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John T. Laurenson, fisherman and boatbuilder, 1876-1950

Updated: Nov 9, 2022

Group photo of people standing in front of a fourareen. From Left: John T. Laurenson, Tammy Alec Jamieson,  Tammy Laurenson, Laurence Pottinger Laurenson (John's father), Sinclair Goodlad, Daniel Laurenson. Taing, Burra, photographer unknown, circa 1930. ©Shetland Museum & Archives
From Left: John T. Laurenson, Tammy Alec Jamieson, Tammy Laurenson, Laurence Pottinger Laurenson (John's father), Sinclair Goodlad, Daniel Laurenson. Taing, Burra, photographer unknown, circa 1930. ©Shetland Museum & Archives

Back in July I met the grandson of the Burra boatbuilder John Thomas Laurenson, who also happens to be called John. Over a cup of tea John told me what he knew about his grandfather; subsequently, I did some online archive digging, and I am delighted to be able to enhance John T. Laurenson's story. However, as with most matters historical, there remain questions and information gaps that further investigation might be able to address.

A fisherman boatbuilder

John T. Laurenson was born on 22nd January 1876 in Houss, Burra. John's father was John Bain Laurenson, born in 1848 at Gord, Cunningsburgh and John's mother, Jacobina Ann Smith, was born at Houss in Burra in 1847. John and Jacobina were married in December 1871 and they had four children:

1. Willamina Margaret Laurenson, born 19th November 1872 in Gord, Cunningsburgh

2. John Thomas Laurenson, born 22nd January 1876 in Houss, Burra

3. Laurence Laurenson, born 30th September 1877 in Houss, Burra

4. Jacobina Anne Laurenson, born 19th December 1881 in Houss Burra

In 1885, when John T. was nine years old his mother, Jacobina, died, aged 38. John's father, John Bain, did not remarry. He was a fisherman, and no doubt the extended family will have taken a major role in looking after, and bringing up John Bain's four children.

Photograph of John T. Laurenson dressed in Royal Naval rating uniform with his
John T. Laurenson with his second wife Jane. Photographer unknown, circa 1914. ©John Laurenson.

When John T. Laurenson was 24 years old he married Mary Ann Sinclair, aged 27. They were married at the Freemasons Hall in Lerwick on the 13th December, 1900. John's occupation listed on the marriage certificate was fisherman. It seems he was doing well in this trade, and by 1908 he had become the joint owner and skipper of a large fishing boat called Gracie Ross LK 328. This boat was 60ft long over the deck, smack rigged (see photo below) and operated with a crew of six men and one boy. The Gracie Ross in all probability was a class of fishing vessel known as a Fifie. Pictured below is a slightly larger smacked rigged Fifie, built in the same era as the Gracie Ross, called the Swan LK 243, built in Lerwick in 1900. The Swan LK 243 fished for white fish in the spring and then drift netted for herring between May and September; and it is highly likely that this is the same pattern of fishing that the Gracie Ross LK 328 persued.

Smack rigged Fifie Swan LK 243 under full sail off Sandness Shetland
The smack rigged Fifie Swan LK 243 under full sail off of Sandness Shetland. Photo M. Chivers 2016.

The Gracie Ross was built in Fraserburgh in 1894 and was first registered in the Shetland HM Customs fishing boat register on 17th July 1908. The other joint owners of the Gracie Ross were the Burra fisherman William Aitken, and Elizabeth Tait from Scalloway whose occupation was listed as merchant. However, by December that year Elizabeth Tait had relinquished her share in the boat and new shareholders Laurence Sinclair Dalgleish and Hellen Inkster had been found. The boat was eventually sold and removed from the HM Customs fishing boat register in April 1920 when Gracie Ross was sold to John Harcus in Westray, Orkney.

Grief struck

Death arrived at the door of the Laurenson household on the 7th May 1910 when Mary Ann died, it was thought in childbirth, although her death certificate stated that she died whilst in a coma as a result of a cerebral embolism. Mary was only 36 and she left two children: Janet Sinclair Laurenson, aged 8, and John Laurenson, aged 5. This was history repeating itself, as John's father, John Bain, had lost his wife, Jacobina, when she was 38 years old. Then on the 25th September 1911, tragedy struck the family again when John Bain was drowned near Houss in Burra, he was 63 years of age.

