Shetland Boats: At The Heart Of Our Heritage

by Alastair Hamilton -

As a very successful Shetland Boat Week 2019 draws to a close, the thoughts of many local people and visitors to the isles will have turned to our maritime heritage. Shetland life has always been intimately linked with the sea.

The traditional Shetland boat is distinctive in form and it’s not hard to identify its ancestry. Bow and stern narrow to points in exactly the manner of the longships that, thanks to their superb sea-keeping qualities, enabled Viking explorers to range across the North Atlantic as well as explore the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.

That tradition has been maintained in Shetland until the present day, upheld by local boat-builders who continue to construct impressive vessels using skills and techniques handed down over generations.

From the 18th century, possibly earlier, boat kits were imported from Norway and assembled in Shetland. In 2000, one of these kits – identical to those earlier ones – was brought across the North Sea and put together in Lerwick. The resulting boat (below) was among many traditional craft on show at this year’s Boat Week, organised by Shetland Amenity Trust. For centuries, these were used for fishing in relatively calm or sheltered waters.

Although Shetland boat design evolved and there were some variations, Shetland boats came essentially in two sizes. There was a six-oared one, generally 21 feet to 30 feet in length, and a four-oared version that was typically 15 to 20 feet long. In either case, it was possible to hoist a sail to provide some additional power.

As the fishing moved farther offshore , it became necessary to build larger vessels, and from the latter half of the 18th century until around 1900 the classic sixareen was the backbone of the Shetland fishing industry. By then, fishing expeditions were no longer day-trips. The crews would set off from the fishing stations on Mondays, returning on Wednesdays, and go out again from Thursday to Saturday. Typically, they fished for ling, far from shore: at the “far haaf” or open sea.

The sixareen crews rowed and sailed thirty, forty, even sixty miles to the fishing grounds; so far, in fact, that they were almost out of sight of land. The Shetland poet, Vagaland (T.A. Robertson) was inspired to write Da Sang o da Papa men, conveying the experience of the crews from Papa Stour as they rowed westwards and saw even Foula, the westernmost of our islands, steadily dip towards the horizon. The words were set to music by Dr T.M.Y. Manson, creating the song we now know as “Rowin’ Foula Doon”. The chorus runs:

Oot bewast da Horn o Papa,

Rowin Foula doon!

Owir a hidden piece o water,

Rowin Foula doon!

Roond da boat da tide-lumps makkin,

Sunlicht trowe da cloods is brakkin;

We maan geng whaar fish is takkin,

Rowin Foula doon!

These were undecked, open boats, with no protection from the weather, so this was mostly a summer occupation, between May and mid-August. However, storms are possible even in the height of summer and, with no accurate weather forecasts, boats and their crews could find themselves overwhelmed many miles from shore; a disaster in July 1881 saw 58 men perish. 19 years later, a winter storm took another 21 fishermen from the district of Delting. It hardly needs saying that these were not only tragic events for the families concerned but were devastating blows to the communities involved.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, there was a gradual move away from sixerns towards much larger craft that would not only be much safer but could also fish during reasonable weather over a longer season.

Meanwhile, fourareens continued to be favoured, particularly in those parts of Shetland where fishing could take place in sheltered voes and sounds, or fairly close to shore. But they were employed in many other roles, often as the only convenient means of transport at a time when roads in Shetland were mostly poor or non-existent. They were used for leisure, too, and were to be seen in sailing competitions around the islands.

Because of that adaptability, they continued to be built through the 20th century and modifications steadily improved performance. Other materials, including plywood and fibreglass, came into use. The development of the ‘Maid’ class of sailing dinghy, which is unique to Shetland, and which has itself evolved into a superbly light and fast craft, has produced exciting, highly competitive sailing for new generations of Shetland yachting fans.

Over the past few decades, six-oared boats have also enjoyed a renaissance, thanks to the rapid rise in popularity of rowing as a sport. Most districts now have their own racing yoal, and there are several events in which they compete during the summer. During Boat Week 2019, races were held at Scalloway.

The larger sailing vessels were far better able to cope with variable weather than sixerns and hundreds were put into service. They fished for haddock, cod and other species and the size of the catches led to a corresponding increase in the scale of the fish processing industry. Whereas fish caught by sixern crews had often simply been laid out to dry on the beach, large areas of newly-developed quaysides – especially in Baltasound and Lerwick – were now occupied by gutting and packing stations, with cooperages providing the barrels in which the salted fish was packed for export. There were even short industrial railways, used for moving trolley-loads of fish around the sites.

Herring was the main prize towards the end of the 19th century and the fishery reached its peak in the early 1900s. Two types of sail-fishing vessel were popular, “Fifies” and “Zulus”, and every port in Shetland saw huge numbers of them. One “Fifie” survives in Shetland today. Swan was launched at Hay’s Dock in Lerwick in 1900, as the Shetland News reported at the time:

An interesting event took place at Freefield docks on Thursday, when a fine new boat was launched for the yard of Messrs Hay & Co. The boat has been built to the order of Messrs Hay & Co., and Mr Thos. Isbister, and is acknowledged by competent judges, both local and Scotch, to be one of the finest fishing boats afloat in the North of Scotland, as regards to model, strength or workmanship.

