Boat Building - Traditional Scottish Craft

Scotland has over 6,000 miles of coastline and nearly 800 offshore islands, so it’s not surprising that it also has a rich tradition of boat building.

Shetland BoatsBoats were essential for transport, trade and fishing and have played a central part in Scottish life since the Norsemen came to Scotland between the ninth and eleventh centuries.

The influence of the Norsemen can be seen in traditional Scottish vessels such as the Orkney Yole. These were built in the same way as Norse boats, with clinker or overlapping planking and could be rigged for sail or used as rowing boats.

The Orkney Yole was still used extensively by islanders until the 1960s, for picking up coal, peat, animals and groceries from the mainland, although by the 1930s most boats had converted to motor.

A new Orkney Yole named ‘Lily’ was finished in 2008, built by Orkney’s last full-time boat builder and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The design of the Orkney Yole is closely related in shape to the Ness Sgoth and the Shetland Yoal, both clinker built boats.

Until the 1860s, Shetland Yoals were originally exported to Shetland from Norway as flat pack kits and Norwegian boat builders travelled to Shetland to build them. From around the 1860s native Shetland boat builders took over the construction.

The Yoal was superseded in the mid eighteenth century by the Sixareen, which is larger and could venture further from shore. Many traditional Yoals still exist in Shetland and the advent of Yoal rowing regattas has lead to many new Yoals being built.

Until the nineteenth century the bulk of Scottish fishing was still done close to shore and most Scottish fishermen used small boats that were light enough to be dragged up beaches and could be easily rowed.

After a violent storm sank 124 boats and killed 100 fishermen in 1848, a government investigation recommended larger decked boats. These allowed fishing further out to sea, could weather stormier conditions and could hold more fish. From the 1850s onwards, this style of boat was the norm in the Scottish fishing fleet.

By the late nineteenth century fishing had become the main occupation for many Scottish men who would previously have combined fishing with crofting and other jobs.

Harbours were built around the coast and consequently boats were built on a larger scale, as they no longer needed to be beached.

As well as small fishing vessels, Scotland has a long history of building larger wooden boats and ocean-going liners.

The Cutty Sark was built in Dumbarton in 1869 as a clipper ship sailing trade routes to China and Australia. RMS Queen Mary was built in the 1930s in Clydebank for runs across the Atlantic.

Traditional boat building skills are still practiced in yards around Scotland to produce working vessels and pleasure boats.

Find out more about boat building : 

  • Travel to the northeast corner of Scotland to see traditional boats congregate in the historic harbour at Portsoy at the annual Scottish Traditional Boat Festival. The festival includes demonstrations of traditional Scottish boat building skills as well as associated maritime crafts such as knitting and weaving.
  • The Scottish Fisheries Museum has a boat building gallery where you can see a selection of original tools and occasionally watch volunteers working in the boatshed. The Scottish Maritime Museum also holds occasional exhibitions about traditional boat building, such as Fife: the ‘Wizards’ of Fairlie.
  • The Orkney Yole Association are a group of active sailors preserving the art of building and using the traditional Orkney Yole.

Watch this video for the history of traditional boat building on the Isle of Grimsay:

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