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Ness Yoal builders: chips and shavings by Dr Adrian Osler

Bare mention of the Ivy LK237 is quite sufficient to throw this author back over forty years in time, to a couple of days of dank summertime Shetland weather spent in a nettle- and thistle-fringed defile between two stone dykes, surely her last resting place.[1] How good it is to be wrong sometimes! Most of what was learnt about Ness Yoals during that summer holiday in 1979 was later incorporated in The Shetland Boat, but a few scraps and impressions remain.[2]

The laid-up Ivy LK237 at Broch Head, 1979
The laid-up Ivy LK237 at Broch Head, 1979

The laid-up Ivy LK237 at Broch Head, 1979
The laid-up Ivy LK237 at Broch Head, 1979

Jim and Tommy Harper were unstinting of their time in outlining Ivy’s history and – harder for an outsider to follow – the highly specialised nature of the Ness yoals’ use and the peculiarities (and dangers) of the waters in which they worked: the fishing techniques of the yoal crews demonstrated in part through gear that still lay around. A three-pound, saithe fishing ‘dorro’ still serves me as an extra spline weight on the drawing board from time-to-time … and as a pleasing example of ‘design through function’ in between. Whatever, the Harpers said I was welcome to measure up and draw Ivy, although – unspoken – it might be a little superfluous since they were “going to re-build and restore” their family boat “sometime” anyway. And, when I passed that way again less than ten years later, in 1986, “sometime” had indeed arrived. The forlorn tar-crackled derelict had been transformed into a fully equipped working yoal in spotless black and white livery.

The recently restored Ivy LK237, 1986
The recently restored Ivy LK237, 1986

Of George Johnson (1859-1941) himself there is little to add to what is already published. His original apprenticeship with the Laurensons (Hay & Co.) of Scalloway had been as a ‘boatbuilder and joiner’, the latter trade presumably supporting him when he emigrated temporarily to America, working ‘as a housebuilder for a Mr Goff’.[3] And although the artefact evidence is slender and open to interpretation, the author would hypothesise that his original west-side training is perceptible in the surviving hulls of the yoals he built. Incidentally, Andy Flaws of Skelberry always maintained that Johnson began his career by building a successful yoal outdoors there before moving down to a shed by the shore at Boddam. But such an outdoor build was not mentioned by Johnson’s son, ‘Geordie’ Johnson Jnr (aged 80 yrs.) when visited in August 1979. He did however confirm that his father, who also engaged in some summertime fishing together with crofting, stopped building around 1925 and the boatbuilding shed – which was a renowned local gathering place – was moved up the hill to Skelberry in modified form to become a retirement ‘workshop’ in 1927. As a boy Geordie had assisted his father by ‘holding up’, ‘bending in’ gunwales etc., but when he was a young man he emigrated to South Africa and George Snr had ceased boatbuilding by the time he returned.[4]

James Bolt averred that Johnson’s original shed was quite close to the water’s edge and was lost in a ‘great gale’ in 1900, though luckily most of its owner’s woodworking tools were saved. The Maggie, he thought, was the second boat Johnson built after this unfortunate accident. A new shed (with outset) was then erected ‘further up the road’ and is clearly visible – looking rather pristine – in a photograph of Boddam c.1907. Some 28 ft x 16 ft in size, it had three large windows plus skylights and could be lit with oil lamps at night. Andy Flaws also volunteered the information that Johnson’s yoals could always be distinguished by ‘a half-round groove down the after stem for the [rudder] bolt to work in, so that the rudder lay very close to the stem’. Whilst Andy also produced a slender, but very stiff, and finely balanced (6 lb weight) oar from: ‘a very old yoal broken up a long time ago’. A rare item which might, just conceivably, have been from Johnson’s own hands – he was a renowned oar maker.

