At five in the evening they start coming in. Friday started with fog in Glasgow but here in the Western Isles it has been clear and calm all day. Good fishing weather for the small boats now nudging their way into the tiny Kallin Harbour. Small boats and smaller boats. The Tracy K, nine metres in length and skippered by Nick Ingledew, eases in between the Valaura and the Lizanna, a catch of prawns ready to unload. Angus Maclean - known locally as Angaidh Baeg - has already docked. He's been fishing for velvet crab. Beside the Tracy K, his boat - the Eun Mara, a Grimsay boat - is a tiddler. But it's reliable enough. It could probably find its own way home if he asked it. It's been fishing these waters for 53 years now and for two generations of Macleans. According to Angaidh Baig it is ''well-built and safe to work''.

Around the tiniest of headlands, Uileam Thearlaich - William Stewart to non-Gaelic speakers, or William Francis, he tells me, to distinguish himself from the other Willie Stewart on the small island of Grimsay - can't hear the compliment. But that's what it is. Sitting in his boiler suit rolling himself a cigarette, the 79-year-old knows the Eun Mara well. He should. His family built it. Indeed, the Stewarts built many of the boats that still dot the beaches of this small parcel of land as well as taking up space in the harbour.

The Stewarts have been building boats on Grimsay for more than 150 years; 150 years and three generations. Willie is the last of them, the last link to a tradition of boatbuilding that stretches back to the 1840s at least. He is a living piece of history, you could say; but it is a history that still has a future. That future is in the building we are sitting in, a boatshed, the island's first boatshed, a squat-looking, blue-roofed building. It is currently providing dry dock for the Mary Louise, a fishing boat new to these waters; and, in the woodshed, the holed and battered hull of a Grimsay boat originally built in the early 1970s and recently brought back from Oban by the son of the original owner (though he didn't know it was his father's boat when he bought it). Past and present have been brought together under one roof, and not just in timber and metal. Alongside Willie Stewart is

Ronald John MacLean, 38, a former joiner for the local council, and Cailean MacAulay, a 17-year-old Celtic fan who has been spending his school holidays and Saturdays since February in the boatshed. Neither is a Stewart but, with Willie's coaching, they are attempting to carry on the Stewart tradition while at the same time providing dry dock facilities, a new and much-needed service for the local fishermen who ply these waters.

MacLean is the boatshed's only employee (an internship for MacAulay might be a possibility in the future if he wants it). He manages the dry dock, does any repairs with which the local fishermen might need help and, when he has time, polishes up the skills he has learnt from Willie Stewart. ''It's important to learn as much as possible off Willie,'' he says in his sweet, soft island brogue, breaking off to speak to Stewart in Gaelic when the older man struggles to follow the conversation. ''My English is rusty,'' Stewart admits as he rolls another cigarette. He's been smoking since he was nine, he tells me.

The two men have already built a Grimsay boat together. ''He would come down and tell me what to do,'' explains MacLean, ''and that would keep me going for the day, and the next day he would come back and keep me right.'' Is he a hard taskmaster? ''He is, yes. It has to be done right. You don't want to go out in a boat that the bottom will fall out of.''

It is easier these days. When Willie Stewart was building boats, it was a hard way to make a living. He recalls having to carry the peat down on his back from the moorland, fetching the water in pails, suffering the ''peat-reek'', as he calls it, from the fires and working with the aid of only a few hand-tools. ''You had to cut the timber with a big saw - a handle on top and a handle on the bottom - and the sawdust was ruining your eyes,'' he says. It would take between five and nine weeks to build a Stewart boat. ''Of course, it's a lot handier now,'' he says, nodding at the electric saws and tools dotted around the woodshed.

Stewart actually spent most of his adult life fishing. He was married with a family and there was more money in going to sea. It was his brother Aonghas who was the last full-time boatbuilder, and when he died in 1994 the islanders were faced with the prospect of a tradition dying out. But the boatshed now looks as if it has put paid to that worry, while also bringing the Stewart boats to a wider public attention. The Stewart boats are an over-

looked treasure.

The shed is more than just a heritage accessory. As well as a way to preserve an island tradition, it grew out of the fishermen's need for a dry dock to repair their boats. And, significantly, those involved in its creation represent the island old and new - islanders such as Willie Stewart and incomers who have found on Grimsay a way of life their own pasts could not provide.

What that might be is not immediately obvious. At first glance Grimsay is rather unprepossessing. The landscape of this low-slung lump of land, joined by a causeway to Benbecula to the south and North Uist to the north, is all moorland and rock. Indeed, given that its name is most associated with the timber boats built by Willie Stewart's forefathers, the absence of trees is impossible to ignore. This is an island made for peat and sheep but not for wood; that was always imported from Skye or Glasgow. Drive around its single-track road and the only visual interruptions to the horizon are peat stacks and houses. But that's what Mary Norton likes about it. ''When you drive up to Clachan you see all the little houses on the horizon and it's like a drawing from The Little Prince,'' she explains. ''You can just see that you're absolutely on the edge of the world.''

