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Ruminations on Rudders… Dr Adrian Osler

Updated: Sep 14, 2019


This months' guest journal post is written by eminent Shetland boat researcher Dr Adrian Osler. Adrian first came to Shetland during the 1970's researching boats on Shetland's south mainland and on Fair Isle. This research resulted in the publication in 1983 of the seminal work The Shetland boat: South Mainland and Fair Isle which was published as part of the National Maritime Museum’s monographs and reports series. This book has since been republished (2016) and is available for purchase at the Shetland Times bookshop.

Adrian's journal post is the result of a visit that Laughton Johnson and I made to the Shetland Museum & Archives collections Store. During this visit we examined a few models of shetland boats, and in particular the Ness yoal Venerable LK 596 whose rudder we noted protrudes below the keel line of the boat.

Model of the yoal 'Venerable' LK 596, built by Jack Shewan, date unknown. Shetland Museum & Archives collection. Photograph ©Moder Dy, 2019. Note the rudder that protrudes below the line of the keel.

Following our visit to the Museum Store I emailed Adrian for his thoughts on the subject of yoal rudders:

"In particular I am very interested by the depth of the rudder, which appears to answer a question that Brian Wishart, Leslie Moncrief and I have debated and that is the length of yoal rudders, all the later rudders end in line with the keel, and Brian has long thought that this was a modern invention, and that historically they were deeper than the keel." [Marc Chivers, 17th June 2019]

This journal post is Adrian's retort to my email which I hope you enjoy reading.

Marc Chivers

September 2019

Looking back at my notes of some forty years ago it seems to me that this was a feature that was rather taken for granted – though uncritically so. For example, in a published description of the model yoal Margaret LK 100, it was indicated that ‘the detachable rudder extends below the keel line.’[1] This feature stays impressed upon my mind since I still remember that after removing the model from its storage box (in Liverpool Museum) in 1973, for some much needed cleaning and re-rigging, it had to be kept on its stand in order to avoid the risk of damage to the protruding rudder (see Fig. 1).[2] Luckily, further research revealed primary evidence concerning this slightly atypical yoal model’s history, confirming its date of construction as the late-1880s (or earlier) and affirming that – although the registration number was probably fictitious – the model had been constructed by the builder of the full-size boat it represented.[3] Quite remarkably, the ongoing cleaning and conservation work then revealed convincing evidence of this finely made model’s provenance, a pencilled signature: ‘J Shewan’, under the forward tilfer.

Fig. 1 Model of the yoal Margaret LK 100 as removed from storage, 1973, showing the down-swept protruding rudder (photo, author’s collection)

John (‘Jack’) Shewan (1865-1957) had been brought up in Scatness as the younger son of a boatbuilder/carpenter, serving his time as a boatbuilder/shipwright in Hay & Co.’s yard, Lerwick, where he occupied the position of yard foreman from 1900 until he retired. A keen and talented modelmaker from youth, by the early-1940s his fishing craft models had become recognised out-with the islands for their veracity and quality, many being commissioned for museum collections.[4] The model of Margaret however is clearly an early product, likely dating from the period of his apprenticeship at Hay’s yard, 1883-1888. As a pleasure yoal the full-size original was apparently built longer and beamier than the ‘classic’ Ness Yoal described by Henderson and others, but in all other characteristics matches the later (exhibition standard) models of working yoals built by Shewan.[5] Thus, there is little reason to dispute the proposition that the model’s down-swept protruding rudder reflected common, if not universal, practice for south Mainland yoals at that period (see Fig. 2). A practice which Shewan would have been familiar with through his upbringing and, tragically, through the drowning of an elder brother in a yoal accident in 1880. Comments in his letters to Dr DA Allen clearly indicate his familiarity with the yoals of Dunrossness and Fair Isle, as did anecdotal evidence gathered by the author during fieldwork in the 1970s.[6]

Fig. 2 Down-swept protruding yoal rudder, c.1880 (after models by J. Shewan)

Fig. 3 A surviving, presumed twentieth-century, Ness Yoal rudder re-configured to show mounted position with ‘heel in line with keel’ and cutaway toe (photo, author’s collection, 1979)

If it is accepted that early Ness yoal rudders were of down-swept protruding form, i.e. with heel pitched below the projected line of the keel by around fifteen degrees, and that later – and modern – practice confines the rudder foot to being flush with the keel line (see Figs. 3, 4), two questions arise.[7] Firstly, did this form of down-swept rudder have a specific antecedent? And, secondly, were the reasons for the adoption of that planform in Shetland functional, cultural, or both?

