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Folklife Festival 2003 > Scotland > Crafts > Boat Building
boat building


Scotland has a close connection to the sea. From its northernmost tip to its border with England in the south, Scotland is only 275 miles long, yet its coastline meanders for nearly 6,200 miles! There are 787 major islands and nearly as many firths (fiords), lochs (lakes), and rivers. Since prehistoric times, boats have been essential for transportation, trade, and fishing.

Most of the islands lie off Scotland's west coast and belong to the Inner or Outer Hebrides - or, as their residents call them, the Western Isles. Two major groups -- the Orkney Islands and the Shetland Islands - lie directly north of the Scottish mainland. (Some locals say that the difference between them is that "Shetlanders are fishermen with farms, while Orcadians are farmers with boats.") Fair Isle lies between them. Just 15 square km, and with a population of 70, Fair Isle is famed as the most remote inhabited place in Britain.

The northern islands share a Viking heritage, and in fact belonged to Norway until 1472, when they were transferred to Scotland as part of a royal marriage dowry. Many aspects of local folklore, language, and culture reflect this Scandinavian past - including boat-building.

Reflecting its ancient Norse lineage in the sweep of its hull, Ness Yoals have changed relatively little over time. Made of Scottish larch, the vessels are designed to be manageable in the stormy and turbulent tidal waters of the North Sea. Traditionally, yoals were used for fishing and transportation and were either rowed or sailed; today, many are also fitted with outboard motors. Ness Yoals are "clinker built" - that is, each wooden plank or strake overlaps the previous, lower one. Construction begins with laying the keel and raising the stem and stern posts. Later, baands, gunwales, hinnispots, ruths, and keabs are added.

Craftsman Ian Best is dedicated to reviving the local boat-building tradition on Fair Isle. He left Fair Isle for a three-year apprenticeship in Norway to learn wooden boat-building techniques and since his return has completed scores of Ness Yoals. A recent revival of interest in rowing and racing in the Shetlands and elsewhere has created a great demand for his expertly built craft.

Coming to the Festival...
Ian Best, Boatbuilder (Fair Isle)

—Ian grew up on Fair Isle, the most remote inhabited island in Great Britian. Intrigued by boat building and the close relationship between local Shetland "yoals"-which were brought to the Shetlands by Vikings who arrived there in the 9th century-and coastal craft still made in Norway, he served a formal apprentice as a wooden boat builder. His light, clinker-built 23' Ness Yoals, made from Scottish larch, can be rowed, sailed, or motored. He has been commissioned by the Smithsonian to begin a boat on Fair Isle, which will be finished on the National Mall.

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