On Grimsay, though, Norton is very much at the centre of things. The 60-year-old American came here in 1997. Formerly a worker in educational and multicultural projects in the US and Britain, she is retired now, but far from retiring. When it comes to island life she has all the new-found zealousness of a religious convert. She plays Gaelic songs on her car's sound system and insists on using Gaelic names. Everyone else is a little more laissez-faire about these things. For the first couple of hours in his company I call Caleain Calum by mistake. He is not in the least upset; ''just call me Colin'', he says. But Norton is insistent that I give him his proper Gaelic name.

And Grimsay's latest facility owes much to that same fascination - or should we call it obsession - with local culture. When Norton arrived on the island after a few years in Argyll, and bought the old schoolhouse in Kallin that had been abandoned in the early nineties, she heard stories of the Grimsay boats and the fears of the islanders that they might become a thing of the past following Aonghas Stewart's death. ''I thought, if people are talking about the boats all the time, let's have a meeting about it,'' she says.

The meeting was held in the schoolhouse. More than 20 people turned up from a population of roughly 250. Out of that emerged plans for a committee and the first Grimsay boat day in 1998. It was a success. Another two followed, and then the committee became a bit more ambitious. In 2001 the idea of a boatshed was first mooted. ''It was completely obvious what they needed,'' says Norton. Before the boatshed, the fishermen would beach their boats to make any repairs. ''With a wooden boat you've got to take them out of the water and drag them out from time to time,'' explains Nick Ingledew, skipper of the Tracy K. ''You've got to paint them anyway or you'll get woodworm. And the options when you had to do that, when you had to do a bit of work on your boat, were so horrendous every year.''

Nor did it get any easier as time went on. By the seventies the boats were bigger and heavier and, as a result, harder to beach. ''I got somebody to build a trailer for me,'' says Ingledew, ''and I just hired a JCB and I'd get somebody to drag this trailer out to the water with the boat precariously balanced on it.'' Other fishermen would go to Mallaig or Stornoway to use proper boatyards, but they could expect to be charged (pounds) 100 a day and lose a week's or two weeks' fishing. There was always talk of a boatshed, but the fishermen always assumed someone would come along and build one as a commercial venue. ''We wanted somebody else to provide it for us,'' admits Ingledew, ''and it just never was going to happen. So in the end somebody came along who could mobilise us.'' That somebody was Mary Norton. ''Mary's been brilliant,'' says Ingledew. ''She wrote out the business plan, twisted

arms, made people listen to her and drove the project forward. It was a fishermen-led project, but she just grabbed it and combined it with the heritage side of things - which was a great idea - and accessed money from the Scottish Arts Council, for goodness' sake. We'd have never dreamt of doing that.''

Ingledew sits in the woodshed warming himself with a cup of tea, his hair saltwater grey, his jumper a raggedy blue. He's been on Grimsay for 25 years, but you'd never mistake him for an islander. His southern English accent is too strong.

He is from Gloucestershire originally. He trained as a teacher, even did it for a year, but didn't like it and decided to move north to Uist, wife Wendy and daughter Abigail in tow. Two more children were to follow, islanders born and bred. Ingledew cut seaweed for a year and a half and then started crewing on fishing boats. He's been fishing now for 23 years. ''People are very forgiving here. You don't have to be a time-served joiner, say, to go and put a fence up for somebody. You can make a bit of money if you want.'' And there's money to be made in fishing, it would seem. Kallin Harbour was built in 1985. At the time it was feared it was going to be too big. Two decades on, the fear is that it is not quite big enough. Some 25 boats crowd their way into it.

That's not to say everyone is happy. When he's not crewing on bigger boats, Angaidh Baeg fishes for velvet crab. ''There are two grades,'' he explains, ''80p for the small ones and (pounds) 1.80 for the big ones.'' Is that a reasonable price? ''Not really. It's not good at all. About ten years ago you'd have got (pounds) 1.50 and (pounds) 2.50.''

The problem, he says, is that Grimsay is far from the markets. Indeed, the market for velvet crab is in Spain. But for someone like Nick Ingledew, who fishes for prawn, Europe is a saviour. ''There is no mass market in Britain. What we are able to do in Europe is just pick up the phone and sell two tonnes of prawn, five tonnes of prawn. We store lobsters for Christmas, and just from the Kallin area there's probably 20 tonnes of lobster that goes to France, and you'd never get that in Britain. The last thing the British housewife wants to buy is something that's alive, absolutely the last thing. On the east coast their market is the home market and they see Europe as a bit of a threat, whereas we see it as a marketing opportunity.''

It is an opportunity that has not come without cost. ''The difficulty is keeping things alive from here to Spain,'' says Ingledew, ''and it's expensive and it's labour-intensive and we've had to put a lot of money into providing onshore facilities and onboat facilities to keep water flowing to separate them and prevent them from damaging each other.''

