Orkney's boatbuilding heritage set to continue

Plans have been launched to employ a new craftsperson in Orkney to build and maintain beautiful wooden boats.

Life in an island community is always going to be shaped by the sea.

Here in Orkney we have a rich farming heritage but our maritime history has also had a major part to play in the changing face of our seventy or so islands.

Hauling creels in Stromness harbour

From tiny fishing boats using small, craggy geos on the west coast hundreds of years ago, to large-scale, innovative tidal energy devices helping create jobs and industry, the sea remains central to Orcadian life.

Now a local charity is planning to create a new role that will help maintain those special links.

The Orkney Historic Boat Society aims to preserve local boats of note as well as traditional boatbuilding skills and crafts. The Society has recently received funding from Historic Environment Scotland to employ a ‘craft fellow’ and train them in the skills needed to become a boatbuilder.

The move comes as Orkney’s only remaining professional boat builder, Ian Richardson, prepares for retirement.

Ian Richardson in action at his Stromness workshop

‘We felt that, because Orkney is a maritime region with a tremendous boating heritage, something should be done to preserve the boatbuilding craft in the islands,’ said Jimmy Clouston, Chair of the Orkney Historic Boat Society. ‘Orkney has many boats with ongoing repair and maintenance needs and, with Ian’s impending retirement, we firmly believe we have to preserve the traditional skills of wooden boatbuilding here.’

A two-year bursary is now in place and the successful applicant will receive additional grants for travel, accommodation and tools. Training would initially be provided by Ian Richardson at his workshop in Stromness before the trainee spends a year at the International Boatbuilding Training College in Lowestoft.

Then a year working alongside Ian in Orkney would complete the training.

One of the boats restored by the Orkney Historic Boat Society

‘This isn’t just something for the Society – we feel this post could have a beneficial effect for Orkney as a whole by keeping our reputation as a centre of excellence in boatbuilding alive,’ said Jimmy. ‘As well as maintenance and repair work on our local boats and heritage stock, there could be the need for immediate repairs to visiting boats too. But building new boats would be the mainstay of our newly qualified craftsperson.’

Orkney is well known for its unique designs of boat, many of which have evolved from ancient Norse designs, including the Westray Skiff and the South Isles and North Isles Yoles. It’s believed the North Ronaldsay Praam was copied from a Norwegian whaling vessel whereas the Stromness Flattie is famous across the world.

Even those with a casual interest in Orkney’s history will have heard tales of shipwrecks and Orkney’s role as the home of the Royal Navy in two World Wars. This rich maritime heritage means that the islands are full of boats from elsewhere – former lifeboats, naval vessels and fishing boats of all shapes and sizes.

A fisherman with his creels and boat in Birsay - image courtesy of the Orkney Library and Archive

But there is no doubt that wooden boatbuilding is a fading craft. Developments in technology and building techniques have seen to that. Despite this trend, a number of groups are launching plans to preserve their maritime heritage. In Shetland a college course is going to be created to teach people how to build the Shetland Skiff.

‘There is certainly a need for a boatbuilder in Orkney, and not just for heritage reason. Ian has been busy for the last forty years or so and he is confident that work will continue into the future,’ said Jimmy. ‘We think a young person could look for trade both here and outwith the county so there are plenty of possibilities.’

The application period for the post ends tomorrow (April 8th) so anyone interested in this unique post would have to be quick. According to the Society there are no set criteria, but they are looking for someone familiar with woodworking and keen to retrain in a different skill. It could potentially be the perfect opportunity for a highly skilled school leaver keen to follow a trade with a difference.

It’s the start of what could be a very exciting period for the Orkney Historic Boat Society. A number of iconic local boats have already been restored by the enthusiastic volunteers and there are plans to build a new Flattie as part of the trainee’s study year in Stromness.

The Otter Bank - Orkney's former bank boat - fully restored by the Friends of the Orkney Boat Museum group

The aim of establishing a boat museum in Orkney continues as well.

‘Our long term aim has always been to build a boat museum and workshop here,’ said Jimmy. ‘We are in the process of comparing several sites and are exploring funding options. It would be the ideal opportunity to showcase our heritage and help educate the public about our historical boats.’

Passing the Orcadian boatbuilding torch onto a new, talented craftsperson could be a small but vital step towards keeping that dream alive.

If you’re interested in the Craft Fellow position with the Orkney Historic Boat Society, view the job description and send your CV to orkneyhistoricboats@gmail.com by the 8th of April 2016.

Find out more about the Society and its work by the official website.

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