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Burra Noost Project

Fourareens at Wester Quarff. Flitting the minister over the sound to Burra. Photographer: unknown (c.1890). ©Shetland Museum & Archives, Z00084

An ebbing maritime heritage

Shetland is a wonderful place to live, and the landscape is imbued with its maritime past. Moder Dy CIC has been formed with a single goal: to engage with the community to protect, preserve, and bring to life Shetland's fast disappearing maritime heritage. A key way of reconnecting communities to their heritage is to engage them with re-discovering narratives of their forebears lives. Moder Dy CIC has developed the noost project with this aim in mind.

A boat noost, until very recently, was the heart of the daily life of Shetland communities. A form of unroofed boat shed, sometimes little more than a scoop out of the coast edge: the noost at first glance does not appear very exciting, however, these abandoned coastal eroding maritime structures are culturally extremely important, providing a tangible link to a way of life dating back over 1000 years. A noost on its own tells us little, however when put into a land and seascape context using information obtained from archaeological survey, archive and oral sources, a fascinating narrative develops of the people who farmed / crofted and fished in the community. 

Shetland's social, cultural, and economic history was inexorably entwined with the sea; it has often been said that in Shetland the sea was the road upon which everyone travelled.  Today the sea, instead of being viewed as a convenient road is now seen as an inconvenient barrier to travel. 

The majority of Shetland's populated areas are located close to the sea; some are found on exposed coasts while others are nestled alongside voes (sea inlets). Until a generation or so ago roads and car transport was limited within the isles, and instead people were dependent upon small open boats of a unique local design and build. These boats were used for activities such as: farming/crofting; subsistence and commercial fishing ; flitting (transporting a short distance by sea) livestock to islands for summer grazing; going to the shops; going to church; visiting friends and family.

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Fourareen from Burra to Quarff to ferry passengers. Photograph: Smith, J. H. (c.1910).  JS00129 ©Shetland Museum & Archives.

Over the past 40 or so years this unique maritime culture has gradually been eroded to such an extent that the majority of Shetland's 23,000 population are unaccustomed to using small open boats. Up until the 1980s rural families kept their family fourareen (a four-oared boat) on or adjacent to a convenient beach. When they wished to use the boat they simply left their house and strolled to the beach, got the boat ready and hauled it into the water: this was a seaward facing community. Then in the early 1980s the oil revenues began to flow; this new wealth enabled Shetland's roads to be improved and the marinas were constructed. The construction of roads sounded the death knell for the humble noost. People no longer walked to their family's boat housed in its noost; instead they got into their car and drove to the marina. The road and the car now reigned supreme, and noosts which in many cases had been in the same family for generations now lay abandoned forgotten and eroding. 

Today the noost is an alien concept to the majority of young Shetlanders. Meanwhile the people who are familiar with, and in many cases used a boat that was kept in a noost are growing old, and unless we can capture their coastal stories,

these along with the noosts, will be lost forever. 

Noosts invariably lie close to the shore and are themselves at risk from coastal erosion due to rising sea levels and changing weather patterns. This is a consequence of climate change, and Marine Scotland suggest that sea levels in Shetland will rise by up to 50cm by 2080, this is 10cm - 20cm higher than in other parts of Scotland. As well as coastal erosion these important heritage structures are at risk from livestock grazing, rabbit burrowing, and human destruction. These structures have never been fully mapped nor recorded, we have no idea even how many survive in the isles, and due to their nature are often incredibly vulnerable and fragile pieces of archaeology that potentially represent over 1000 years of boat use. 

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Map of Shetland with Burra highlighted in the box.

The Project
Due to the imminent threat posed to these historic maritime noost structures, Moder Dy CIC has decided to undertake a community research project that will engage with the people of Burra. The purpose of this engagement will be to: identify noosts; map their location; conduct archeological surveys; and record oral histories. This data combined with that found within the Shetland archives will place the noost back into a seaward facing social historic and economic context. Moder Dy CIC (the lead organisation) will be working in partnership with Burra History Group, Archaeology Shetland, Shetland Amenity Trust, and Scottish Coastal Archaeology and the Problem of Erosion (SCAPE).

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A decaying fourareen near a line of noosts Bridge End, Burra. Photograph: ©Moder Dy CIC 2019.

Community engagement

This is foremost a community project, and it is intended that Moder Dy CIC will support, train and supervise volunteers who will undertake the majority of the fieldwork.  There will also be a rolling monthly work experience programme (aimed at hard to reach young people). Each work experience programme will enable selected young people aged 15-24 to have the opportunity to learn employability skills required to work on this exciting heritage project. In addition to these placement opportunities there will be a rolling placement programme for selected younger or older people with learning disabilities and or autism who will be supported in getting involved with appropriate elements of fieldwork. 


Project outcomes

In order to achieve the noost project’s outcomes the following questions will need to be answered:


  1. how many noosts and associated structures currently exist?

  2. what varieties of noost structures exist?

  3. which noosts are at risk of imminent erosion?

  4. which noosts are of significant historical importance? 

  5. which noosts were used only for commercial fishing?

  6. which noosts were only used for subsistence fishing, farming and travel?

