Monday, 31 October 2011

John Gardner's Quincy Skiff

The late John Gardner of Mystic Seaport was apparently unable to pursue a teaching career on graduating from Columbia because of his political views, but formal education's loss was a great boon to the wooden boat community. Very few people combine practical ability with good writing skills, but his books on building classic small boats are so clear and inspirational that each chapter seems to cry out "please build me".

So I found myself while building the Swampscott dory in Volume one devouring the other chapters and wondering which would shout the loudest. In the event the modified Quincy skiff won out and became my next project. At the start of the chapter on her the Guru writes that she

“should row well, but build easily and cheaply. This is not a racing shell, obviously, nor is it intended for the open sea. This simple skiff should do well on lakes, large rivers, and sheltered waters along the coast.”

There were aspects of the construction that seemed particularly intriguing. She has an almost flat bottom formed from four softwood planks spliced together, two per side, to form chine logs that will be cross-planked over later.

Once cut to shape, the logs are set upside down on horses positioned at a convenient height, then suitably bevelled, and the transom and stem are added. Next the enormous plywood sides, over eighteen feet long and each needing two scarfs, are tortured into shape.

The book didn't actually say how difficult it would be to do that last bit, nor did it point out that a dry fit usually goes rather better than the real thing. I did this build single-handed and could have done with a helper to control the plywood sides, sticky and slimy with glue, as they slithered around on the temporary building moulds. Bringing the sides together was a real struggle, as I had decided to add both at once, in order to balance out the inevitable stresses on the jig. For a while this caused me a real panic, until I decided to screw battens to the plywood sides to get a proper grip on them. The battens could then be subjected to a lot of force with Spanish windlasses.

Fortunately I wasn't using a fast-hardening glue, and I eventually managed to close the gaping spaces at the bow at the expense of a lot of cursing and badly blistered and glued hands. After this planking the bottom and adding the seats was pretty simple.

The result was a stylish and very unusual rowing boat. The only problem was that we don't live on a lake or large river, nor is our coast all that sheltered. Perhaps I had skipped over that first paragraph in my eagerness to get building. With her flat bottom and long slab sides this skiff is no boat for a cross wind of any strength, or a seaway. In a calm she's a delight to row and my wife still recalls the trip we had one very crisp and sunny New Year's day, travelling effortlessly over four miles down our loch and back.

Because calm days don't happen often in our part of the world the skiff passed fairly soon into the hands of friends who did live beside a sheltered loch, whose sons got great use out of her. They are now grown men and the family have moved on, but the skiff is still on the lochside, more than twenty years later and reasonably serviceable, although some of her bottom cross-planks have been replaced from time to time.

Update on 2 November 2011

Dave Gentry has kindly allowed me to share some photos he took of this Quincy skiff doing good service in the catering trade. He has a fascinating collection of designs on his own website, here:-

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Bruce Sandison on Fish Farming

Bruce Sandison, who is undoubtedly the leading defender of Scotland's wild fish and a gifted writer has kindly given me permission to publish as a guest post the following article, which appeared recently in the press.

Farming salmon seemed like a good idea at the time, back in 1965; the perfect adjunct and enhancement to subsistence crofting in remote rural areas of the West Highlands and Islands of Scotland. It was believed that the industry would provide much-needed employment by attracting young families to the area who would then sustain and expand every aspect of community life; new faces and new ideas, a bustling economy and busy shops, more children at local schools, a golden age of growth and prosperity.

Other people were less sanguine and predicted that the end result would most likely be tears and acrimony, pollution on an unprecedented scale and environmental disaster. They claimed that insufficient research had been carried out into the environmental consequences of salmon farming and that to proceed without a sound scientific base upon which to build would be irresponsible

Fifty years down the line the doubters seem to have been right: conflict and acrimony currently surrounds the industry. Many communities in the West Highlands and Islands are mounting furious battles to try to keep the fish farmers out of their back yards; thousands of people sign petitions opposing the expansion of salmon farming into new areas; conservation groups are considering legal action, accusing fish farms of driving distinct populations of wild salmon and sea-trout to the verge of extinction. They allege that the sea lice that breed in their billions in the farmers fish-packed cages attack not only farm salmon, but also wild fish that pass by farm cages.

These allegations have been vigorously denied by the industry who say that there is not enough evidence to suggest that sea lice were responsible for any declines in wild fish stocks. None of these claims and counter-claims is new: for more than twenty years the industry and those concerned about the adverse impact they say salmon farming is having on the marine and freshwater environment have been fighting over this same ground. All of the many attempts at finding common purpose through consultation have failed: meetings, joint committees, discussion papers, aquaculture framework strategies, codes of conduct, et al.