Superficially at least the first question, that of antecedence, seems the more straightforward to answer. There is a marked correspondence between the Shetland yoals’ down-swept rudder shape and that commonly employed in the open sailing craft of nineteenth-century western Norway (see Fig 4, left). For instance, measured plans by the Færøyviks and others depict visually analogous examples on boats from Hardanger, Hordaland, Sogne, Nordfjord and elsewhere.[8] But qualifications need to be made. Below the waterline these Norwegian rudders exhibit a marked, ‘stepped’ extension of the after edge, a feature which appears to have been absent from the Ness yoals’ relatively narrow blade whose after edge sweeps largely uninterrupted from head to heel.[9] Correspondingly, there were differences in the rudder hangings employed. The Norwegian boats’ down-swept rudder heel was generally reinforced by a lengthy strap that extended across the blade from a slotted gudgeon whose pivot point was towards the bottom of the after stem: at the base of an extended, stem-mounted pintle (‘slide’).[10] However, Shetland practice generally employed a conventional lower pintle – fastened onto the blade – which mated to a gudgeon mounted over one-third of the distance up the after stem. This higher pivot position allowed the toe of the Shetland rudder blade to be rounded off, providing a significant opening (cutaway) between the blade’s leading edge below the waterline and the aft stem, whereas the Norwegian system of having a very low pivot point necessitated rather more infill of blade in the same area (see Fig. 4). [11]

Fig. 4 Comparison of typical Norwegian (left) and Shetland (right) rudders and their hangings

And, although a down swept shape may often visually suggest protrusion below the keel line in Norwegian boats a close examination of recorded examples indicates that, in practice, the heel of the rudder commonly just kissed the extended line of the keel whilst its toe remained noticeably above (see Fig. 4, left). There would seem to be sound practical reasons for this. Consequently, the fact that the heel of the early Shetland yoal rudder protruded below the extended line of the keel appears to be a singular feature. Nevertheless, there are recorded cases of protruding rudder forms in Norway too, those traced so far including: a six-oared boat from Vest Agder; an Oselvar åttring, whose rudder is remarkably akin to those of the Shetland yoals depicted by Shewan; together with a couple of 1890s-built leisure færings from Hardanger.[12] [13] [14] Intriguingly, or merely coincidentally, the latter two are from typologies and areas closely associated with the late-eighteenth/early-nineteenth century shipment of disassembled boats to Shetland.

In a broader context however, the points of difference between the Shetland and Norwegian rudders outlined above may be considered secondary rather than primary in nature, for the planforms and axes of rotation that were employed appear common to both. Thus, it could be hypothesised that up until the late nineteenth-century the builders and users of ‘south’ Shetland (Ness) yoals – a type widely regarded as culturally conservative and Norwegian in origin – simply propagated and simplified rudder forms associated with the original Norwegian boat imports.

And such an argument may be given further weight by reference to the rudders of a geographically associated Shetland type, the Fair Isle Yoal. These yoals also formed a subject for Shewan’s modelmaking, and once more he possessed personal knowledge of the originals (see Fig. 5).[15] Caution must be exercised in respect of their rudders however, for these Fair Isle Yoal models – all built late in life – mount rudders that are near identical to those exhibited in the Ness Yoal models that he also made during this period.[16]

Fig. 5 Shewan’s model of the Fair Isle Yoal Daisy 2106 LK, with a down-swept protruding rudder of Ness Yoal planform (courtesy, Royal Scottish Museum ©).

