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Tales fae da Noost

Updated: Aug 1, 2020

The remains of boat noosts are a common sight around the coast of Shetland. The dimensions of the noost may give an indication of the size of boat it was built to house and we can sometimes find evidence of modifications during its lifetime. The size and any other associated structures may also give us some clues as to whether this was a commercial fishing boat noost or if the boat housed within was used by a family for domestic purposes. Noosts have rarely been excavated, but where this has happened it can provide further clues to changes in size and function over time, and in exceptional cases may yield dating evidence. However, like the ubiquitous dry stone field wall, a noost is a structure that is generally almost impossible to date as it rarely accumulates much domestic refuse or debris.

Very occasionally, a happy combination of local conditions and excavation may allow a noost to be dated scientifically, as happened at Underhoull in Unst. The pair of noosts at Underhoull were dated using a luminescence technique which placed their construction to around the 13th century, the Norse period in Shetland. At some point in the first half of the sixteenth century the west noost became redundant, and was modified for use as a saw pit (Tait 2012: 112-113; Kinnaird, Sanderson, Preston, Dugmore, Newton 2017: 45).

Remains of the two medieval noosts at Underhoull, Unst. Photo ©Chivers, M. 2018.
Remains of the two excavated noosts at Underhoull, Unst. Photo ©Chivers, M. 2018.

The remains of the west noost that was converted into a saw pit during the sixteenth century. Photo ©Chivers, M. 2018.
Noost converted into a saw pit during the 16th century. Photo ©Chivers, M. 2018.

At Moder Dy we use archaeological survey as one of the facets to put these noosts into the broader context of historic small boat use in Shetland. Most noosts are post-medieval, and were often used within living memory; this enables us to use archive sources and local community oral history to create a detailed narrative of small boat use. This is a far more detailed narrative than archaeology on its own can provide. This reuniting of archaeological remains, along with the stories these structures contain, with the local community lies at the heart of what we do.

During our Caain da Noosts lockdown project we have been delighted to receive stories from across Shetland. What follows next are just a couple of examples of the information we have received. As you will see, these narratives provide us with a wonderful snap shot of daily domestic boat use.

John Stewart's Noost

This noost is near Seafield pier in Mid Yell. The information about this noost was provided by Billy Williamson and Alister Thomason. John Stewart was the skipper of the famous racing boat Miss Gadabout which was built on the island of Fetlar by Walter Shewan in 1925. John Stewart was an extremely experienced sailor and he would often take supplies out to the trawlers that came into Mid Yell Voe. He used a fourareen to take these supplies which he kept in the noost which was east of  Seafield. One afternoon, in December 1956, he and Campbell Nesbit took supplies out to a trawler. The weather was poor when they left the noost, and by the time they were returning from the trawler the weather had gotten an awful lot worse, it was certainly no weather to be on the sea. The boat was wrecked and sadly both men were lost.

This photo of Miss Gadabout, the crew and skipper was taken shortly after the second world war at the Burravoe regatta in Yell. In the photograph from left to right are crew members Willie Nicolson and Norman Jamieson and to their right is Miss Gadabout's skipper John Stewart.

Miss Gadabout. Left to right Willie Nicolson, Norman Jamieson, John Stewart. Photo c.1946. ©Shetland Museum & Archives.
Miss Gadabout. ©Shetland Museum & Archives.

Miss Gadabout was first raced at Baltasound regatta in 1925. The racing rules during that period were such that even old fishing boats remained competitive. The key to winning races at that time was down to skill, rather than who could afford the latest and best equipped boat. As the Shetland Times reported at the time: "Considerable interest was centred in the race for the Club Shield, for which there were six entries. One of the boats was new – Miss Gadabout – and another, the Juanita had recently been purchased from Lerwick, while the Jemima, owned and sailed by Mr. J. Hughson, Burrafirth, thirty years ago was used as a saithe boat, and no one ever thought at that time that this humble saithe boat would be running our modern racers hard for premier place at our regattas" (U.B.C. 1991: 33).

Saithe boat Jemima Ann on display Unst Boat Haven. Photo ©Chivers, M. 2014.
Saithe boat Jemima Ann on display Unst Boat Haven. Photo ©Chivers, M. 2014.

Yell boat builder Johnnie Smith's noost

This information was provided by Billy Williamson. Well known Yell boat builder Johnnie Smith was Billy's uncle. He launched his new boats from the noost at Stivler. Johnnie built his boats at Park, which was a few hundred yards away from the noost. Folk would come to help launch a new boat, which would be carried and dragged down to the noost. Johnnie was very safety conscious and when a new boat was launched he always insisted that he must be the first person in the boat. Once aboard he would walk up the side of the boat midships, until he was able to stand on the gunwale. This method is still often used to check a small boats stability. Only once he was satisfied that the boat was safe would he allow other folk aboard.

Johnnie was often asked to build boats to race at the regattas. He could build fast boats, but he always refused to build racing boats as by their nature they would be unstable, and he did not want to build boats that he did not regard as safe. Boats in Mid Yell were used to get to the shops and Post Office which were on the south side of the voe.

This photograph of folk digging out their fourareens from under the snow to go to the shop in February 1947 is well known in Shetland. In this photograph are Nina Charleson from Stivler, who is holding the paraffin flask, Helen Smith from Park, Katie Moar from Hvidigarth, Jeemie Spence from Braeview, Bertie Spence, from Kavanar, and boat builder and fisherman Johnnie Smith, from Park. Alister Thomason recalled that folk used to go to the shop on a Saturday. Everyone went by boat, if there were folk who could not take themselves then they would be taken across in someone else's boat. 

Digging fourareens out from under snow in their noost at Stivler, Nortavoe, to make a trip to the shop at Mid Yell. Photograph: P04084 Peterson, J. Yell, February 1947. ©Shetland Museum & Archives.
Stivler noost, 1947. Photo ©Shetland Museum & Archives

More stories to follow next month ...

Please get in touch if you have stories that you wish to share. We look forward to hearing from you.

Dr Marc Chivers and Dr Esther Renwick, July 2020.


Kinnaird T. C., Sanderson D.C.W., Preston J., Dugmore, A.J., Newton, A.J (2017) Luminescence dating of sediments from Underhoull and Lund, Unst, Shetland. Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre, East Kilbride, Glasgow, School of Geosciences, University of Edinburgh

Tait, I. (2012) Shetland Vernacular Buildings 1600-1900. Shetland Times, Lerwick

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