Salmon farming is judged to be one of Scotland's most successful industries and is estimated to be worth upwards of £450 million pounds to the Scottish economy. The industry also supports 6,500 jobs, many of which are in remote rural areas where other employment opportunities are limited. Scottish farmed salmon is one Scotland's biggest export earners, second only to whisky in value, and yet, in spite of this, the Scottish fisheries minister, Stewart Stevenson has now suggested that new legislation planned for later this year might see farms banned from areas that are important for wild fish stocks. The minister also revealed that he is considering forcing fish farmers to publish information about sea lice levels on specific farms; a measure that is already in place in Norway to protect their iconic stocks of wild salmon and sea-trout.

Like many observers of the irresistible rise and rise of salmon farming, I am puzzled by this apparent sea-change in the minister's attitude towards an industry that heretofore has appeared to be beyond reproach; an industry that has benefited mightily from continuous support by governments regardless of their political persuasion. Since the 1980's, when doubts about the environmental impact of salmon farms began to be voiced, many alleged government shielded the industry from any form of meaningful public scrutiny and repeatedly resisted all calls for an independent public inquiry into these murky waters.

At the heart of this dispute are matters of vital importance, now, and to future generations: on the one hand, is a perceived risk to the health and integrity of an irreplaceable part of Scotland's natural heritage, on the other, the economic wealth that the fish farmers say they bring to the nation. With both parties entrenched in intractable positions, finding a solution is not going to be easy. But there has to be a solution and a new initiative by government has been launched in an attempt to bring the warring parties together. An influential Scottish parliament committee appears to be promoting this initiative, led by its Convener, MSP Rob Gibson. The committee is determined to get to the bottom of the bitter argument raging between anglers and the fish farmers and propose to invite interested parties to round-table discussion to address their concerns.

The beauty of the wild lands of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland draw thousands of visitor each year to enjoy the majesty of their mountains, moorlands and myriad lochs and rivers. Visiting yachts anchor in sheltered bays, their crews coming ashore in the evening to local restaurants and hostelries to relish wonderful seafood; scallops, mussels, lobsters crab and prawns, freshly delivered each day. Children splash in crystal-clear shallows and play on white-sand, near-deserted beaches. Local communities rely on income by providing visitors with bed and breakfast accommodation in their homes, self-catering cottages and caravan sites and other services. Guesthouses and hotels also provide accommodation and extensive employment opportunities.

Rod and line sport anglers prized the salmon, sea-trout and brown trout that thrived in pristine, unpolluted waters. But now many lochs and rivers that once supported remarkable numbers of fish are virtually devoid of these species because, it is alleged, of the impact of fish farm sea lice. The Loch Maree Hotel in Wester Ross, where some 2,000 sea-trout could be could caught be each season and which employed eleven gillies to guide anglers to the best fishing spots has closed its doors. Other West Highland and Islands fisheries that enjoyed a world-wide reputation for the quality of sport have suffered a similar fate; such as Stack, More, Shiel and Eilt, and the rivers Dionard, Laxford, Inver, Kirkaig and Ailort.

The late Mrs Pauline Cameron-Head of Inverailort House is credited with bringing the benefits of salmon farming to Scotland. In 1965 she agreed to lease her land for use as a shore-base from which to service a fish farm in Loch Ailort; a sea loch on the famous 'Road the Isles' close to where Bonnie Prince Charlie landed in 1745 to try to reclaim his father's lost kingship of the British Isles. The fish farm company involved in the deal was Marine Harvest, then a wholly-owned subsidiary of the multi-national Unilever organisation, now Norwegian-owned and the largest producer of farm salmon in the world. The company operate a fish farm in Loch Ailort to this day.

Loch Eilt and the River Ailort, which drain into Loch Ailort used to be counted as amongst the most prolific sea-trout systems in Europe that could produce 1,500 sea-trout each season. Now, the numbers of sea-trout caught may be counted on the fingers of one hand, with some fingers to spare. A picture, taken in1941 of Lochan Dubh, an extension of the river, shows just how many sea-trout used to run the system. It was sent to me by Iain Thornber - historian, archaeologist and author from Morvern. He explained that explosives were used to kill the fish in the picture; a criminal offence, hence the soldier with the fishing rod strategically placed to try to suggest that the fish had been caught legally. All of the fish were sea-trout and used to feed Special Operations Executive commandos stationed at nearby Inverailort Castle. Iain remembers Pauline Cameron-Head telling him that the number of sea-trout in the system was so great that the noise they made splashing to upstream spawning grounds could be heard from the castle.