But the investment would appear to be worthwhile. The price of prawn remains buoyant, and there is less wastage, says Donald Brady, another Kallin fisherman. ''Before, the catch was sent to Billingsgate [in London] and arrived there mostly dead. Or,'' he adds with a frown, ''they were saying they were dead.''

Brady has yet to use the new boatshed. He has still to be convinced of its merits. He wonders if it will have a future. Fishermen are turning to fibreglass boats these days. ''Wood needs a lot of attention and fibreglass doesn't.'' Understandably, this is not a view endorsed in the boatshed. Ronald John MacLean admits that fibreglass is in vogue, but doesn't think the fishermen will stick to it. ''I think they're under the impression that fibreglass is maintenance- free. It is for a number of years, but not when it gets on a bit,'' he says. ''And fibreglass boats are still more expensive to buy.''

All you have to do, he could add, is look at Kallin Harbour, where timber still prevails. Apart from a couple of the larger boats, the vessels are nearly all wood-built. Indeed, many of them are still Stewart-built. That's why the boatshed is needed; why the Stewart tradition needs to be maintained. The old skills are still required. Even Donald Brady fishes from a timber boat.

Early signs suggest the boatshed will thrive. Apart from December, when the fishermen will be out fulfilling their Christmas orders, the boatshed is booked up until March; and it is not only local fishermen who are looking to use the facility. Boats from South Uist, Barra and Harris are already booked in. It has even been nominated for a Scottish Enterprise Dynamic Place Award. ''It's done what it's supposed to do,'' says Mary Norton. ''The building works.''

Past, present and future: the boatshed is a microcosm of all three on Grimsay. Small boats and smaller boats. Some argue that is why Grimsay still has a fishing community. The smallness of the boats by necessity limits the size of the catches. Shellfish stocks, for the moment at least, appear sustainable in these waters. ''There's a temptation and an economic pressure to overfish,'' admits Nick Ingledew, ''and I think maybe the fact that they are family-owned and locally owned boats makes a big difference. I'm saying to myself maybe my own son will be fishing after me. I'm prepared to make the sacrifice for my own son or my neighbour. I might not make the same sacrifice for some chap who lives in Buckie or where- have-you, but I'll make the sacrifice for my family and my neighbour.''

Early on Saturday morning the skies are still clear but the wind has picked up. In his van, Nick Ingledew is debating whether it is worth going out. Others have already decided it is not. ''The wind from the south would give us a battering,'' one old boy tells me. Angaidh Baeg is one of the few willing to venture forth. He noses the Eun Mara out of the harbour to work the velvet crabs in the bay and the inlets that offer some shelter from the weather.

Back on land, a young boy cleans out creels with a high-power hose on the slip-path. The creels belong to Simon Davies, 38; another incomer, from North Wales originally. Stay any length of time in the islands and you'll hear accents from all over - English, Irish, American, even Australian. For some islanders it is too much. ''They're coming in every day and the islanders are leaving,'' one local tells me. ''All these guys who come up from the south of England, they get all the good jobs that are going here and the island people don't even get a job. Everybody's talking about it. Island people are leaving every week.''

It is an opinion that is strongly voiced, but it is difficult to tell if it is widely held. Islanders do leave: Cailean MacAulay is debating whether he will go to Glasgow to college, as many of his friends are planning to do. But, he says, he enjoys being here. ''If I went away I would definitely want to come back. I'm not desperate to leave.''

Ronald John MacLean came back. Living in Glasgow, he missed the islands; now he has returned to carve out a future by learning the skills of the past. As for the incomers: none of the ones I talk to seem to feel any animosity from the locals. For them the islands do not feel closed off and unwelcoming. Nick Ingledew reckons those times have long gone. He mentions the brother of his next-door neighbour on Grimsay, who has lived in Cheltenham for the past 30 years. ''That's an islander who moved to Cheltenham, I'm a chap from Bath who moved to the island. We've got a lot in common. There's no big difference between us. He understands me and I understand him. And actually everyone understands both of us as well because everybody's got relations who live in Kent or Glasgow or wherever. It's not an isolated mindset here. They're well travelled.''

Or travelled to. Once a week a lorry leaves Kallin Harbour to rendezvous with a Spanish truck in England which then transports shellfish caught by Grimsay fishermen to northern Spain for housewives to buy in Madrid. The European connections do not end there. In the boatshed, the Mary Louise is being prepped for painting. It has been bought by a French fisherman over the internet. Geographically Grimsay might be right on the periphery of Europe, yet commercially the ties are strong. Maybe they always have been. The Grimsay boats themselves were used throughout the islands. One even made it as far as Norway. On winter nights, when the sky is black and the seas are high, Grimsay might sometimes feel like it is at the edge of the world. But it is never in danger of falling off.