The Shetlanders: the boat builder

Like a lot of Shetlanders, Ryan Stevenson quietly has a few strings to his proverbial bow. He plays a mean fiddle, and was once named Shetland’s Young Traditional Fiddler of the Year. He sails, rows traditional yoal rowing boats, and is a trustee at Shetland Arts, the fund behind many of the islands’ cultural institutions, from galleries to theatres and an indie-focused cinema.

More than this, though, aged just 25 he’s also at the forefront of something remarkable — a new era of boat-building on an archipelago where so much of life, and work, revolves around the sea. Ryan is the project manager of a new boat-building department at Malakoff, Shetland’s oldest marine engineering firm. The company started life as a shipyard around 140 years ago, and has diversified over the years into everything from pipework to ship repairs, renewable energy, designing and building piers, or providing specialist divers for Shetland’s aquaculture, fishing and oil industries.

We meet in a vast warehouse on Lerwick’s northern edge, whose sole occupant is a 14-metre steel catamaran, unpainted, unfinished and surrounded by canisters and wires. It’s the second boat commissioned by Cooke Aquaculture, a leading Scottish salmon farming company, and it’s symbolic of how one thriving local industry is helping another to boom.

Ever since the first Vikings arrived towards the end of the ninth century, boats have been part of life here, most notably the Shetland yoal, a wooden rowing boat used by local fishermen from at least the 17th century. The yoal hasn’t just become an iconic symbol of the islands, fascinating artists as much as historians, but the tradition has been kept active in recent years by yoal rowing and sailing clubs across the islands, who host regular regattas.

But Malakoff is starting a more forward-looking tradition, designing and building boats made very much for today’s industry. It has now built more than 200 small aluminium voe boats, designed especially for tending to salmon farms or mussel hatcheries. The boat in the warehouse is its 23rd larger, more complicated steel vessel. Previous Malakoff creations include a west coast ferry commissioned by Caledonian Maritime Assets, the company that also oversee the ferries to Orkney and Shetland from the Scottish Mainland. While even the yoal was originally based on Norwegian designs, these Malakoff boats are 100 per cent designed and made in Shetland.

“The aquaculture and fishing industry are bringing a lot of money into Shetland at the moment,” says Ryan. “We’ve always been part of that, but now we want to actually build some of the boats that they’re using. Ultimately, we want to keep more jobs, and more investment, in Shetland, and it feels like an exciting time for that.”

Heading up a game-changing department in one of Shetland’s most important companies isn’t all Ryan does. He originally became involved with Shetland Arts while playing the fiddle at high school. The funding body paid for Ryan and other students to go to the Hebridean Celtic Festival as session musicians, and he later got involved with Shetland Arts’ Young Promoters Group and Young Tradition Bearers project. Since 2016, he’s been a board member, reviewing business plans and accounts, and helping to make strategic decisions about how the arts are funded in Shetland.

He studied mechanical engineering at Strathclyde University in Glasgow, but was back every holiday, getting his boat ticket so that he could work as a skipper on a Malakoff safety boat at the Sullom Voe oil terminal. Not long after he left university, a job came up at Malakoff’s welding department, which linked to Ryan’s most recent research project.

Like an increasing number of young Shetlanders who leave the islands to study, Ryan’s intention was always to come back. “I enjoyed being the city, but it was always a relief to get back, to get out on the boat and breathe the fresh air.”

He is keen to play up the fact that Shetland life isn’t just about gazing at grey seas and crofting, though. “When I was in Glasgow, people would say: What do you actually do? The answer, for me, is sailing, rowing, kayaking, being outdoors, being involved with local arts and culture. You’ve got amazing leisure centres, and the cinema and the gigs at Mareel… there’s so much that goes on. I think there’s probably still a perception that Shetland is a backward place, but I think if people come to Shetland they’ll see that that’s simply not true. It’s an amazing place to live.”