The assumption that fish farming would be initiated and carried out by crofters never materialised; capital costs were high, disease episodes and consequent loss of stock frequent and the expertise required to successfully rear fish to slaughter-weight was woefully absent. This knowledge gap was filled by fishery scientists from government agencies, the Fisheries Research Services, now renamed as Marine Scotland, and by scientists from a number of Universities, including Aberdeen, St Andrews and the Department of Aquaculture at Stirling University. Funding grants to further research programmes into fish farming came from the European Union, UK government and industry bodies.

Within a short time the industry began to consolidate into fewer and fewer farms owned and run by fewer and fewer multi-national companies, the majority of which were Norwegian. In the 1980's when 20,000 tonnes of farmed salmon were being produced annually the industry directly employed in excess of 2,000 people on their farms, fulfilling the claim that they were creating jobs. However, by the mid-1990's when production peaked at nearly 150,000 tonnes, employment figures, because of advances in technology - particularly automatic feeding systems - the number of jobs had fallen to below 1,000. Indirect employment, however, soared, reaching an alleged 7,000 people; but almost 50% of these jobs were taken by immigrants for Europe, the Middle East and Iberia and some 25% of those were illegal entrants to UK.

The industry claims that it is one of the most highly regulated businesses in the world and open to constant scrutiny and control. This is substantially true, but those worried by the fish farmer's actions suggest that such scrutiny is poorly implemented and ineffective; one anomaly being that for most of its existence the Crown Estate had the sole right to issue sea-bed licences to operate fish farms and to issue planning permissions. The Crown Estate benefits to the tune of approximately £2 million a year from fish farming and this suggested a clear conflict of interest. After more than seven years of government promises, the planning role was given to local authorities. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) also has to give their approval for operating cages in the sea and generally did. For instance, during the period 2008 to 2011 SEPA received more than two hundred applications, all but fifteen of which were approved.

The problems for wild salmon and sea-trout from fish farms are, however, vividly illustrated by comparing wild fish numbers in East coast rivers such as Spey, Dee, Tay and Tweed with those in the West Highlands and Islands: whilst there has been a total collapse of wild stocks in many of the later, with few signs of recovery, stocks in the former are currently producing record numbers of fish returning to spawn. There are no fish farms in East coast waters because, when fish farming began, it was decided to adopt a precautionary principal to protect these major rivers, and give the industry free reign to operate amongst the smaller rivers in the West. In substance, this is the core of the present dispute: wild fish that have survived in these waters since the end of the last Ice Age are being sacrificed for the financial benefit of a few, against the express wishes of the many.

There is a way out of this impasse that would, I believe, be of benefit to both sides of the argument: move the industry into closed containment systems by building a solid barrier between the fish in the container, and the sea water in which the container floats. There would be immense financial savings for the industry, including freedom from sea lice attack and other sea-born diseases, reduced expenditure on chemicals and medicines, fewer escapes from these new farms and a more secure work-platform for staff. Water from the containers could be cleaned and recycled back into the sea. Even better, and more secure, is to operate these containers from land-based, onshore sites.

For anglers, wild salmon and sea-trout would have unhindered and safe access to their natal spawning grounds to get on with what they do best, the propagation of their species.  Such systems, tried and tested, already exist and are being introduced in Canada. The Norwegians themselves are also showing great interest. It makes sense; at least it does to me and it offers a realistic opportunity to bring this sad, sorry, costly and unseemly conflict to an end.

This photograph shows Major Donald Gilchrist greeting Mrs Pauline Cameron-Head, who wears the green beret, a privilege extended to her by the Commandos in recognition of either her ability to keep them under control off-duty or her skills at blowing up fish for their dinner with dynamite, I'm not sure which. I also don't know which would have been the more dangerous.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Swampscott Dory

"Dories have long been recognized as fine seaboats, but their low initial stability and active response to wave action is apt to be disconcerting to the sailor unaccustomed to dories."

The late John Gardner of Mystic Seaport combined a massive understanding of the history and practicalities of small boat design and construction with an ability to write lucid and interesting prose to guide the novice through his or her first few projects.