Fortunately, at least two further items survive that provide positive, if differing, evidence as to the rudders in use on late-nineteenth century Fair Isle Yoals. The first is a contemporary model by John Robert Laurence of Fair Isle that was exhibited at the ‘International Fisheries Exhibition’ of 1883.[17] The second is a photograph that was taken on Fair Isle (by a French journalist) shortly after the community suffered the terrible boating “disaster” of September 1897.[18] [19]

With respect to Laurence’s model (c.1883), the Norwegian influences reflected in its construction and form have been discussed elsewhere, so the rudder alone is considered here (see Fig. 6).[20] By Shetland standards this rudder’s planform is remarkably narrow towards the top with a slender helm (tiller) tenoned direct to a narrow rudder-head which is without a retaining slot. Conversely, the blade area below the waterline is much fuller in shape and features a distinctive ‘double-step’ that noticeably extends its after edge, whilst the toe exhibits the cutaway form characteristic of Shetland rudders elsewhere. Despite appearances, the rudder’s heel does not protrude below the projected line of the (well-rockered) keel.[21]

Fig. 6 Rudder of Fair Isle Yoal, c.1883 (perspective sketch after, Science Museum model: Inv. No. 1883-402)

As to the photographic image of 1897, the dismounted rudder shown had been built up with a convex addition to the aftermost (below waterline) edge, the whole reinforced by a long strip extending back from the pintle strap (see Fig. 7).[22] It is a moot point as to whether the convex extension indicates a relict feature, i.e. a shape reflecting earlier practice, or simply represents an extension piece applied owing to the (wood-poor) islanders’ limited stock of broad planks. There may of course have been be an element of both, that is, of convention and exigency.

Fig. 7 Dismounted rudder in the stern of a Fair Isle Yoal, 1897 (perspective sketch after, Science Museum photograph: Neg. No. 2030/76)

This seems an appropriate point at which to re-introduce the second, less straightforward, question raised above: “…were the reasons for the adoption of that [rudder] planform in Shetland functional, cultural, or both?” If, for example, the argument is made that features like ‘stepped’ rudder extensions are relicts, then an original cultural source must be sought. Norwegian boat imports and/or cultural transmissions seem the most likely antecedents, but consideration might also be given to the rudder designs of the late-eighteenth/early-nineteenth century British naval boats. Many Shetlanders were conversant, albeit often unwillingly, with these last (see Figs. 8 and 9).

Fig. 8 Rudder of a 15-foot Norway Yawl from an Admiralty plan, n.d. [23] (sketch after, Royal Museums Greenwich plan: ZAZ 7146)

Fig. 9 Rudder with ‘stepped’ profile of a recent (2016-17) working replica of HMS Bounty’s launch, original built 1787 (courtesy, National Maritime Museum, Cornwall)

Correspondingly, it may be asked whether distinctive Shetland rudder features – such as the widespread use of the cutaway rudder toe – were functional, local (island-based) innovations whose chronology and spread are yet to be determined. And here empirical investigation might play a part, for example, did cutaway rudder toes aid quicker and surer mounting and dismounting of the rudder, reduce the likelihood of rudder deformation or damage, or perhaps help ‘balance’ rudder/helm forces when under sail? Thoughtful, comparative observations when handling vintage craft and replicas might well assist in supporting, or discarding, hypotheses and suppositions like these.

Whatever, although much primary practical evidence (including first-hand oral testimony) relevant to such inquiries is irretrievably lost, a certain level of circumstantial evidence does remain. For example, in the forms demonstrated above: provenanced contemporary models; associated boat plans; and boat or location photographs. Collation and analysis of information from, and dedicated searches of, such material might still deliver dividends. Though whether Shetland and Norway’s already well-examined archival sources might help yield answers to the intriguing question of the development of the Shetland rudder is, one regrets, a task beyond my immediate scope…

Dr Adrian G Osler

Lesbury, 29 August 2019

[1] Osler A G, The Shetland Boat, London, 1983, Fig. 5d

[2] An additional worry being that the modelmaker had used ferrous nails which had become very corroded.

