Their names have a language of their own – gabberts, whammels, baldies and cobles – honed from a different age when Scotland’s little boats helped to fuel the nation.

Built and manned by communities with brine in their veins, fleets of small boats were the workhorses of the golden age of sail, bringing home herring and salmon, transporting peat, coal, grain and people and, when not hard at work, racing for fun.

While on the open water or tied up at rest, with oars ingrained with the sweat of fathers and sons and decks exuding the stench of fish, oil and coal, they inspired artists, musicians, poets, writers.

Now a new book shows how the ingeniously designed and differing shapes of Scotland’s wide variety of boats – from trawlers to rowing boats that carried mail between islands, canal barges and racing skiffs - tell their own absorbing story of the nation’s waters, the people who built them and communities that depended on them.

As well as unravelling how the design of boats reflected their location and uses, it also explores the passion of enthusiasts who keep old skills alive; sailing, repairing and restoring the few remaining examples of boats which were once commonplace around Scotland’s coast.

Written by former coastguard, Isle of Lewis-based poet and storyteller Ian Stephen, and featuring illustrations by his wife, Christine Morrison, Boatlines combines seafaring yarns and cultural references with a forensic exploration of the history of boats, which he says reflects his personal lifelong love affair with boats.

HeraldScotland: Ian StephenIan Stephen (Image: Newsquest)

“In some ways I’ve been working on this book all of my life - I have been inextricably bound up with boats for many years, in conversations, research, sailing, talking to boatbuilders, creators of art projects that explore the style of boats,” he says.

“There’s emotion involved with boats. In Shetland, for example, boats are almost a religion.

“Communities put their own stamp on the boats that served them: such as the Oban skiff, which had a rounded stern shape, whereas in other areas it was double-ended, like a canoe.”

Scotland’s once booming fishing industry placed high demands on the boats that served it, giving boat-builders a range of challenges to overcome, from distances their boats had to travel to reach fishing grounds, how quickly they could get back, how much they could carry and even how to land them.

“When fishing developed and boats had to work up to 40 miles offshore, there was a need for a big boat capable of fishing bigger seas and yet it couldn’t be heavy because there were not decent harbours; it had to be light enough to be dragged up and down the beach.

“That’s a hell of a set of requirements,” adds Ian.

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While the nation once relied on boats to carry everything from peat to grain, post to people, few today might know their Moray Firth Scaffie from Plumb-ended Fife, or Baldie of Leith from a Fair Isle Yole.

Yet, as Ian reveals, some boats became so entwined with the community they served, they became more than ‘just’ a vessel.

Such as Jubilee, a sgoth Niseach – Ness type skiff – once a common feature of the prosperous Hebridean fishing industry of the late 19th and 20th centuries.

Launched from the beach, their stone ballast would be ditched as the catch was reeled in. Although adapted from Norse-designed boats linked to Orkney and Shetland, they were distinctly Hebridean.

“They took on their own personality and shape for two reasons: the type of geography they needed to survive in – the Butt of Lewis has very challenging conditions – and their function,” says Ian.

HeraldScotland: Salmon cobleSalmon coble (Image: Newsquest)

“They were built for long line offshore fisheries: they were boats borne of necessity but became icons for the community.”

Launched in 1935, by which time the fishing fleet was reduced to just 27 vessels, Jubilee is the last of her kind, and a living link with the tragedy on New Year’s Day 1919, when HMY Iolaire sank at the entrance to Stornoway harbour with the loss of at least 201 men out of the 283 on board.

John Finlay Macleod, a boat builder from Ness on board that night and who went on to build Jubilee, used a rope to form a rescue line, saving many men’s lives.

Already restored twice – there are plans for further restoration work soon – Ian has personal experience of the depth of feeling for her: “I was involved in sailing her to Stromness a few years ago,” he says. “It was a challenging journey for an open boat, we had a hell of a job getting a weather window to come back.

“One day I was asked if the Jubilee was still on Orkney. I replied ‘yes’, and was told, ‘if you don’t get that boat home, there’s no point in you staying on Lewis…”

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As well as the bonds between people and boats, Boatlines explores the  variations in styles as communities shaped boats to take into account the challenges of weather, sea and the task they would take on.

“I use the parallel of a ballad,” he adds, “boats don’t have one author, their story is honed over the generations each one taking off the rough edges until it is perfect.”

One example is the coble, flat-bottomed to cope with shallow waters and once a common sight on Scotland’s bountiful salmon rivers.

Similar flat-bottomed crafts appear on the Solway Firth where they are called a whammel, with features to help fishermen using nets snare migratory salmon and sea trout.

“Cobles were a unique form of boat that sprung up all over Scotland for salmon fishing,” he says, “but when that is no longer possible, these boats die out,” he says.

That fate would befall the fleet of trawlers which once packed Aberdeen’s harbour and which, as a student, Ian could see gradually falling into disrepair.


“There are few examples left, but such a huge part of not only sailors’ lives but the economy of the city and the whole country have gone. Within a few years everything had changed.”

Some boats are not just out of sight, they’re out of mind: the gabbert, a steam barge was a familiar sight on Scotland’s central belt canals but is now largely forgotten.

“When we think of lost classes of vessel, we tend to think of Viking longships entombed in peat; the great Saxon burial mound of Sutton Hoo with its mysterious imprint of a sophisticated ship, previously unknown,” says Ian.

“But these were the load carriers which transported coal and other industrial cargoes.”


Horse-drawn through the canal, they fired up their steam engines where the canal enters the Clyde at Bowling, and went island hopping.

There are no examples left – nor is there much to show for the birlinn, the galley of the Lord of the Isles and scourge of Viking invaders, other than carvings and fleeting mentions in stories.

However, other boats do survive thanks to the efforts of enthusiasts who refuse to let them go.

In Fife, the Scottish Fisheries’ Museum’s Reaper, one of the largest classes of Fifies and a rare survivor from the golden age of sail, sits in Anstruther’s harbour having undergone a £1m conservation, often accompanied by White Wing, an east coast herring trawler known as a Leith Baldie - after Italian patriot, Garibaldi - restored by members of the Museum Boats Club.

These days boats are no longer the workhorses of the past, and more often associated with leisure, tourism and the growing sport of coastal rowing.

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As part of a movement to encourage the sport, Skye-based Iain Oughtred designed the self-build 6.7m plywood and epoxy St Ayles rowing skiff based on the clean lines of the Fair Isle yole, the universally used fishing boat of Shetland.

Ian says the book aims to highlight the culture and connections that bind boats with communities, while recognising the dangers involved in going to sea.

“I tried to avoid being over nostalgic or romantic – it is still a dangerous way to earn a living.”

Boatlines: Scottish Craft of Sea, Coast and Canal by Ian Stephen with illustrations by Christine Morrison is published by Birlinn (£16.99)