When I got a copy of "Building Classic Small Craft" about twenty five years ago I had just completed the Joel White Nutshell, about which I have already enthused - here- and was ready for a larger project. The book was a treasure chest of interesting shapes and romantic histories, evocative of the coast of Maine in its transition from a series of traditional fishing ports to a holiday destination, conjuring up the spirit of Winslow Homer.


Here were fully detailed drawings of everything from planks to spars and sails, with simple instructions and words of encouragement. Long evenings were spent agonising over which of these evocative craft should grace the shores of Loch Melfort. 

There were a number of factors in the choice of the Swampscott dory as my next build. The shape was enticing, a lovely curve to the stem and an extreme "tombstone" stern, plus an utterly insane leg o' mutton mainsail and tiny jib set on an unstayed mast. I read that if you saw a line squall coming up you could throw the whole rig overboard in an instant and the boat would ride to it on her mainsheet like a sea anchor. That transom could never take an outboard, so rowability was a major factor.

Dories evolved in ancient history when wide flexible planks of cedar or pine were available, many presumably coming form old-growth forests long since destroyed. Plywood is of course an excellent modern alternative, stable and capable of providing a watertight glued structure.  Also there weren't too many planks to cut, unlike some of the other lovely designs in the book.

Like most amateur projects my dory was massively over-built. The hull planking came from 9mm marine ply, sourced from an ordinary builder's merchants, put together upside down over a temporary strong back set into the frames. The latter were cut off to length in due course and remained in the finished boat.

To get the sixteen foot length most of the planks had two scarfs.

I hadn't learned the delights of epoxy and glued the lands together with a polyurethane glue that went off in contact with moisture, not a problem in Argyll, but a plant spray was useful in occasional dry days. I didn't entirely trust the glue and added hundreds of copper nails as well, quite unnecessarily.

Don't paint the inside this colour - it attracts dung beetles
End of shed unbolted to get her out - it never recovered
The plank dimensions in the book were accurate and everything went together pretty well. My one gripe with these old American designs is with the profiles of centreboards and rudders. We now know that a good hydrofoil shape will make a world of difference to the performance of any vessel through the water and while there's an historical argument for keeping the traditional slab shape there's also a lot to be said for improving performance when it can easily be achieved. Here is the board, as drawn, just after I had cast in the required lead to make it sink.

In the Spring of 1988 the dory Anne, named after an understanding wife, took the water.

During the build process I had dreams of the result being an ideal boat for messing about, perhaps evening sails with a few friends, one in the bow with the case of beer passing refreshments down the line as required. Homer had after all got five boys aboard his admittedly slightly larger craft. But the dory turned out to be no picnic boat. Neither wife nor dog showed any great enthusiasm for going out in what was in reality quite a racy machine.

Dory and Nutshell
I found that I was mainly taking the dory Anne out on my own, which gave me a good sense of her qualities. One was her extreme sensitivity to weight distribution. Any movement forward would bring her sharply into the wind, so I changed the steering by removing the tiller and substituting a yoke with lines leading round the boat, enabling her to be controlled from anywhere.

The new Commander

Eventually dory Anne found a new owner, younger and fitter than I and with friends willing to experience the excitement of a hull that heals just so far, the rail exactly on the water, but that is almost impossible to push further. Under her new commander she made frequent explorations down the loch, invariably bringing her new crew home safe and well, if a little wet. I don't think the experience was unique, because when John Gardner's Volume Two came out there were drawings for wider, improved version. The quotation above comes from there.

From a construction point of view the dory lasted well. She endured many years of minimal maintenance and is still around somewhere, but I don't know where. She has been through a number of changes of ownership, generally and as far as I know has never been sold.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

A dirty old night on the Clyde

It was late in the season and the sun had not been seen all day. If it hadn't been my turn to assist the race officer there's no way I would have gone, and as I drove down through wind and rain I wondered if even the Loch Longs would turn out to race.

They always do, of course, and on that evening fifteen or so years ago there were also a pair of Islanders.  With only two starts there wasn't a lot for us to do. I had a good view from the top of the clubhouse and took these pictures of Cara and Gigha battling it out.
Above is Gigha, then recently restored and owned by David Spy, romping in before the start.

Here is the scene in the last minute, followed by a couple of shots just after the start.

The boats were sent off on a long beat from Gourock to Hunters Quay, followed by a short reach down the Firth and then a run home. The race officer figured that even a couple of hardened old sea-dogs like David and Martyn would find that enough.

Here are some shots of Gigha as she bashed her way over towards the Kilcreggan shore.