Events took a brief happier turn in December 1912 when John T. married his second wife Jane Laurenson who lived two or three miles away at East Hogaland, Burra. They were married in the Wesleyan Manse in Lerwick by Frederick Charles Wright and they went on to have six children.

Happiness was brought to an abrupt halt with the death of their newborn twins Jane Laurenson, who died at birth on the 12th July 1913, and Mary Ann Laurenson who died nine days later. Tragic though this was it has to be remembered that newborn and infant mortality was very common during this period, and it seems that John T. and Jane were not thwarted by their loss as they went on to have four other children:

Mary Jane Laurenson born 13th June 1917 at Taing, Grunnasound, Burra

Daniel Goudie Laurenson born 23rd January 1919 at Taing, Grunnasound, Burra

Laurence Pottinger Laurenson born 28th January 1920 at Taing, Grunnasound, Burra

Thomas William Laurenson born 22nd September 1922 at Taing, Grunnasound, Burra


It is not known when John learned boatbuilding and joinery and when he began to build boats professionally. Sadly, as far as I am aware there are no surviving examples of the boats that John T. Laurenson built. The only documentary evidence of John's boatbuilding is found in this letter dated February 1938.

This letter is revealing, and it is clear that John T. had not built a boat for sometime, as he was surprised at how expensive boatbuilding materials had become. Indeed he mentions that the well known Burra boatbuilder Walter Duncan built a similar sized boat, but with only six runs of strakes and two pairs of oars and a rudder and tack hooks for £15 whereas John T. had built this boat with seven runs of strakes, three pairs of oars, a rudder and tilfers for £12.

The owner of this handsome new boat lived about 50 miles north of Burra in Eshaness, and getting the boat from the island of Burra to its new home was not going to be easy. Road transport by this period was established, and John T. suggested that the best option was to row or tow the boat to Scalloway and then load it onto a lorry to take the boat to its new home.

Towards the end of the letter it is clear that John T. Laurenson's health is deteriorating as he says he had developed rheumatoid arthritis and two years previously he had only been able to walk with the aid of crutches.

A traditional Shetland chair made by boatbuilder John T. Laurenson.
This teak chair, made by John T. Laurenson, date unknown. Photograph courtesy of John Laurenson. Photo M. Chivers, 2022

Detail of this lovely teak Shetland chair.
Note the tight joints and trennel fastenings and also the moulded detail. Photograph M. Chivers, 2022

As well as making boats John T. Laurenson also made furniture as illustrated in the photo of this Shetland chair. John was an exceptional craftsman as the chair's mortised joints are all flawless and still as tight today as when the chair was made some 100 years ago. The teak used to construct this chair is probably salvaged wreck wood. Indeed, the sister ship to the screw steamer (SS)Titanic the Royal Mail Steamer (RMS) and then by 1914 HMS Oceanic ran aground and was wrecked off the Shetland island of Foula. Foula lies some 20 or so miles to the west of Burra and it is probable that salvaged wreck wood from the Oceanic will have found its way to Burra, and it is possible that this lovely chair might be made from some of that wood.

John T. Laurenson spent all his life in Burra and died from prostate cancer in his home at Taing, Grunnasound on the 4th June 1950 aged 74 years.

Written by Dr Marc Chivers


Laurenson, J. (2022) grandson of John T. Laurenson [Interview by M. Chivers] Sandwick

[14 July 2022]

North Isles Family History (2022) Laurenson family tree. Available from <> [Accessed 5 November 2022]

Scotland's People (2022) Census. Available from <> [Accessed 11 October 2022]

Scotland's People (2022) Registers marriages. Available from <> [Accessed 11 October 2022]

Scotland's People (2022) Registers deaths. Available from <> [Accessed 11 October 2022]

The Swan LK 243 Trust (2022) History of the Swan Available from <> [Accessed 7 November 2022]


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