[3] Correspondence, Dr Arnold Gray MD (Glasgow) to Dr DA Allan PhD (Director, Liverpool Public Museum), n.d., c.1935: ‘I can’t tell you much about this model except that it is at least fifty years old – it was given to me twenty-nine years ago by an old lady – a patient – a Shetlander who in early life when she was proprietrix of an hotel in Lerwick had the yoal “Margaret” built for the use of visitors — the man who built the Margaret made this model and gave it to her.’

[4] Osler AG, Osler DA, ‘John Shewan, Shetland Shipwright and Modelmaker’, in Model Shipwright, No 16, 1976, 338-346

[5] Margaret, scaled (1:12) to: 26ft 4ins length (overall) x 6 ft beam, as against the ‘classic’ Ness Yoal’s 22ft 6ins x 5ft 6 ins (Henderson T, ‘Shetland Boats and their origins’, in Baldwin JR ed., Scandinavian Shetland: an ongoing tradition ?, 1978)

[6] Dr Douglas A Allan was Director of Liverpool Public Museums, 1929-1944, after which he became Director of the Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh; Allan commissioned models from Shewan for both institutions.

[7] The 15° (approximate) angle looks suspiciously close to a builder’s measured gradient of three inches per foot.

[8] Færøyvik B, Færøyvik Ø, Inshore Craft of Norway, ed. Christensen AE, 1979.

[9] Though such extension may be hinted at, see Fair Isle Yoals below; note also, the after edge on the Ness Yoal rudder in Fig. 3, though this may be a repair.

[10] See, for example: Wicksteed OH, The Hardanger Faering, London, 1978, Fig.1; 12

[11] Unfortunately, Bernhard Færøyvik’s field notes from Shetland (June 1950) contain little pertinent information. One sketch only (page 16) depicts a rudder, that apparently of a ‘heel in line with keel’ Shetland type (from Yell?) with annotations indicating nomenclature. His recording of comparative sail-plans was far more extensive.

[12] Færøyvik, Inshore Craft of Norway, 24-25

[13] Christensen jnr AE, Nørsk Båter: et overseen over de förindustrielle båttyper, unpublished dissertation, University of Oslo, 1963, plan 21 (after Revheim)

[14] Wicksteed, The Hardanger Faering, 1, Figs.1, 2

[15] Correspondence, Shewan to Allan, 26 March 1941: ‘As for the building of the Fair Isle Yole [sic] I would manage one of them alright as I belong to the place in the South end of Shetland where they nearly always landed when they were coming to Shetland, a place called Scatness, Dunrossness…I used to see them when they came and went back again with very rough weather’. He did not mention that (as a boy) he had been present when some yoles were lost whilst making the 22-mile crossing, helping to pull one yole and its survivors clear of the sea.

[16] Shewan-built Fair Isle Yoal models include: Dolphin, 2567 LK (Liverpool Public Museum); Daisy, 2106 LK (Royal Scottish Museum); Fair Isle Lass, LK 619 (Geo. Waterston; later, Shetland County Museum); Bonxie, LK — (Fair Isle Bird Observatory, believed lost 2019).

Ness Yoals include: Hawk, LK 191 (Liverpool Public Museum); Wave, LK 163 (Royal Scottish Museum); —, 149 LK (Science Museum, London); Linnet, LK 716 (Shetland County Museum); Venerable (Private collection)

[17] The Fisheries Exhibition Literature, Vol. XII, London, 1883-1884, 46

[18] Both items are now held in the water transport collections of the Science Museum, London: model – Inv. No. 1883-402; photograph – Neg. No. 2030/76; see also, Osler, The Shetland Boat, Figs. 26 and 23 respectively.

[19] Fair Isle’s nationally reported fishery ‘disaster’ of 1897 involved the loss of eight crew and two yoals.

[20] Osler, The Shetland Boat, 71-72

[21] Author’s survey notes, 1976

[22] The foot however appears to be cut consistent with a ‘heel in line with keel’ setup.

[23] The twin-gudgeon upper rudder hanging is reminiscent of Shetland practice (rudder ‘loops’), but the toe of the blade is characteristically Norwegian in form, i.e. lacking any cutaway. Although undated, the author would ascribe the original plan to the late-eighteenth or early-nineteenth century on grounds of the Yawl’s design and the nature of draughtsmanship.

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