Part 2


Shetland Line Boats

Among the Shetland Islands small boats of the Norwegian model are everywhere used, both for inshore fishing and for ferrying across sounds and firths ; and, until the last quarter of the century, larger boats of the same build were alone used in the long line and the herring fisheries.

The small line boats run from 10 feet of keel upwards, some of the larger haddock boats measuring about 12 feet keel. Sexerns (or six-oared boats) run from 20 to 23 feet. All these boats, however, are much larger than appears from these figures, as both stems are greatly raked.

They are also high at the bows and quarters which helps to keep them dry in a seaway. They are built of light materials, and have very few timbers. Being so light in the frame, they are buoyant and lively, and under skilful handling will come through a good deal of rough weather. They must, however, be kept end on to a heavy sea ; their low waist makes them dangerous in a broadside sea. Where a large herring-boat or a cod smack would be 'laid to' under low sail, Shetland fishermen would consider it safer to keep a sexern under oars, heading straight through the sea.


At least one case is on record of a Shetland crew being thus driven to Norway in a six-oared boat, and after they had been given up for lost, they returned home in safety. More remarkable still was the case of two girls from Unst who were blown out to sea when trying to cross a sound with a small boat loaded with peats. They, too, managed to keep their frail craft afloat till they reached Norway. One was eventually sent home ; the other accepted an offer of marriage from a young Norwegian, and remained.

The Shetland sexern is not unlike an ordinary lifeboat in appearance, or the Dundee whaler, and is a survival of the model of the old Norse Viking longship. A good many of these boats are still used in the long line fishing at what are locally known as 'haaf' stations, but they are being fast supplanted by large herring-boats from Aberdeenshire. These haaf stations are harbours within easy reach of the deep-sea fishing banks, and generally situated near some outlying point.

The local Shetland rig was a square-shaped lugsail, of undoubted Norse origin, a grand sail for running free.


This is to a great extent being abandoned in favour of a lug and jib similar to that used in the Firth of Clyde, the tack of the lug being fixed at the mast. Beating up through narrow channels in cold, wintry weather, fishermen find the latter rig a great advantage, as they have merely to shift the sheets instead of dipping or lowering the sail every tack. *1*

*1* The smaller boats are built for about l0s. a foot of keel; so with sail complete a 12-foot boat would not cost much more than £7.

A sexern of 21 feet keel would cost at present £21 for hull and spars ; or with sails and rigging, not more than £30. A sexern of 23 feet keel, being fuller built and higher in the wood, would cost about £40 for hull, sails, rigging, and outfit. Very few sexerns are now being built, and there is a probability that this type of boat may become obsolete.

Norway-built boats used to be imported regularly into Shetland, especially the smaller sizes. To save space in the vessels, they were usually brought across in sections, and put together after they were landed. Ready-made oars were also imported in considerable quantities. Small boats are still occasionally brought over, along with cargoes of timber. As already remarked in a former chapter, these boats are generally built with only three broad planks, whereas a similar boat built in Shetland would have twice as many. As a consequence, these Norwegian boats are very sharp in the build, and have not sufficient bearing to give them stability under sail, or to carry weight. They are easily pulled, however, and in fine weather are smart enough little boats, but they require very careful handling.

For the cod fishing, with hand lines, at Faroe, Rockall, and Iceland, large deep-sea smacks are used. They are from fifty to ninety tons register, carry from twelve to sixteen hands, and are in all respects similar to the Grimsby fishing smacks, which are dandy or ketch rigged. In fact, the Shetland vessels are generally bought second-hand from that port.

The inhabitants of the Orkney Islands, though favourably situated, have not given the same attention to the fishing as the Shetlanders have done. The explanation probably is that the land is better in Orkney than in Shetland, and it is much easier to make a living ashore. The Shetland crofter could not, as a rule, make a living off his land ; hence the unanimity with which the young men take to a seafaring life.

