The Swan & The Serene

by Tom Morton -

The Serene and The Swan: The future of Shetland fishing, and its living past


This summer will see the arrival in Shetland of one of the world’s most advanced supertrawlers. The sleek, state-of-the-art, 82-metre vessel, latest in a long line of boats owned on the island of Whalsay to bear the name Serene (LK297), was launched in February in Gdansk, Poland. She’s 82 metres long and is currently under completion in Denmark. Click on the artist's impression above to see a video of her launch.

On arrival in the isles, the Serene will join one of the most modern fishing fleets in Europe. Nowadays, like the Serene, boats are often designed and built abroad, but once Shetland had a thriving shipbuilding industry, and 118 years ago, the largest vessel ever constructed in the isles, the 67-foot Fifie Swan, was launched from Hay’s yard, now home to the Shetland Museum and Archives. Built at the peak of the so-called ‘herring boom’, she was one of thousands of Fifies and Zulu-class sailing vessels working around Shetland. She too was for several decades owned and operated from the island of Whalsay.

On arrival, the Serene will join one of the most modern fishing fleets in Europe

Today, the Swan, LK243, not only survives, but thrives, and is a beloved feature of Lerwick Harbour, instantly identifiable in her sparkling green paintwork and rust-brown sails. Restored - indeed completely rebuilt - in the 1990s, she is owned and operated by the local Swan Trust, and offers a range of sail training courses for adults and young people, school trips, weekend outings and charters, as well as epic international voyages to ‘tall ships’ festivals and historic boat weekends. Click on the image above to see a video of her at sea.

The Shetland News reported on her launch on 5 May 1900:

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 Swan began her fishing career as a longliner in spring, catching white fish, followed by herring fishing with drift nets from May until September.

A Whalsay crew acquired her in 1905, and she sailed from Symbister for nearly 50 years. In 1908, she was converted to the smack sailing rig she still has today to make her more suitable for fishing in Shetland’s enclosed voes. By 1935 the Swan was one of just five herring sail boats left in Shetland. But she was given a new lease of life after she had an engine fitted, entering the seine net fishery in the 1940s. Eventually, in 1950 she was taken out of service and in 1960 she was towed to Grimsby, to be converted to a houseboat. By 1982, the last of the Shetland Fifies, she was in Hartlepool, neglected and had sunk at her moorings at least twice. Her future looked grim.

Today The Swan not only survives, but thrives

Submerged in Hartlepool Harbour, with only her masts showing, she was spotted by a boat enthusiast called Keith Parkes, who in 1989 bought and began to restore her. On completion he planned to sail her back to Lerwick, but after considerable work, he advertised her for sale in ‘The Shetland Times’ . Bought by a local steering group inspired by legendary Tammie Moncrieff’s vision of turning the Swan into a living museum and sail training vessel, she was made seaworthy and sailed back to Shetland by an intrepid band of Shetlanders. And the long and painstaking restoration by volunteers and skilled Shetland carpenters and boatbuilders began.

Now The Swan is an inspiration herself. A full-time skipper and skilled volunteers ensure trips are safe, fun and exciting. Hundreds of young people have benefitted from the sail training placements organised aboard her by Sail Training Shetland. And this year’s programme of events, open to anyone, includes voyages to the Portsoy Traditional Boat Festival, the Orkney Folk Festival, epic trips in Norway and to the Lofoten Islands, and shorter evening and weekend cruises around Shetland. You can check out availability here: https://www.swantrust.com . And for an insight into what it's like to take a short voyage aboard her, our own Elizabeth Atia did just that a year ago, and wrote about it in this blog post for shetland.org . She also took some of the pictures used to illustrate this article.

Music has always been a big part of the Swan’s new life, with resident fiddlers a feature of some voyages, and Catriona Mackay of Fiddler’s Bid wrote the lovely tune The Swan after being inspired by a session playing on board the vessel during the Tall Ships visit to Lerwick in 2011. Click on the picture above to watch a video clip of her performing it with an all-star cast on the TV show The Transatlantic Sessions.

The Swan is a living, working symbol of Shetland’s proud maritime past, just as the Serene, when she steams into Bressay Sound this summer, will be a symbol of the future.

The Swan is a living symbol of Shetland's maritime past. The Serene will be a symbol of its future

Posted in: Heritage