The weather thickened so much that we lost sight of both contestants for a while. Eventually as visibility got even worse the wind moderated a bit and Gigha emerged from the murk, a few hundred yards ahead of her rival.

Gigha carried her full canvas throughout this race, which meant that she was pretty pressed at the start but had the advantage later, helped by David's crew being willing to hoist a spinnaker. Martyn decided to keep the full main and fly a tiny storm-jib. This helped Cara after the start, but gave her a serious handicap later on.

Traditionally the Islanders never reefed, but I think that with stronger modern sail-cloths they are now easily over-pressed and go better with a shorter main and not dragging their side-decks through the water.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

More ramblings on Bute - and why this man kerfed children

In the early part of the Nineteenth century, before the railways and steamers turned it into a holiday resort, Rothesay was a centre for the herring fishery and associated commerce. The Firth of Clyde generally was home to countless little herring skiffs, with almost every port having its family of boat-builders and numerous variations in design, but all sharing the basic features of speed, light build, deeply sloping keels and lugsail rig. They were nimble to handle the nets and fast, partly to get the catch home but mainly to run for safety in sudden changes of weather. On fairs and days of rest these boats turned out rigged for racing and in due course the first small racing yachts would copy the skiffs pretty closely.

In those early days before the fishing industry became mechanised and destroyed the stocks the Clyde contained herring in their millions and a major industry evolved, curing these and sending them to the Baltic states in fast schooners designed for the purpose. One such vessel was the Inverune, built for Donald Macewen originally of Otter, near Inverary, around the end of the Eighteenth Century, when he moved to the isle of Bute. On Donald's death the Inverune passed to his son John, by this time already her master, and his herring business passed to his younger son Colin.

John continued to trade with the Inverune for many years, carrying salt herring to Scandinavia and returning with timber for the ship building industry and occasionally making shorter trips within Scotland with general cargoes. He built up a considerable fortune, while his wife produced children at a prodigious rate, ending with a round dozen. Disaster struck on a date which I have been so far unable to discover, but probably around 1840, when the Inverune was driven ashore on the West coast of Ireland in a winter gale and broke her back.

Captain John's career now took a curious new turn. In 1843 the Great Disruption happened in Scotland, when an enormous number of members and preachers in the Church of Scotland left to form a new organisation, the Free Church. Some of the issues were doctrinal, which Scots keep falling out about (an old professor once told me that the reason the Scots love to argue is because it's free). Others were political and related to the Church of Scotland having sided with the landowners in the clearances and enforced emigrations.

Curiously, because of his background, a major supporter of the new church was the Eton-educated John Campbell, the second marquess of Breadalbane and a freemason and massive landowner. It's difficult after all this time to understand why such a fellow would be attracted to a disputatious and frugal bunch like the Free Church. Campbell commissioned a very fine yacht to carry missionaries from the new church to the islands and the wooden schooner Breadalbane was duly built by J Barnhill of Cartsdyke, West Greenock and launched in 1844. At just over fifty feet over the deck 13.4 feet in beam and twentynine tons she was apparently a fine sight.

John Campbell
It's said to be very bad luck to go to sea with a preacher and Captain John Macewen now had to contend with up to six of the creatures. One can imagine them, like black crows, pacing the deck engaged deep in discussion on textual minutiae or huddled in prayer in the vessel's commodious main cabin. For the next few years Macewen took these strange evangelicals to remote places where the people were often still at least partially pagan. I've read that there were difficulties finding volunteers for the more extreme places, like St Kilda. Indeed that island ended up with one of the most extreme members of the new cult, who could hardly have been welcomed by a population struggling constantly to stay alive, scaling the cliffs to capture gannets and so on, without having to feed an additional and entirely unproductive mouth.

While this was going on Mrs Macewen back home in Rothesay gave birth to her twelfth and final child on the day after Midsummer 1848. He was to become Sir William Macewen, one of the most successful and inspirational surgeons of all time. During his childhood in Rothesay he was to spend time playing around the Fyfes' Red Shed and eventually learning some wood-working skills from them. Almost certainly what he learned from the Fyfes, not just in terms of manual skills, but also in confidence and self-reliance had a profound effect on his subsequent work.

By the age of twentynine the future Sir William was a full surgeon at the Royal Infirmary in Glasgow and at fortyfour he was Regius Professor at Glasgow University. Among his achievements he pioneered neuro-surgery by removing for the first time a brain tumour. The twentyfive year old patient was surprised to find himself alive after the procedure.