The only type of boat in Orkney that appears to merit special notice is a small boat used for crossing the sounds and for inshore fishing. The model is quite distinct from the Shetland or Norwegian boat, being very broad in proportion, and consequently very steady under sail. The frame, too, is much stronger than that of the Shetland boat. The sprit rig is generally preferred with two masts and sails, and this was at one time a great favourite not only in Scottish waters, but in those of the Humber, the Mersey and the Lincolnshire Fens. *1* This rig was very common for small open craft during the early part of the nineteenth century.


The standing lug has also been used in the combination of main and fore masts, a light boom being fitted to the mainsail. Competent judges assert that the most skilful boatmen they have seen for handling small boats under sail are the men that have ferried them across the Pentland Firth and the sounds among the Orkney Islands. Fifteen feet of keel may be taken as the average length of this class of small boat. Orkney herring-boats, as already stated, are of the Fifie model, and either lug or smack rigged. Large smacks used to be sent to the Faroe and Iceland fishing, but none have been owned in Orkney recently, though English smacks and Aberdeen trawlers occasionally land their fish in Orkney.

*1* See pp. 133, 134, 230.


Firth of Clyde Skiffs

The favourite boat in the outer part of the Firth of Clyde and Loch Fyne is a skiff known as the Nabby, one of the prettiest, smartest, and handiest forms of sea boat to be found.


For herring and great line fishings, these boats run from 24 to 28 feet of keel ; but as the stern-post is a good deal raked, the length over all is usually from 82 to 34 feet. The boat is open, with the exception of a small fore-deck, which gives rather limited cabin accommodation to the crew of three or four men.

The build may be either clinker or carvel. One very noticeable feature about the model of this boat is the great disproportion between the draught of water forward and aft. A Nabby draws from 1 to 2 feet forward, and from 3-1/2 to 6 feet aft. The rig is a lug and jib, and occasionally a mizen is carried in summer.


The sails do not require to be shifted in staying, as the tack is fixed at the mast, which is supported by single stays. *1* The Nabby bears some resemblance to the Cornish model, and more still to the Zulu of the east coast, only there is less rake on the Nabby's stern-post, and much more rake on its mast.

*1* A good carvel-built Nabby of, say, 27 ft. keel, would cost at least £100 from the carpenter; and sails and other outfit would bring the price up to £120 or £130.

The planking used is yellow pine (recently Oregon pine has been introduced), whereas on the east coast of Scotland larch planks are alone used in boat-building.

The Nabby build and rig combine to make a very smart, manageable boat. Four men can work 'great lines' with this boat as long as it is safe to remain at sea. Four men also constitute a boat's crew for herring. Seine trawling boats, however, work in pairs at this fishing. For drift-net fishing three men are a sufficient crew.


It is interesting to compare these figures with the crew required by an east coast boat of similar size. No such boat would be worked at line fishing on the east coast by less than five, and sometimes six, of a crew, and the requirements for herring fishing would be similarly disproportionate. Thus the earnings of the Nabby fall to be divided into fewer shares than the east coast boats.

It is of interest to note that the fishermen of Dunure village, near Ayr, have taken to building their own boats. During recent years several finely modelled skiffs of about 25 feet keel have been added to the local fleet, all these boats having been built and fitted out by their owners with the occasional help of their neighbours.

At Dunure and Maidens many of the fishermen prefer square-sterned skiffs, both for herring, great line, and small line fishings. *1*

These boats, as is generally the case inside Turnberry Point, are narrower, lower in the wood, and generally finer in the model than the skiffs in use about Girvan, Campbeltown, and Tarbert on Loch Fyne. The reason is obvious. Girvan fishermen work their long lines in the entrance to the Firth, and out halfway across the Channel, in winter and early spring, and this can only be done with an able, comfortable boat. With suitable tides it is quite a common thing to get from twenty to forty cwt. of fish at a single haul in the Channel, and with this weight a small-sized Nabby would be left with too little freeboard in rough weather. The Campbeltown fishermen, again, work most at herring seine trawling ; some of them do nothing else all the year round. This is a mode of fishing with more than the usual elements of uncertainty ; a crew may go for weeks and earn nothing, or they may fill several pairs of skiffs with one haul of their net. It thus becomes a matter of the first importance that their own pair of Nabbies shall be able to carry full share of the herrings they have been fortunate enough to catch, so the tendency is to increase the size and carrying capacity of these so-called trawling skiffs.

