wide white cutwater she was one of the most colourful vessels in the Shetland herring fleet, and now, with her characteristic brown sails she is a well known presence on Shetland waters.

She was in service as a herring boat, spending most of her working life based out of Whalsay until 1956 when crew members took delivery of a new vessel. After that she lay anchored in various locations throughout Shetland and then the UK mainland, changing hands many times over the years and eventually falling into disrepair. She was found in the late 1980s half submerged and falling to pieces at Hartlepool pier.

In 1990 The Swan Trust was formed to purchase the dilapidated Swan and restore her to her former glory as she is a living legacy of Shetland's rich maritime heritage. Today the Swan Trust are responsible for the operation and upkeep of the Swan, with a team of dedicated volunteers teaching and keeping alive the old techniques of sailing and working a traditional sail Fifie.

The restoration was a painstaking process taking 6 years to complete. Local craftsmen with specialist knowledge worked to faithfully restore her and on 11th May 1996 she was relaunched in Lerwick harbour, almost 96 years since she first took to the water.

In 1998 the Swan became a sail training vessel, a welcome and familiar sight around Shetland waters. She has travelled as far as Norway, Faroe, France, Denmark, Ireland and Holland as well all around the coast of the United Kingdom. She has sailed in quite a few Tall Ships races.

She regularly takes local school children out on day trips, experiences I am sure they will cherish for their lifetimes. I know my own children have fond memories of their experiences on this vessel.

I had the pleasure of sailing on the Swan myself recently, and I stood, watching in awe as the skilled volunteers hoisted the gaff with a rather complicated-looking series of pulleys, ropes and pure muscle power. When the main sail was fastened and caught the wind with a billowing snap, the skipper switched the engine off and we cruised at a leisurely speed for several hours along the scenic Shetland coast.

Although I have lived nearly my entire life by the sea I realised, when the sails caught the wind and we began our journey by wind power, that I had never before sailed on a sailing boat. This trip on the Swan was my first ever experience on board a sailing vessel - and what an experience it was!

" A fine strong wind and a following sea. King Triton must be in a friendly-type mood!" Of all the things to pop in my head: the words from a sailor at the beginning of Disney's The Little Mermaid. The classical music track accompanying that scene was my earworm for this voyage as I sat, cross-legged on the decks, watching the sea pass by, rocking peacefully with the waves.

The Swan looks magnificent from the shoreline; there's a certain magic about her that captures our hearts and imaginations and she's easily identifiable with the reddish brown colour and square shape of her sails. As we sailed a small aircraft circled around us - the Swan must look rather magnificent from the air too.

As we sailed I secretly hoped we might catch a glimpse of some of the orcas which have been frequenting Shetland waters of late. One of several pods had been spotted slightly further south earlier that morning. Pure white gannets, majestic birds of the sea with their yellow heads and black tipped wings folded their wings close to their bodies and dove straight down into the waters around us. They were fishing for mackerel or piltocks, one of the volunteers, Maggie, said as she skilfully dropped her own fishing line into the sea. Bonxies (Great Skuas) flew about scavenging for leftovers.

You too can go on the adventure of a lifetime on the Swan. Throughout the summer months they offer half day or full day trips around Shetland, and they also operate trips further abroad too. On these trips you become a hands on crew member under the command of the skipper. You will learn how to play an active role on sailing vessel and how to work the ship on passage, seeing and using the technology the herring fisherman would have used in the 20th century, relearning their skills and appreciating the challenges that they faced.

The Swan (photograph above is from their website) is also available for charter and group bookings - an idea for an unusual venue for a birthday celebration or meeting, perhaps? Visit their website www.swantrust.com or telephone +44 (0)1595 69 5193 to find out more.

You can also find the Swan onInstagram and Facebook.

If you would like to read more about the history and restoration of the Swan I can highly recommend James. R. Nicolson's book The Swan: Shetland's Legacy of Sail, printed and published by The Shetland Times Ltd (1999). This book proved invaluable to me as I researched this article.

With thanks to the volunteer crew on the Swan for taking me out on this most enjoyable sail, and in case you are wondering what I did with the rabbit - I slow cooked it, it's in the freezer and waiting to be made into a pie with some Shetland ale.

Posted in: Heritage