Initially a champion of anti-septic sprays Sir William converted early on to aseptic surgery, boiling his instruments and banishing those with wooden handles. He recognised the status and importance of nurses and was an enthusiast for women being educated and having their own careers. He made a detailed study of the growth of bone.

Throughout his career Sir William continued to moonlight as a police casualty surgeon and worked among some of the poorest of Glasgow's rapidly growing population. The children of recent immigrants from the Highlands and Ireland were often malnourished and suffered from the terrible deforming bone disease of rickets. Sir William recalled the Fyfes' practice of bending wood by the process known as kerfing, making a series of saw cuts across the plank and bending it. He adapted this by reversing it to enable the children's legs to be opened up, kerfed and straightened. Securely held in straight splints the young bones soon recovered.

Sir William's last major achievement was as a founder of Erskine Hospital, set up in 1916 to cope with the huge numbers of mutilated and limbless soldiers returning from the war. Again he recalled his early days in Rothesay, encouraging carpenters and pattern-makers from the shipyards to transfer into the manufacture of wooden artificial limbs.

Sir William declined to take holidays, but built himself a fine country retreat at Garrochty in the South-west corner of Bute, with a private pier for his boat. He continued to operate until shortly before his death in March 1924, just short of his seventysixth birthday.


Saturday, 15 October 2011

The Other Fyfes

The Fyfes of Bute

A great deal has been written about the legendary Fifes of Fairlie, the three generations of craftsmen who produced some of the loveliest yachts ever seen. Many of these are of course still around, a few in original condition but mostly re-incarnations and a few entire new-builds. In fact this talented family were spread much more widely than just around Fairlie and this post is an attempt to commemorate one of the other branches of the family which has been somewhat eclipsed by their more famous relatives, namely the Fyfes of Bute. The above appears to show this family of three brothers and some of their workforce in their yard on the shore at Ardmaleish, near where Alfred Mylne was later to establish his Bute Slip yard.

In her well-known history "Fast and Bonnie" May Fife McCallum recounts how:-

"A cousin [of William Fife I] John, who was a carpenter in Ardrossan, and his wife, both died about the same time, and an uncle in Ardrossan took care of their three sons. Apparently these orphaned boys were not happy in this household and walked from Ardrossan to Fairlie, a distance of about ten miles, to throw themselves on the mercy of their father's cousin. He took them under his wing and employed them as apprentices. On completion of their apprenticeship they crossed to the island of Bute where they set up a successful boat building business at Ardmaleish."

This struck me as a slightly romantic tale of Victorian hardship and kindness and I wondered if in fact the boys were transferred by agreement not just in order to be trained but also to add much needed workers to the rapidly expanding Fairlie yard. I decided to try to discover a little more from the records.

I find ancestral research fascinating and have had a lot of pleasure, for example, in tracing my own tribe back about eight generations. A few years ago this sort of research would have entailed numerous visits to the national and local archives and been too time-consuming for anyone with a career to undertake. Now thanks to some excellent websites matters are much easier.

There are still pitfalls, such as confusions over spelling and the tendency for families to favour particular forenames. There was also a Scottish tradition of naming later children after earlier ones who had died, which doesn't help the historian. Both of these aspects can be found in the Fyfe/Fife history, with forenames such as John and William being favoured.

According to May Fife McCallum a John Fyfe was born in Kilbirnie in 1743 and moved to the Earl of Glasgow's Kelburn Estate to work as a wright in 1770. He and his wife Janet, nee Fyfe and probably a cousin had at least six children of whom four sons, John, James, William and Allan followed their father's trade, William becoming the famous William Fife I. She goes on to record:-

"It appears that John Fyfe Junior, the eldest son of John the wright on Kelburn estate was building fishing boats at the beginning of the 19th century. Old customs records list fishing boats built by him at Fairlie and registered at Irvine, the local port of registration at that time. As a youth William Fife, born in 1785, may have been attracted to his older brother John's business, and thus began his introduction to boat building."

Nothing more is said of this John Fyfe Junior and I was intrigued to find out if he could possibly have been the father of the three orphans, whose names I already knew were John, James and Thomas. I discovered the following, from the 1841 Census:-

This establishes two things. Firstly this John is not John Fyfe Junior, as he was only thirty in 1841. Secondly he was an established shipbuilder, not simply a carpenter. A further search showed that he died from jaundice on 14 May 1848. I couldn't find his wife's date of death. Note that John's brother James is living in the house, as he features later in this story.

