Three Orkney Boats: curating traditional boat building and boat use

These boats reflect contrasting design and construction in the North and South Isles within the Orkney archipelago. They illustrate the diversity of maritime heritage within Orkney relating to evolution of form to suit function in very different maritime environments. This contribution to the New Connections Across The Northen Isles virtual museum is intended to illustrate a diversity of Orkney’s traditional boats, and the manner in which retaining the skills required to create and maintain these boats is being sustainably preserved.

Daisy K678, South Isles Yole. Builder: James Nicholson, Flotta. Date: 1910
Across Orkney island communities have favoured boats designed to suit local conditions. Daisy is a well-preserved example of a historic pattern, drawing upon Viking lines and construction techniques. Photograph: OHBS archive.
Orkney Museum 1986/424

The Yole

Daisy is a well-preserved South Orkney isles yole developed from Viking lines. The Norse ‘Jolle’ or boat with sprit sail rig shouldn’t be confused with the English term ‘yawl’ a sailing boat with mizzen mast on the stern.

Daisy K678, South Isles Yole. Builder: James Nicholson, Flotta. Date: 1910
Once used for fishing and transport in Orkney’s South Isles, Daisy can now be seen in at the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre, Lyness, Hoy. Photograph: OHBS archive.
Orkney Museum 1986/424

Built by James Nicholson on Flotta in 1910, it was first registered K678 for fishing from 23/09/1918 (Orkney archives CE55/11) by William Groat, Longhope, grandfather of Willie Groat who donated her to The Orkney Museum collections in 1986. Measuring overall 17 feet and 8 inches, beam 6 feet 6 inches and depth 2 feet and 7 inches, she demonstrates a traditional clinker (lapstrake) ‘double ender’ construction with no aft transom, a classic straight keel and half lap joints between keel and both stem and sternpost. These features along with her pattern of fitted and steamed timmers (ribs) follow Viking tradition. Larch strokes (boards) on an oak frame reflect the availability and known suitability of materials.  This hull form is adapted for sailing in the shallow but often very steep local sea conditions around the island of Hoy, Scapa Flow and the Pentland Firth. Two masts, bowsprit and two sprits of Douglas Fir allow the traditional three sail yole rig, which replaces what would have been lugsails on earlier boats for better windward performance. She was never fitted with an engine but would have carried oars typically 8-10 feet in length. The straight keel and shallow draft gave directional stability under sail and allowed four men to drag her up the beach.

The Praam

Pearl K150, North Ronaldsay Praam dinghy. Builders: Hughie Muir & John Cutt, at Milldam, North Ronaldsay. Date: 1926
Pearl’s form evolved from a design originating in Norway.
Orkney Historic Boat Society 2016/01

Pearl is a North Ronaldsay praam (or pram) dinghy; a boat with keel but no stem post. She has a broad stern transom and a ‘U’ shaped fore transom on a significantly curved keel. It was a chance encounter with a Norwegian ship carrying aboard a small boat with this unusual shape which led Hughie Muir of Sholtisquoy, to build this design with John Cutt of Gerbo, both in North Ronaldsay. Very few praams remain in existence.

Pearl K150, North Ronaldsay Praam dinghy. Builders: Hughie Muir & John Cutt, at Milldam, North Ronaldsay. Date: 1926
Pearl being transported from a meadow in North Ronaldsay to the pier for uplift to Mainland Orkney. Photograph: OHBS archive.
Orkney Historic Boat Society 2016/01

Built in 1926 at Milldam, North Ronaldsay, Pearl was first registered K49 for fishing on 10/07/1940 by John Tulloch of Ancum and re-registered as K150 on 4/05/1971 by John William Tulloch of Purtabreck, (no relation). John W Tulloch donated her to Orkney Historic Boat Society in 2016. Lugsail rig and oars were later supplemented by auxiliary outboard motor on the stern transom.

Inshore fishing, with lines and creel fishing with two crew amongst the skerries (rocky outcrops) around North Ronaldsay, was her purpose. The curved keel, allowing for a spin around turn on her own length, was the key design feature allowing safe access to these restricted inshore areas. North Ronaldsay beaches are steep and at times of the year even steeper due to tide driven kelp tangles forming high water mounds. The hull shape allowed two men to drag her up the beach despite length of 15 feet and 4 inches, beam 6 feet and depth 2 feet and 3 inches.