She is the largest ever built in Lerwick her dimensions being:- Length overall, 67 feet; length of keel, 60.5 feet; beam, 20 feet outside; depth, 9.5 feet from keelson. The timbers are mostly of oak, with larch and pitch pine skin, and in her whole construction practically no expense has been spared in order to secure strength. Fitted with steam capstan and all the latest labour-saving appliances, the boat has every chance of a successful career, and we hope that good luck will always follow her. The launch was carried out most successfully. Miss Ottie Isbister, daughter of the skipper, performed the christening ceremony, the boat being named the "Swan"; and when the fastenings were cut, she left the ways in grand style, and took to the water like a duck, being brought up in the limited space in a most masterly manner. Mr Leask, the builder, is to be congratulated on this his latest addition to the Shetland fishing fleet.

The Shetland News, 5th May 1900

the boat has every chance of a successful career

Despite the increasing use of steam power propulsion, as well as capstans, the Swan continued to fish successfully under sail for more than three decades; it wasn’t until 1935 that she was fitted with an engine. She continued to earn her keep for another 20 years, but in 1960 left the islands, destined to become a houseboat in Grimsby.

Another two decades passed and by 1982 she was deteriorating in a dock in Hartlepool. There, in 1989, a knowledgeable boat enthusiast spotted her – by then, half-submerged – and resolved to save her and, ultimately, return her to Shetland. He made progress but simply didn’t have enough time to finish the job and advertised the Swan for sale in the Shetland Times.

Thanks to the initiative of Tammy Moncrieff, who taught navigation at the Anderson High School and was an expert on Shetland craft, a steering group – which a little later became the Swan Trust - was formed. In 1991, they brought the boat back to Lerwick under her own power. Only then did it emerge that the hull was in poorer condition than a survey had suggested, and the project became less about repair and more about reconstruction, which took almost six years.

On 11 May 1996, she was re-launched at Lerwick and began another chapter in her long and very varied life.

She exists today as a reminder of a hugely significant period in Shetland’s economic and social history; without her, our understanding of that heritage would be much the poorer. But she’s more than that: as a sail training vessel, cared for by The Swan Trust, she introduces young people to sailing and to all the skills and qualities involved, including teamwork. She has participated in the Tall Ships Races and undertakes summer cruises to – among other places – Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Ireland, Faroe, Orkney, the Hebrides and – in the photo above – St Kilda.

Back in June, the Swan met with her contemporaries, when no fewer than seven preserved Faroese sail-fishing smacks visited Lerwick. Their visit marked the close connection between the Shetland and Faroe communities; in his fascinating book, The Cod Hunters, John Goodlad explains that the Faroese learned their cod-fishing techniques from Shetland fishermen and built a very successful industry. He presented copies of the book to the Faroese skippers.

We’re also lucky in that the skills involved in building these fine vessels have not been lost; sixerns like the Vaila Mae, constructed for the Shetland Museum, can still be built, and of course the development of rowing races has created a demand for more new six-oared boats.

It’s also clear that there is sustained interest in Shetland’s maritime heritage. A group with a focus on that heritage has recently been established. Moder Dy, as it is called, aims to “protect, preserve and bring to life” that heritage and to present a more complete narrative relating to Shetland’s relationship with the sea. This includes supporting the continuation of Shetland boat-building. They also plan to use Shetland’s coastal archaeology to raise awareness of climate and other environmental issues.

A current project involves recording all the “noosts” in East and West Burra; noosts were the hollowed-out areas above the high water mark where boats were drawn up and secured. Now that Shetland is so well provided with marinas, the use of noosts has largely died out, but they were once central to the lives of coastal communities.

You can read more about their work on the Moder Dy website. “Moder dy” is the term used to describe the underlying swell that, it is said, guides boats home.

It’s fortunate that future generations in Shetland will be able to see and sail in a range of historic boats. The Shetland Museum has a significant collection, including several floating exhibits, and there are many fine historic craft in private hands, several of which were on display during Boat Week 2019.

Visitors to Unst shouldn’t miss the Unst Boat Haven (below) where a number of boats are beautifully displayed, and there’s lots of fascinating documentary material. It's also home to the Far Haaf, seen sailing with the Vaila Mae in two of the photographs above; this was, it's thought, the first time in living memory that two such boats have been seen sailing together. You can also watch Maurice Henderson's video of the Far Haaf, filmed from the Vaila Mae during Boat Week.

It’s to be hoped that through public, private and voluntary support, all of these vessels will continue to be preserved and, where possible, put to sea.

Posted in: Heritage

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