Saturday, 29 September 2012

The lang skiffs are here

Only twelve hundred years or so after the Norsemen introduced the inhabitants to the sport of competitive rowing fleets of long narrow double-ended boats are appearing all round the coasts of Scotland.

An idea that sparked somewhere near the Scottish Fisheries Museum in Anstruther three years back has caught on, with over eighty kits of identical parts cut on a computer-controlled router and turned out by Alec Jordan from his workshop in Kirkcaldy, to date. As fleets turned out for regattas throughout the summer the project started to spread like a very benign virus, combining communities and their collective woodworking, organising and rowing skills.

Diverse groups are forming in rural and island communities, some already together through existing clubs and schools, others uniting through the love of boats and rowing. The idea is spreading abroad too, with several boats building in other parts of Europe such as England  and the Netherlands, also some in the United States and Australia. The first Skiffie Worlds will be held in Ullapool next July.

There are various formats to organise a build, but most seem to adopt the historic model of financing the boat through 64 shares, typically costing £60, then operating the finished skiff via a club. In truth very little organisation is required once the build has been done, most setting up a website for communications and booking the use of the boat.

In my corner of the West coast the Seil Skiff is well advanced and we hope to have her launched before the year is out. We adopted the sixty four share model to finance her and the community decided not to seek out charitable funds, something we're pleased about. You can follow the build on her website here:-

I feel privileged to be involved in an exciting and absorbing local venture, bringing people together in a productive way and hopefully leading to many happy days on the water.

The regattas to date have shown that these boats are very fast and seaworthy indeed. Races typically take place over a course of a couple of miles, with heats for different age groups. They also provide a huge impetus to local economies, the larger events attracting hundreds of participants and spectators.

For full information and plenty of photographs and more visit

The image at the top is by Paul Kennedy inspired by the Portobello skiff Jenny Skylark.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

St Abbs Returned

Eight years after leaving Edinburgh College of Art Paul Kennedy is now well established in his studio in Glasgow's Merchant City. To date much of his work has been inspired by the city, depicting a narrative between the people and their surroundings. 
For the new work in his latest exhibition Paul has revisited St Abbs, a favourite holiday haunt of his family for generations, not only on trips finding new images but remembering those from his own childhood and also reconstructing and imagining a few scenes from the past caught in his Grandparents old black and white snapshots.

A recent change of emphasis from mainly figurative work to expressive painting has given him greater freedom to explore his use of colour. The old images being black and white allow him an unconstrained palette.

'Everything has its own story. I like the idea of bringing history into my painting in more ways than one. For me this exhibition is the start of a new direction, a discovery of something that has always been there and just brought to light not too unlike finding my Grans photo album'.

The exhibition is now on at the Billcliffe Gallery in Glasgow city centre. Paul can be contacted via facebook and his website is


Tuesday, 18 September 2012

More Mystery Yachts

Another intriguing image has come my way, courtesy of David Bradshaw, who has been going through old family albums. 

David believes that the above image was taken at Helensburgh and I'm inclined to agree, as we can see a Clyde steamer at the pier to the left and the distant landscape opposite looks about right. It's obviously been regatta day, as the Firth is littered with the little livery boats beloved by generations of Scots Doon the Watter, many turned out by the Bute Fyfes.

As to the date and the design of the two interesting little yachts in the foreground I've got some ideas but don't want to spoil the fun.

To date we've had a 100% success rate in finding the mystery yachts (see She's a Herreshoff  and  She's a Fife  ) so let's see how it goes this time.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

On the Clyde with Spratt and McGlurg - A Story from the Past

Looking back today, with only a few months until with any luck a grateful government will start to pay my pension, 1995 seems like yesterday. It was the year the troops came out of Northern Ireland, Nick Leeson broke the bank (the first of many to do so) and team NZ won the Americas Cup for the first time. In 1962, when the events I'm about to describe took place the main characters Spratt and McGlurg must have had the same feelings about the end of the war in Europe (they always addressed each other and the world by surname only and I will do likewise). To me that was prehistory, my mother having kindly delayed having me until a year or so after my father got back from the Far East.

To the fourteen-year-old me Spratt and McGlurg were human dinosaurs, with their heavy harris tweed jackets, faded checked cotton shirts, the frayed collars held together with thin regimental ties, wide bullet-proof corduroy trousers and ancient brogue shoes. Going sailing the only concessions were the addition of tattered yellow oilskin jackets when the seas started coming over, a yachting cap and of course  the shoes. The latter got changed for faded porous deckshoes with treacherous "non-slip" soles guaranteed to slide you over the side in an instant and moth-eaten uppers bleached through years in the open. As I was to learn, in order to leave all grit and sand behind they only got changed in the tender, a highly varnished clinker-built rather tippy shell, adding an interesting dimension to the risky enough operation of getting aboard. Looking back these survivors from a former age were probably approaching fifty.

I blame my parents for my obsession with boats, as from the earliest age I was deposited at St Abbs for a summer month and there was nothing else to do but go on the water (I was actually there in utero, but recreational options are limited in that soggy environment). It was also one of the tragedies of my early life that my parents quite forgot to manage my condition by acquiring a yacht, or indeed any other kind of floating object. I was reduced to watching with envy as local boys went to sea in their tiny home-built square-riggers, about which I've already written here:- learning-about-sea-at-st-abbs
Back home I would scour papers and magazines to find affordable ways of getting afloat, cut out the advertisements and leave them lying around as rather unsubtle hints. One such clipping which depicted an ugly bulbous inflatable contraption made from rubberised canvas with a tiny sail hoisted on an aluminium tripod surrounded by a smiling suntanned superfit family about to climb aboard, photographed on some lake in the Black Forest, was selected only on the basis that it seemed  very affordable. Leaving this out on the kitchen table proved a serious mistake when I got a lecture on how Britain was missing out on the Wirtschaftswunder.