A look at the 1851 Census showed that the boys weren't living with William Fife I at that time. Here is the entry for that famous household:-

So where were they? A further search shows two of them in Ardrossan, John a ship carpenter lodging at number 5 Harbour Street and James with his uncle James next door, still an apprentice. It also confirms that both were born in Fairlie. I haven't managed to trace younger brother Thomas and it seems the youngest, Daniel, had passed away.

This seems to confirm that far from being helpless little orphans the brothers were useful, fully or at least partly trained ship carpenters by the time they moved back to their place of birth in Fairlie and joined the workforce of William Fife I. Nor did they stay there long, for by 1856 a large wooden building had gone up on the shore at Rothesay, the Red Shed, probably not actually red in colour but named for the red rocks on which it stood. Here is Alexander Wilson's depiction of it.

On the front at Rothesay in June 2003 during the Fife Regatta I made the acquaintance of a delightful and well-informed lady, who turned out to be Miss Jean M Fife, perhaps the last surviving member of the Bute Fyfe family still in Scotland. I kept in touch with her and she kindly supplied much more information, with permission to publish it as I saw fit. What follows is based on her research in local libraries, conversations with local residents and so on, but not least her own memories of her family and a lifetime of holidays on Bute.

It seems that there were two James Fyfes building boats in Rothesay in the mid 1850s, described as Senior and Junior, but with only half a generation between them. This suggests that Uncle James (born about 1816) had moved from Ardrossan and nephews James (born 1832), John (born 1833) and Thomas (born 1838) had crossed from Fairlie to join him.

These Bute Fyfes were an industrious bunch and built almost anything that could float, apart from yachts. In his "History of Rothesay and its People" Dr Lawson records:-

"The Red Shed was below the level of the road. What is now the [New Rothesay, later St John's] manse garden was the ground on which the larger keels were laid of smacks of a goodly size. Smacks, fishing skiffs and rowing boats (also small boats with round sterns and one sail) were the craft built by Messrs Fyfe. There would be a number of new boats lined up on the ground on the margin of the roadway extending to the ladies' bathing place (now Isle of Bute Sailing Club). Behind the ladies' and gents' bathing places (the old bathing station) the land was lower than the roadway. This depression was used in winter time for the laying up and storing of small rowing boats."
On 13 June 1857 The Buteman announced:-

"On Wednesday last there was launched form the boat-building yard of Messrs. Fyfe a beautiful craft of the gigger rig, c. 20 tons, property of Mr Thorburn, Farmer, Isle of Muck. She was named "The Islander's Bride" by Miss Richmond, daughter of Mr Richmond, Temperance Hotel-keeper, Rothesay and is intended to carry produce of the isle of Muck to Tobermory, the nearest market port in that district, the owner being the lessee of that isle. She has a very faviurable appearance and, considering the cost she is built for, promises to be a swift sailing craft and a credit to her young and enterprising builders."
This would have been one of the first larger vessels built by the family, but they went on to greater things. In April 1858 the Buteman again:-

"Launch! On Tuesday afternoon there was launched form the building yard of Messrs Fyfe a sloop of c. 70 tons burden, the property of Mr Kelso of Arran. The vessel was name "Catherine Kelso." The launch was conducted with systematic accuracy and the vessel glided down the ways gracefully. We hope soon again to witness the launch of as large, if not larger craft form the same yard."
By 1861 the Census described James as a Master Ship carpenter, John as a ship carpenter and Thomas  as a mere journeyman. One can see that they all knew their station.

With the coming of the railways and the Clyde steamers Rothesay entered its heighday as a holiday destination for all classes of society. Wealthier families could afford to build or rent villas along the front, while more ordinary ones went into lodgings for the annual Glasgow Fair. There was terrific business for boat hirers well into the Twentieth century, in fact right up to the arrival of cheap package holidays in the 1960s.

After many years the road along the front at Rothesay was improved and the Red Shed was taken down. The Fyfes moved round to Ardmaleish, where they established their second yard on the site where there now stands a sea-food factory. Thomas (Miss Fife's great-grandfather) didn't join his brothers. Instead he concentrated on building rowing skiffs and in the 1881 Census is described as "boat-builder/hirer (17 boats)."