Pearl K150, North Ronaldsay Praam dinghy. Builders: Hughie Muir & John Cutt, at Milldam, North Ronaldsay. Date: 1926
Pearl’s unusual curved keel allowed turning on her own length giving manoeuvrability amongst the rocky outcrops or skerries for creel fishing. She is one of two examples conserved for display. Her ‘sister’ Ruth K52 is in the Scapa Flow Museum, Lyness, Hoy. Pearl is in a safe haven in Stromness.
Orkney Historic Boat Society 2016/01.

The contrasting design, compared to Daisy, reflects the different local conditions and functionality required. Pearl’s construction was clinker Larch on Oak keel but there are many more scarph or feathered joins in the strokes on her reflecting the shortage of longer lengths of Larch in North Ronaldsay, in Orkney’s North Isles, when compared to the South isles of Orkney.

The Westray Skiff

Ailsa, Westray skiff. Built by Jeff Mackie with Ian Richardson. Date 2018
Ailsa is a replica of the historic skiff Zulu with modifications introduced by the Westray Sailing Club to improve safety making her an operational replica as defined by National Historic Ships, Royal Maritime Museum Greenwich. 
Westray Sailing Club Collections

Ailsa, based at the Westray Sailing Club, is an operational replica of Zulu a Westray Skiff that was built in the early 20th century. Ailsa represents a new response, not only to this historic craft, but to sustaining the traditions of boat building and small boat sailing in Orkney.

Orkney Historic Boat Society and Historic Environment Scotland recognised, in 2015, that Ian Richardson was approaching retirement as Orkney’s last remaining professional boatbuilder and jointly funded a Craft Fellowship. In 2016 Jeff attended the International Boatbuilding Training College, Lowestoft, and building Ailsa – named after Jeff’s first child born during his Craft Fellowship – in addition to repair and refurbishment tasks carried out under Ian’s supervision, reinforced the training experience after college.

Ailsa, Westray skiff. Built by Jeff Mackie with Ian Richardson. Date 2018
This skiff design has evolved on Westray and Papa Westray for fishing, transport and more recently recreational sailing and racing. Ailsa joins a fleet of skiffs sailed regularly by enthusiasts based at Pierowall, Westray. Photograph: OHBS archive.
Westray Sailing Club Collections

Clinker-built using Scottish Larch and the renewable hardwood Opepe for Keel, stem and sternposts, she has been traditionally constructed. The deck is a modern design alteration introduced by the Westray Sailing Club for safety as the skiff fleet converted from lugsail to Bermudan rig for better upwind performance in recent years. The club, who commissioned the building of Ailsa, now keep, care for and plan to sail her. Jeff will assist enthusiasts to finish and rig her and plans are under consideration for how he can teach new build techniques on Westray in the future.

Ailsa, Westray skiff. Built by Jeff Mackie with Ian Richardson. Date 2018
Ailsa is clinker-built using Scottish Larch.
Westray Sailing Club Collections

To view a Film of Jeff Mackie, OHBS Craft Fellow 2016 – 2018 and Orkney’s newest boat builder, making Ailsa click here.

Curating a tradition of building boats

Orkney Historic Boat Society collects and preserves Orkney’s traditional boats and the stories, traditions and techniques that give them context, including collecting interviews with the builders who made and repaired them. In the Robin Duncan audio recording, OHBS 2017/2, Robin Duncan, one of Orkney’s leading and most prolific boat builders, talks about the various boats he has built – in total: over 50.  He remembers many of these boats by thinking of the people who commissioned them. To hear the whole recording click here.

To listen to a short excerpt and hear other sound recordings gathered into the New Connections Across the Northern Isles virtual museum, click here.

Researched and written by Jimmy Clouston and Rod Daniel.

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

Find out more

Visit the Orkney Historic Boat Society Website by clicking here.

Contact the Orkney Historic Boat Society by email by clicking here.

Find out about Westray Sailing Club by clicking here.

Visit the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum website by clicking here.

Visit The Orkney Museum website by clicking here.

Visit the Orkney Library and Archive website by clicking here.

To return to the home page, click here.