My nagging eventually did get a result. Probably through some business connection of my father's Messrs Spratt and McGlurg got to hear of my existence and must have decided to assess my potential value as an item of foredeck fodder. They were co-owners of a pre-war racing machine, the Griselda, which lay half a mile offshore at the entrance to a sea-loch twenty miles from Glasgow. As they had not tangled with Emperor Hirohito their respective children were a few years older than I was. This had enabled them to stage a mutiny, leaving their fathers somewhat crewless and sparking their interest in me.

Thus early one grey Saturday morning I walked round to McGlurg's grand residence. Soon we left the West End in his Rover, picked up Spratt and travelled westwards, me sitting in the back clutching a luridly bright brand-new pair of navy blue sandshoes with white "non-slip" soles as described above. Plainly my mother wanted me back alive. Apart from this my attire was precisely the same as normal shoreside, namely "short" trousers that descended to just above the knee, fabricated by Mother on her hand-driven Babcock machine from some heavy-duty grey flannel to a prewar pattern, knitted hose rising to the knee, shirt from some similar fabric to the "shorts" but marginally lighter, school tie and sweater. Of course in those days no-one even contemplated wearing any form of buoyancy aid.

During the journey Spratt and McGlurg conversed on sundry matters, ignoring my presence but occasionally referring to me as "the boy". We travelled at great speed, the trip punctuated by near accidents with other vehicles, eliciting occasional outbursts of strong language. (I did discover, however, that McGlurg had learned at some stage not to mess with the Glasgow tramcars, then in their last days. One of those would have made easy meat of the Rover.)

Soon we were parked outside the enormous stone exterior of the Royal Something Yacht Club, home to hundreds of lovely models (of yachts I mean) and oil paintings of past lovelies (more yachts). I got a glimpse into a dark, wood-panelled bar where a couple of denizens were contemplating the day over a post-breakfast gin.

The tender was launched, Spratt took the oars and pulled us out against a stiff easterly setting up a nasty short chop. The shoes were changed, then we climbed aboard the Griselda, a slender rule-beater from the early days. I knew nothing of the history then and no-one enlightened me, she was just a little floating world apart, a living thing still pretty despite her brightwork being not-so-glossy, and her metalwork rather green.

Any interest in the condition of the Griselda or her provenance soon vanished. Spratt and McGlurg were deep in animated conversation about "some ******* fool" who had left the main halyard at the top of the mast and how it could be recovered. Firmly gripping the shrouds it was possible to squint upwards and catch a glimpse of the mast truck swinging widely as the Griselda rolled, every movement at deck level magnified about thirty times at a height of forty feet, the errant shackle flying to and fro in crazy arcs against a backdrop of clouds scudding past. Within a minute or two the discussion turned to "the boy" and my hosts decided send me up for it.

Even bloggers must sometimes tell the truth and I cannot say that this was the day of my self-discovery as a top-mast man. In fairness I did make a few, rather feeble attempts, getting a foot on the boom, but hadn't a clue how to rise further. To make matters worse I was always hopeless at gym and have never had a head for heights. This probably saved my life, because so tragically wanting were my efforts that Spratt and McGlurg were soon discussing alternative plans, including towing the Griselda to a naval base some miles away, where there was a suitable dock.

Then inspiration struck and one of my tormentors announced "Jonny Brinkman will have arrived at the Club by now, let's get one of his boys to fetch it." Off went Spratt in the tender, rowing like an olympian and a little while and doubtless a couple of shoe changes later returned with a boy a couple of years older than me, built like an ape, who heaved himself up like it was part of his normal morning's exercise (and it may have been, for all I know), then sliding back down. When Spragg prised the shackle from his teeth he was able to give me a rather patronising sneer.

By comparison the rest of the day didn't feel too fraught with danger, although it could hardly be described as sedate. It was probably the first time I experienced that mild sense of panic before one gets underway as the sails whip and flap and the wind seems much stronger than it really is. Once freed from her chain the Griselda was off like the old thoroughbred she was, lying over and slicing the waves, spray and occasional lumps of solid sea coming over as the day progressed and the wind got up.

My second and thankfully final terror of the day was being ordered forward to catch the mooring, with a warning as if I needed it that the aforesaid denizens, no doubt now on their twentieth or thirtieth gins and suitably critical, would be watching. Suitably terrified I crawled forward along the foredeck and managed somehow to hang onto both yacht and mooring bridle long enough for Spratt to recover it and bring our adventure to a safe end.

Post Script

Strangely I did get invited back a few times and eventually got to like Spratt and McGlurg quite a lot. Spratt had been to the States a few times in the thirties with the Scottish sixes, but I didn't know that in time to ask him about it. Nor would either ever speak about what he'd done in the War and as they're both long dead now we'll never know. There's a lot of recent history that is in serious danger of being lost for ever if we don't take steps to preserve it, which is one of the reasons for this blog.

The image at the top of this post is by my talented nephew Paul Kennedy, whose website can be visited here,

The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water