*1* The dimensions are:

Length of keel;

breadth of beam;

and depth.


25 ft.

9 ft. 4 inches

5 ft. 7 inches


27 ft.

9 ft. 4 inches

5 ft. 6 inches

The flounder fishermen use their skiffs most at the summer drift-net fishing. As they are a few miles from the nearest railway station, the question of catching the market train is always a burning one ; hence speed in light weather is the first requisite there. and large sails are the rule. *1*

The larger Nabby as now modelled is of comparatively recent date: fishermen say its introduction only dates back twenty-five or thirty years. Before that time, small smacks, with broad square sterns and pretty large draught of water aft not unlike the present Fleetwood and Maryport shrimpers, were mostly employed in the herring fishing in Loch Fyne, and also in the other lochs up the west coast, as, for instance, in Gairloch and Loch Broom.

In the Clyde these smacks have been gradually discarded in favour of the Nabby for several reasons. Their rigging, boom, gaff, etc., was found to be cumbrous at herring fishing in so small a vessel: while in heavy weather the gaff, sagging over the lee side, causes the craft to labour harder than the lugsail yard does. The Nabby, therefore, appears to be an evolution from the smack rig and from the old small line boats used in this Firth, retaining the best point in the rig and model of each.

*1* For a Nabby of 24 or 25 ft. keel the following would be a fair average:
Luff (or weather rope), from 22 to 23 ft.; leach, about at 28 or 29 ft.; and sole (or foot), from 20 to 22 ft. The large jib contains about 28 yards of cotton, 28 inches broad. The mast is generally the same length as the boat is over stems.

This is another interesting instance of the supplanting of the smack rig by the lugsail ; of a return to rig which, as elsewhere remarked, is among the oldest in the world, and is at the same time among the most difficult to cut, set, and handle with real efficiency.


The small line boats on the Ayrshire coast are long, low, narrow skiffs, with lug and jib. There is no great disparity between the draught of water aft and forward, hence the boat lacks the Nabby's stability under sail, but 'pulls' well. *1*

*1* Ordinary dimensions are :

Length over all;

length of keel;

breadth of beam;

and depth.

22 to 23 ft.

20 ft.

5 ft. 6 in.

2 ft. 6 in.

Price to carpenter about £12 or £13; and sails, lug and two jibs, about £2 more.

Boats used in the gill net-fishing for cod and saithe in spring, and in the turbot net-fishing in summer are a little larger every way. An average size: Length of keel, 22 ft., and over all 25 ft., breadth of beam, 7 ft., and depth inside, 3 ft. A boat of this size would cost about £20 from the builder, and sails and other outfit would amount to about £30 more.

These smaller boats are all clinker-built, and they have no decks.

A special size of boat is required for the cod and turbot nets, because the Nabby would be too heavy for the strength of net, and the line skiff would he too small to stow the nets comfortably. Occasionally in summer small line boats are used for turbot net fishing. Turbot nets are set in 'trains' of ten to fifteen along the bottom, on which they rest. Cork floats buoy the nipper rope upwards for about a yard. As herring drift net fishing is usually going on in the vicinity, no buoys are used, and the fisher men consequently have to keep careful landmarks, and 'grapple' for their turbot nets daily.