Author holding, a very old, perfectly balanced yoal oar.
Author holding, a very old, perfectly balanced [Ness] yoal oar, c.1980.
Author with an ‘oar from a very old [Ness] yoal’, c.1980
Author with an ‘oar from a very old [Ness] yoal’, c.1980

One of the same builder’s specialist planes also came to light in 1979 and was featured (re-sketched) in The Shetland Boat, though space did not allow for the background tale which the field notebook told of its survival…[8]

Field notebook entries re: yoal building, 1979
Field notebook entries re: yoal building, 1979

…whilst from the same source came guidance on the differences between yoals built by Johnson and the renowned, late-nineteenth century yoal builder, John Eunson of Punds, together with valuable observations on unique constructional features exhibited by the latter’s boats. However, John Eunson had stopped building in the late 1890s so there was no direct memory of the man’s origins, personality or methods of working, though it was thought that in his early days ‘he might have learnt a good deal’ from boatbuilder and carpenter Thomas Shewan (1833-1908) of Scatness before the latter moved to Lerwick with his family.[9] By the 1880s though it is certain that John Eunson was regarded as something of an authority in his field, noted for example in the prestigious Catalogue of the International Fisheries Exhibition (London, 1883) as having been selected to vet the model of a ‘Fair Isle Skiff’ entered by J R Laurence of that island.[10]

Fisheries Exhibition (1883) Catalogue; entry re: John Eunson, boatbuilder, East Shore
Fisheries Exhibition (1883) Catalogue; entry re: John Eunson, boatbuilder, East Shore

Although John Eunson’s son George succeeded him, George’s yoal own building career was a relatively short one since he emigrated to New Zealand before the First World War, and built only one further boat following his return to Shetland after being wounded in that conflict.[11] Like his father he had favoured building outdoors and, upon acquiring a shed, complained that it stopped him from standing well back to look his emerging boats over. An intriguing tale handed down and still retailed in 1979, told of an old man stumbling through George’s shed in the dark and having to surreptitiously replace the shore of a recently ‘set up’ yoal’s stem after knocking it down. Much to the unwitting builder’s consternation the resultant boat (Charlie) came out askew and was a poor performer!

In conclusion, and as a marker of the closeness and mutual respect that appears to have obtained within the Ness Yoal building fraternity, it was said that one of the above-mentioned builders was trusted with the making of his colleague’s (and one-time competitor’s) coffin…

Adrian Osler, April 2020.


[1] Chivers M, ‘Ness Yoals’, 19 February 2020,

[2] Osler A G, The Shetland Boat: South Mainland and Fair Isle, London, 1983 (reprinted, new pagination, 2016)

[3] Not unexpectedly, oral sources indicated that she had been subject to re-building (1938), repairs and finally engine installation in the sixty plus years that elapsed between her building and laying up. Some evidences of these works were noted during the measuring-up process.

[4] The date of build was variously given orally as 1904 and 1905, but the author was unable to check the appropriate Customs register. It was said that the new owners were aged: 23; 20; and 19 years’ respectively.

[5] According to his son (see footnote 6) Johnson built yoals to order only, never speculatively, and on occasion three were on order at once.

[6] Quotations from George Johnson jnr, August 1979.

Shetland Directory entries, 1895-1920, cite George Johnson as both a ‘Boatbuilder’ and ‘Carpenter’.

[7] Two sources indicated William Burgess (a cousin?) as Johnson’s main helper, as for example in the construction of Boy’s Delight, c.1920, used for sheep transfer to Colsay and other holms; she was generally regarded as full in the ends, rather flat in the bottom and heavy to row.

[8] Osler, Shetland Boat, 90, Fig.29

[9] Father of the distinguished boatbuilder and modelmaker ‘Jack’ Shewan (1865-1968), long-term foreman at Hay’s Dock, Lerwick.

[10] The Fisheries Exhibition Literature, Catalogue, Vol. XII, London, 1884, 46

As described elsewhere, boatbuilding on Fair Isle was a communal affair led by recognized, non-specialist individuals. The ‘Skiff’ dimensions which Eunson supplied, together with the accompanying descriptions of Fair Isle Yoal usage, were quoted (near verbatim) in later authoritative publications. Fortunately, Laurence’s model survives (Science Museum, London) and its scaled measurements suggest that there was really no reason for the Exhibition organizers’ concern!

[11] Perhaps best known of George Eunson’s surviving boats is the restored Jeannie LK 407 (ex- Margaret LK90; ex- Jeannie LK 260) whose then owner once remarked to the author: ‘she’s a good boat head on [to sea] under oars, but when running [under sail] a bit wild’. But then, many who’ve owned open vernacular boats might echo the latter…

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