Boats. May 2013.

There are two small, community museums on Unst, and I waited for the bad weather day to take advantage of them. It is two for the price of one: the same ticket gets you into both. They were both in easy walking distance for me; but it was pissing with rain, and I was buggered if I were going to get drenched again. I drove.

The boat haven is a large shed, full of boats. I wasn’t certain; it didn’t seem my kind of thing. I didn’t think a collection of boats would be interesting.

I was completely, totally wrong. It was fascinating. Not really the boats themselves – though they were quite beautiful, some of them, crafted with great craft and love – but for the stories they told.

I may have mentioned that Unst is an island; archaeologists can trace its history back six thousand years. And it is only in the last hundred or so that roads have been important. Before that, it was boats. Or rather, the sea – and the sea made the boats important, too. People used boats for everything: it was how they lived.

At the boat haven, the history of each boat had been researched. Who built it, who bought it, who died in it – sometimes – who inherited it, who sold it. The social history of the people of Unst was told through the boats they used – to fish, to socialise, to run errands. Even after the coming of the internal combustion engine, people use their boats for food and sport: and the stories of each boat’s success in the regattas were told. The boats were also rather splendid objects; all wooden, they had a lot of character – full of wear and tear, and grain.

The same names kept cropping up – the same family names, and often the same people. Sandison. Mouat. Isbister. Sinclair. These people had multiple roles: sailor, fisherman, boatbuilder. Squire. The main race in the regatta seems to have been for the Sandison Cup. And was frequently won by a Sandison, or so it seemed.

These stories were compelling.

There was also a lot about the history of the sea and Unst. Even after the Scottish takeover, Unst had strong links with Scandinavia: it was a major trading stop for merchants of the Hanseatic league, and Scots traders would come up to trade with the merchants.

Then when fishing became industrialised in the 19th century, Baltasound on Unst became one of the major herring ports in Europe, with tens of thousands of people working there during the season, travelling from all over Europe. One of the museum displays described the life of these itinerant workers. Many of the jobs were seen as women’s work, allowing women to earn a living outside of service; but it sounded very hard work, gutting and filleting the fish, large quantities incredibly quickly. They used sharp, specially shaped knives and frequently cut themselves. They stayed in dorms, only socialising with men on Saturdays, when there might be dances. Sunday, the one day off, was for church.

The life of fishermen was no less alien. Before industrialisation of fishing, men would sail or row for many miles, following the shoals of herring or chasing a whale – forty or fifty miles into the Atlantic in large open boats holding several sailors. Many were lost, the boats not returning to port and their bodies never found.

It seemed a very rough life, stuck out in the north Atlantic. I could not imagine living on Unst now – let alone one hundred years ago. No electricity or gas; no roads. No vehicles. Ponies – Shetland ponies – did a lot of the work. The community museum also told a lot of stories, most of which were inconceivable.

It was another fascinating place. There was a lot about the geology; a lot about the archaeology; and a lot about crofting and fishing. It was a great place to spend a rainy afternoon.

The same names that had cropped up as boat builders, sailors, racers and fishermen were repeated here. Stories of disasters at sea and drownings; stories of families left destitute; stories of young men emigrating to New Zealand and Canada: while generations of men from specific hamlets. And men going off to war – the Shetland men were prized sailors, being press ganged into the Navy in the time of sail, and called up in the last century.

If life in the last century was unimaginable, what must it have barren life for the ancient Picts, facing the Vikings; or for the people who left the standing stones? Absolutely inconceivable, at least to me.

I loved both these museums; that seemed labours of love rather than a worthy institution. The somewhat amateurishness added to their charm – they reflected the people of the island, and I liked that.

* * *

The museum at Lerwick – on Mainland – was grander, much larger, and much more professional; but it was also a great place, and I could have spent much more time there. As it was, I went twice, because the weather was – well, foggy, and there wasn’t much to see outside. It was an superbly designed building, beside the dock.

What I loved most were the displays of boats. Clearly I was now hooked. There were boats outside, moored at the dock; boats inside, hanging from the ceiling; even a boat shed, where you can watch people working on boats – the museum has a scheme to keep some of the old bodybuilders’ skills alive. It was a wonderful place. And better lit than the boat haven – so I took some photos, this time.

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