  7. which noosts were used for both commercial and non-commercial activity?

  8. how were these structures commonly constructed?

  9. what variance in noost construction exists on Burra?

  10. what other vernacular structures (such as boat draws) exist in relation to the noosts?

  11. what do these associated structures tell us about life on Burra?

  12. how many associated noost structures exist?

  13. what do the noosts tell us about the types and sizes of boats that they contained?

  14. what do the noosts tell us about the families who used them?


This project strategically dovetails with the Scottish Marine Tourism’s strategy (Awakening the Giant) and the Scottish Government’s 2020 year of the coast and water. This project also fits with the strategic work being undertaken by Shetland Amenity Trust to promote Shetland’s maritime heritage by: funding of a PhD;[1] provision of the annual Shetland Boat Week; and the ongoing development of a traditional Shetland boatbuilding course. The whole purpose of this strategy is to re-connect Shetlanders with their culturally unique maritime heritage. It also fits very neatly into the Shetland Wool Week project which has done much to raise the profile of the heritage craft of Shetland knitting, which has fostered local pride and ownership in a tradition that was, until recently, seen locally as a rather uncomfortable reminder of an impoverished past.


[1] Chivers, M. (2017) Shetland Vernacular Boats 1500-2000. An edited book version of this thesis is planned to be published by Shetland Amenity Trust in 2020.

Closing the gaps in our current knowledge

Due to lack of comprehensive mapping the total number of noosts on Burra is currently unknown. However, data obtained and analysed from the first fishing boat register in 1869 does provide a baseline for the number of commercial fishing boats in use in that year.[1] These data reveal that in 1869 there were a total of 114 four and six-oared boats registered to fish commercially on Burra, and the majority of boats will have been stored in a noost. It has to be remembered that this data only represents a subset of the total of boats in use on Burra during that period, as not all family boats were used for commercial fishing; therefore these data represent the minimum number of boats in use in 1869.[2] It is safe to assume that in 1869 there will have been a minimum of 114 noosts scattered about Burra’s coastline.


SCAPE currently have data for the Coastal Area Zone Survey (CAZS) which has been cross referenced by them with data from Historic Environment Scotland’s Canmore database of historic sites which has six noosts listed for Burra. Indeed, for the whole of Shetland there  are only 124 noosts currently formally identified. The coast of Burra has never been systematically surveyed, so the number of noost sites is expected to increase significantly with closer investigation.


[1] Chivers, M. (2017) Shetland Vernacular Boats 1500-2000: 243

[2] Chivers, M. (2017) Shetland Vernacular Boats 1500-2000: 241

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Identified noost sites. Map and data ©SCAPE / Canmore.

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An unsually large boat noost with a boat draw at Bridge End, Burra, Shetland. Photograph @Moder Dy CIC 2019.

Project Evaluation

In order to determine the project’s successful legacy an in-depth evaluation process will be undertaken. The evaluation will focus on the following themes:


1. outcomes for heritage;

2. outcomes for people;

3. and outcomes for communities.


This evaluation process will be entwined within the project and will commence when the project begins. Data collected will be both qualitative and quantitative and there will be key evaluation stages which will be linked to the projects critical success factors (see section 7.0). This evaluation process will engage with all of the project’s stakeholders who will be asked to provide anonymised feedback on their experience of taking part in the project. In particular, stakeholders will be asked if the project fell short, matched, or surpassed their expectations? The view of the project’s stakeholders is key to understanding how the project has changed the way that local people view their maritime heritage. In particular, we will need to know if the project has altered the way people view their local tangible maritime heritage i.e. the noosts and their associated structures. We will need to find out if there has been a renewed pride within the local community’s maritime history; in particular, how young people now view their inherited maritime past.  We also wish to determine the success the project has had in promoting heritage tourism on Burra. To obtain evaluation data we will establish facilitator led focus groups who will meet at the beginning, half way through, and at the end of the project.


 A key part of this community project is to engage with hard to reach young people; supporting them to gain self-confidence through the development of employability skills. The young people who are placed with Moder Dy during the course of the project will be mentored during the course of their placement. In particular, they will be asked what they hope to achieve whilst on placement and this data will be used to benchmark and measure their progress and to determine whether or not the project met their expectations. Young people who have been on work experience placement with Moder Dy will be followed-up three months after their placement ended to determine what has changed for them as a consequence of their work experience, and what else might be done to support them achieve their ambitions.


This project will engage with selected people with learning disability or autism to enable them to gain archaeological fieldwork experience. As with the hard to reach young people on work placement, Moder Dy will support these volunteers to gain the required skills to become active members of the volunteer fieldwork team. A baseline of skills development needs will be undertaken for each person with a learning disability or autism. This baseline will be used to benchmark individual’s progress against the goals set between the participant and Moder Dy CIC. Participants will also be supported by their carer and Moder Dy CIC to ensure that participants are fully supported whilst engaged in project fieldwork, archive or oral history taking.

Burra Noost with winch and concrete slip

Remains of a noost with a winch and concrete slipway, Bridge End, Burra. Photograph ©Moder Dy 2019.

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Line of noosts at Bridge End, Burra. Photograph ©Moder Dy, 2019.

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