Making connections in Westray: Orkney’s fishing and trading heritage

Picturing the boats

Graffiti Wall, Gallowhill, Westray. Date: late 19th – early 20th centuries
These wall panels saved from the Gallowhill barn, Westray, in the North Isles of Orkney are now on permanent display in the Westray Heritage Centre.
Westray Heritage Centre Collections

A wooden partition in a barn at the Gallowhill farm, Westray, was salvaged and relocated to the Heritage Centre because of the amount of interesting graffiti, particularly images in pencil and paint drawings and carvings of Westray-owned cargo and fishing vessels. Probably created during social events, including dances, from the late 19th century to the 1940s, they give a valuable insight into local people’s knowledge of ships, the role of vessels in the local economy, and likely employment opportunities.

Graffiti Wall, Gallowhill, Westray. Date: late 19th – early 20th centuries
Images of sailing schooners and fishing boats predominate among the abundance of graffiti on these wall panels. Most are of Westray-owned vessels from the late 1800s – early 1900s, when the barn was being used for social events.
Westray Heritage Centre Collections

Three types of vessels were depicted on the panels of this partition.

Graffiti Wall, Gallowhill, Westray. Date: late 19th – early 20th centuries
Detail showing an image of a topsail schooner.
Westray Heritage Centre Collections

Schooner images were unnamed but were closely similar to paintings in the Westray Heritage Centre of the topsail schooner Galatea (see below), and the fore and aft schooner Regina, unique identifier: Westray Heritage Centre 2012-03.

Galatea, watercolour painting. Date: late 19th – early 20th centuries
A painting of the topsail schooner, artist unknown, at Westray Heritage Centre.
Westray Heritage Centre 2016-21

Galatea, watercolour painting. Date: late 19th – early 20th centuries
A 76 ton two-masted topsail schooner, Galatea was built in Newport, Wales in 1859. She was bought by owners in Kirkwall in 1869 and ended her 46 years here in Westray, where she was broken up in 1915.
Westray Heritage Centre 2016-21

The cargo log of the schooner Galatea. Date: early 20th century
Westray Heritage Centre 2017-9


The cargo log of the Galatea records the collection of scrap from the wreck of the trawler Hope PD 366, wrecked on the coast of Pharay, an island close to Westray.

The cargo log of the schooner Galatea. Date: early 20th century
This page logs the journey of the Galatea to collect metal scrap salvaged from wreck of the Hope by Pharay islanders. The Hope, a vessel from Peterhead, was wrecked on Pharay Holm, on the 28th December 1908. Her crew were rescued by five Pharay fishers, who are now recalled as the “Pharay heroes”.
Westray Heritage Centre 2017-9
Graffiti Wall, Gallowhill, Westray. Date: late 19th – early 20th centuries
Detail showing the Westray owned Zulu type herring boat Minni Ha Ha.
Westray Heritage Centre Collections

Images of fishing smacks were common, reflecting their importance to Westray. One named as Mini Ha Ha, was a Westray owned Zulu type herring boat and was recorded in a Westray merchant’s business ledger, as selling catch in May 1888.

Graffiti Wall and Hewison’s fish merchant’s ledger for 1888
Showing connection between graffito of the herring boat Minni Ha Ha on the wall and a record associated with purchases from the boat in the merchant’s ledger.
Westray Heritage Centre NN and 2018-6.1

Hewison’s fish merchant’s ledger for 1888
Detail showing a record for purchases made from the Zulu Minni Ha Ha.
Westray Heritage Centre 2018-6.1

We know that the graffiti wall provides a visual record of many vessels that are no longer sea borne. One pencil drawing of a steam trawler is typical of those that were starting to fish around Westray from around 1900, including that Peterhead vessel that came to a sad end of Pharay Holm. Could there be a connection between this deft drawing and the high-profile loss of the trawler Hope?

Documenting the fishing

John Hewison was a Westray merchant selling general goods, owner of several fishing and cargo vessels and a trader and curer of fish. The fish purchase section of his business ledger for 1888 was taken as an example of the importance of a fishing industry to the local economy at that time.

Hewison’s fish merchant’s ledger for 1888
Ledger recording purchases of fish landed in Westray in 1888 from named fishing smacks, and wet salted fish bought from islanders by the merchant John Hewison for export. These daily records provide a snapshot of the amounts of different fish traded and the value of these to Westray’s economy.
Westray Heritage Centre 2018-6.1

Stocks of fish purchased in 1888 for processing were from two sources:

The first source, providing wet/salted cod, saithe and haddock, was named local individuals with payments amounting to approximately £396 (equivalent to £50,059 in 2018 value). Sales by islanders varied from occasional to frequent, the latter suggesting that the sellers were involved in fishing as a more full-time occupation. This income to locals was directly significant for Westray families and the local economy.

The second source were purchases from fishing vessels, which, along with associated expenditure, amounted to £2232 (equivalent to £281,847 in 2018). Individual vessels are named in Hewison’s ledger, providing a record of the frequency with which such vessels used Westray.  Most vessels visited only once and did not originate from Westray. Many could have been wellboats involved at that time in transporting live cod south to British and foreign markets, with unsuitable fish in their catch being wet-salted and off-loaded for sale to the local processor for drying. Fishing vessel income was of little direct value to the economy of Westray. Islanders could have benefited only from the profits accrued from processing, and for transporting, and selling this product. The ledger does not record this.

Graffiti Wall and Hewison’s fish merchant’s ledger for 1888
Connections are being made between different types of archives and objects in the Westray Heritage Centre collections. These include different media including paintings, ledgers, logs and the painted, drawn and incised boats on the panels salvaged from Gallowhill barn.
Westray Heritage Centre NN and 2018-6.1

History reveals that this source of raw material for an important industry in Westray continued for only a limited period as steam trawlers with ice for preserving catches superseded the transportation of live fish.  Facing such vulnerability from changing industries, Westray has long since been able to take on board opportunities for new developments and continues to be resilient with a vibrant economy and population. Find out about Westray’s sea food industry by clicking here.

Life buoys from fishing vessels of the Westray fleet at Pierowall, 2018

Please cite New Connections Across the Northern Isles (2019) when referencing materials from this virtual museum.

Find out more

Additional research information upon which this interpretation has been based is available in Westray Heritage Centre, and on the Westray Heritage website, which you can visit by clicking here.

To find out about connections between Westray Sailing Club and the Orkney Historic Boat Society, click here.

To return to the the home page click here.