Updated: Feb 20, 2020
On a cold and windy February afternoon I drove to Exnaboe, which is in the Shetland parish of Dunrossness, to meet with Geordie Jacobson. Geordie is the descendant of the well known nineteenth century Ness Yoal boatbuilder John Eunson (1836-1894).
The Ness yoal is a type of six-oared boat, originally designed and used for commercial dorro (handline) saithe fishing. Saithe (known in the United States as pollock) feed along the edge of tidal strings or races. The fierce tidal waters around Sumburgh Head called the Sumburgh Roost is an ideal location for saithe to feed. The yoal which could be sailed or rowed by a crew of three or four men was designed to be used to commercially fish in these dangerous waters. The dimensions of the yoal are typically 23 feet over the stems with a beam of approximately 5.5ft.
The photo of the Ness Yoal Kate LK152 was probably taken during the late 1980s or early 1990s. This yoal was built by John Eunson's son George in 1937, typically this boat is 23 feet long over the stems with a beam of 5.7 feet.
John Eunson built boats during the late nineteenth century, with his sons (Geordie's grand uncles), outside in the yard behind his now demolished house at Punds, Eastshore, Dunrossness. Boatbuilding outside in Shetland was fairly standard practice; although the other notable Ness yoal builder of the period George Johnson (1859-1941) built his boats in a shed at Bodam.
Building boats inside was obviously more desirable and advantageous, as work could take place even in the poorest of weather. According to Geordie this meant that Johnson built many more boats than Eunson although he was reputed to have built between 200-400 yoals during his career (Moncrief D62/1/43). Eunson retired from boatbuilding aged just 55, so this means that during his working life of approximately 35 years he will have built between 6 to 11 yoals each year. By contrast George Johnson who built boats in a shed is reputed to have constructed about 13 boats per year. Not all the boats built Johnson were yoals, he also built small fourareens and transom sterned dinghy's with steamed timbers (Moncrief D62/1/96). One of these yoals built by George Johnson is the well known Ivy LK 237.
The photo taken by Geordie during the late 1980's is of the late Jim Harper of the former Meadowvale Hotel working on the restoration of the Ness yoal Ivy LK237 built by George Johnson at Bodham. She was owned in the family, having been used by Jim’s father and uncles. With the ending of the yoal fishing at Virkie she was just used mainly for domestic fishing or pleasure by Jim’s cousin the late Donnie Harper. She’s now fully restored, including sailing gear, and Jim’s son James has her in storage at Exnaboe.
The last actively commercial yoal boatbuilder was John Eunson's son, George; and in 1910 he built a four-oared boat for his brother, a type known locally as a peerie (small) or halv yoal. This halv yoal later was given the name Phar-Lap (after a well-known race horse) and I documented this boat, which is part of the Shetland Museum & Archives collection, whilst undertaking my PhD.
Phar-Lap is 19.9 feet over the stems and has a beam of 5.3 feet. She is pretty much original with little evidence of any major restoration or repair. There are some interesting features on this boat, and these will be discussed at a later date.
Thanks goes to Geordie Jacobson for sharing his information and allowing Moder Dy to use his photograph, and to James Harper for showing me the Ness yoal Ivy LK237.
Marc Chivers, February 2020.
Moncrieff, T. (undated) Alphabetical List of Boat Builders. Shetland Museum & Archives D62/1/1-177