Ballantrae, Stranraer, and Portpatrick

Proceeding outwards towards the channels, we find some differences in the models of boats. At Ballantrae, for instance, the larger Nabbies cannot be introduced because there is no proper harbour, and the fishermen have to launch and beach their boats daily. A skiff of about 22 feet keel, therefore (a cod-net boat in fact), has to do duty at all branches of the cod and herring fishings. Small lines are very little used at Ballantrae ; and for lobster fishing, as elsewhere, a much smaller boat is kept.

Portpatrick fishermen hardly engage in the herring fishing at all, their principal occupation being long lint fishing for cod during the winter and spring, and a few months at small line fishing in summer. Working out into the channel, where the tides are very strong, they have to encounter a very dangerous, choppy sea. It is very noticeable that surroundings and conditions similar to those in the Pentland Firth appear to have evolved a boat almost identical with that used among the Orkney Islands and on the Caithness coast, and altogether different from any line-boat inside the Firth of Clyde.

The principal feature of this model is, of course its great proportionate breadth of beam: the bows and quarters are also full. The rig consists of two lugsails, like that of the Pentland Firth boats, which also carry two sails, though often spritsails. *1*


Some of the older Stranraer yawls are similar in model to the Portpatrick boats, but the last additions to the fleet have, curiously enough, and by some process of evolution which it is difficult to explain, been exact miniatures of the Moray Firth Zulu. The rig is the usual Firth of Clyde rig, a lugsail and jib, with the mast much raked. *2* These Stranraer Zulus (I do not think this name is used there, however) retain the Nabby's short forefoot and long heel, but above water they are perfect miniatures of the east coast Zulu.

A number of luggers of the Manx build and rig used to be owned at Campbeltown and other ports on the west of Scotland. They were used at the Irish mackerel and herring fishings in spring and early summer, and then at the east coast herring fishing in July and August. Very few are now owned in these waters, fishermen having found the Nabbies more profitable.

*1* The dimensions of the boats in the accompanying sketch are :

16 ft. keel, 7 ft. beam, and 2-1/2 ft. deep inside. The 'shell' costs £10 with £4 additional for sails, spars, and oars.

*2* One of these boats measured 16 to 17 ft. keel, 21 ft. over stems, 6 ft. beam, 2-1/2 ft. inside, and 2 tons register.

Annan Trawling Smacks *1*

The principal fishing in the upper Solway is trawling for flounders in winter, and for shrimps and prawns in spring and summer. A neat little smack is used, the only craft of its kind in Scotland, so far as I am aware. With the exception of a narrow open hatchway with very high 'commons,' these boats are full-decked. The decks and high commons are necessary by reason of the dangerous sea that rises in the Solway with high winds and strong tides. The average draught of water is from three to four feet aft.

Two men form a crew for winter fishing, but at the shrimp fishing, where the net is lighter and weather better, the skipper often works alone, or with the help of a boy.

The Annan fishermen mostly make their own sails, as they also make their own trawl-nets. The first trawl fishermen came to Annan from Morecambe Bay some fifty years ago, and they introduced these trawl-boats ; but both model and rig have been greatly improved since. Most of these smacks are now carvel-built.

*1* The average size is 23 ft. keel, and 30 ft. over all; 9 to 9-1/2 ft. beam; 4 ft. deep inside; and 5 tons register. The average draught of water is from 3-1/2 to 4 ft. aft; the average draught forward about 2 ft. Cost, about £45 to the carpenter, or with sails and rigging complete, about £80.

Stornoway Yawls

The boats in which Lewis men worked long lines eighteen or twenty years ago have been a good deal superseded by Fifies and Zulus, but a few are still in use, though probably doomed to extinction.

This Lewis boat had a resemblance to the Pentland Firth yawl, but was much larger, say 20 to 25 feet keel, and 5 or 6 feet longer over sterns, and broad in the beam and quarters, both stems, especially the stern-post, being raked. The sails used were broad, low lugs. Five or six men formed the crew, and oars were a good deal used when working lines. East coast fishermen used to speak contemptuously of them as 'pikers.' They were quite open, and clinker-built.



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