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