My grandfather used to take his family on holiday to Port Bannatyne and my  late father recalled that on such a summer's day in the 1920s they were out in a rowing boat off Ardmaleish Point when a whale appeared alongside the boat and alarmed the family. Fortunately my great-aunt Maggie, recently returned from her exploits in South Africa and quite fearless, sang to it and made it go away. It's very likely that the vessel had been constructed by the Bute Fyfes, but probably not by Thomas, as he eventually couldn't cope with an outdoor life and went to spend the rest of his life working in the yard at Fairlie.

The remaining Fyfes eventually concentrated on building fishing skiffs and three of James Fyfe's sons were working at Ardmaleish until the 1930s, by which time the boats were getting much bigger and designs were changing fast. Two of John Fyfe's sons were trained there, but George was drowned aged twenty in 1898 and  John emigrated to Canada in 1906. Most of Miss Fyfe's surviving relatives are now in Canada and the United States.

Anyone interested in finding out a bit more about some ancient Kennedys can visit

Friday, 14 October 2011

Scottishboating is a year old

This blog is one year old today, so we're celebrating with a cake (and maybe a drop of the Laddie).

A few months ago Nikki and Bart visited from New Zealand, where apparently everyone is into healthy eating. They brought this cake, which is seriously good for putting instant energy into hungry outdoor types, be they salty sailors mariners, crazy canoeists, frozen fishermen or whatever. Of course it suits anyone allergic to wheat or just trying to lose weight. Here is the recipe for-

Nikki's Flourless Fruit Cake


2 whole oranges
6 eggs

generous teaspoon of each of nutmeg, cinnamon, mixed spice or whatever plus half teaspoon of ground cloves

300 grams ground almonds
2 kg dried mixed and fruit (chopped prunes, apricots, raisins, sultanas) soaked in rum or brandy for a few days


Simmer the oranges in water for 30 minutes, remove, allow to cool, remove pips and blend to a pulp.

Beat the eggs and add the pulped oranges. Mix well now and at every stage.

Add the spice.

Add the almond.

Add the fruit.

When all thoroughly mixed transfer to a square tin 23 to 24 cm lined with baking paper, outside wrapped in two layers of brown paper. Cover top with double layer of baking parchment with hole cut in middle.

Put in oven heated to 120 degrees electric fan or equivalent, bake for 3 hours 45 minutes.

Pour cup of rum or brandy over cooked cake while it's still warm.

I don't apologise for the above product placement, Bruichladdich do such a good job sponsoring the Crinan Classics.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Olympic Yachts - More Images from John Gardner

For Olympic year 1996 John Gardner produced a series of former competitors, which I am happy to show here.

Above is Magda IX, designed by Johan Anker, the Norwegian winner of the Gold at the 1912 Games held at Nynashamn in Sweden. Sadly there were only three entries, the others being Erna-Signe from Sweden and Heatherbell from Finland.

Next we move on to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the sailing events taking place outside Kiel. The British entry Lalage, designed by Charles E. Nicholson, won the Gold, after a tense series of seven races at the end of which Lalage, the Swiss Ylliam III and the Norwegian Lully II were all equal on points. Unexpectedly the Swiss entry was then disqualified for infringing the amateur status rule. In the redistribution of points between the other two Lalage came out one point better to win the series.

 In his mind's eye John must have been on almost the same spot I was sailing over in 1998 when I took this picture during a race in quite windy conditions. You can see the U-boat memorial in the background in both images.

Fast forward to 1948 at Torbay in Devon. Here we see Johan Anker's Dragon Class yachts, Norwegian design of course and the winner Pan also from Norway, narrowly beating Sweden's Slaghoken and Denmark's Snap.

For Helsinki in 1952 the Swede Richard Sarby designed the Finn Class for single-handed racing with an unusual rotating rig and unstayed mast. Competitors drew lots for identical boats built by Borreson of Denmark, whose Paul Elvstrom won the series with four wins, beating Britain's Charles Curry and the Richard  Sarby himself picking up the bronze.

Next we have the Star Class at the 1964 games on Enoshima Bay near Tokyo. The Bahamas entry Gem took the gold, the American Glider the silver and Sweden's Pelle Pettersson the bronze.

On Lake Ontario in 1976, in Solings, Denmark's Odds-n-Ends took the gold despite only winning one race, the Americans took the silver and the East Germans got the bronze.

Finally John Gardner chose to depict the Tornado catamarans at Long Beach in 1984, the gold going to New Zealand with a boat built by Reg White of Brightlingsea, Essex, the silver to the United States and the bronze to the Australia. With one hull out of the water these machines can easily reach twenty five knots.

The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water