The Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme

The history of boat-building in Orkney

By the late 17th century, large open cargo boats capable of sailing to Shetland, Norway and Leith were being built in Orkney.

In 1662 Kirkwall skipper Thomas Baikie contracted to build a large clinker boat with a keel length of 30-feet for two Stronsaymen. Great Boats were used throughout the 17th and 18th centuries by landowners in Orkney to transport grain, peats and farm animals.

The names of a few local carpenters who built and repaired boats around Orkney in the 18th century are recorded. Thomas Spence, from Sanday, and Thomas Moor were employed building the bark Friendship at the Ayre in Kirkwall in 1749. Thomas Moor also built a four-oared boat in Shapinsay, circa 1751, and in 1770 Thomas Spence built Patrick Fea of Airy's "big boat" in Sanday.

Small ships were built in Stromness as early as the beginning of the 18th Century. By 1694 there were nine carpenters in Stromness and some may have built boats.

Wars with France in the 18th century resulted in west-bound ships sailing north-about through the Pentland Firth to avoid French privateers in the English Channel. Passing ships anchored in Stromness harbour while awaiting a favourable wind.

The Hudson's Bay Company supply-ships anchored in Stromness harbour every June before sailing across the Atlantic. Young men were hired, mainly as labourers and sailors, by the ship captains from as early as 1700 and later boat builders were being sought. By 1812 there were 15 Orkney boat-builders employed at six Hudson's Bay Company forts.

Stromness carpenter Thomas Linklater built at least two large boats in 1759 in a noust below the street south of Duncan's Burn. In 1783 the 40-tonne sloop the Margaret of Kirkwall was built in Stromness for Messrs William Watt Jr & Company, merchants in Kirkwall. Stromness had, by the end of the 18th century, become the focus for boat and shipbuilding in Orkney with four shipbuilders employing 18 full-time ship carpenters.

John Stanger established a shipyard at Ness in Stromness in 1829. By 1836 he had built a slipway capable of handling vessels up to 400 tonnes. This facility allowed ships to be hauled ashore and repaired and must have been viewed by all as a huge improvement. During the next three years 30 ships were repaired on the slip and the brig Golden Ace was built.

Orders for new brigs and schooners as well as fifie-type fishing boats provided local employment for boat-builders and associated trades. Amongst the ships built by John Stanger was the paddle steamer Royal Mail in 1856. John Stanger died in 1878 but the yard continued under his son, Frederick, eventually closing in 1924 when he died. 

George and Peter Copland established a boatyard at Garson shore in 1868. They built three schooners for Stromness merchant JA Shearer, the MaryAnn being the last completed by the yard in 1888.


George Harcus from Westray built some large fishing boats at Kiln Corner in Kirkwall. To launch the boats they had to be dragged through the street on their bilge. The yard closed in the early 20th century.

In the North Isles, John Spence was building boats in the late 18th century in Stronsay and there were five boat-builders in Westray.

The Westray skiff dates from the early 19th century. The skiff was of finer form than the Orkney yole, but retained the disjointed transverse framing arrangement used on the North Isles yoles.

North Isles boat-builders in the 19th and 20th centuries included James Reid, Peter Miller and James Rendall from Westray and Papay. John and Thomas Omand of Towerhill and Scott of Stumpo built many North Isles yoles in Sanday.

In the South Isles the family-owned boat-building business Duncans of Burray commenced building fishing boats in the mid-19th century under James B Duncan and continued for five generations until 2001. Their cruiser-sterned lobster boat design for motor propulsion became popular with local fishermen during the mid-20th century.

Perhaps the best known and most prolific builder of South Isles yoles and dinghies was James Nicolson of Flotta. Born in 1843, Jimmy built boats at the Smiddie in Flotta until 1922 when he was 79 years old. The elegant three-sailed yole Emma is a fine example of his workmanship and is still sailing in local regattas 100 years after being built.

Other boat-builders on Flotta during the late 19th and early 20th century included Malcolm Flett, Thomas Sutherland, John and Thomas Sutherland of Standing Stones, John Simpson and James and Albert Sabiston of Hilldyke.

Edward Baikie and son built yoles, dinghies and quills at No 2 South End, Stromness during the latter quarter of the 19th and the early 20th century. Baikie carried out maintenance work on the Stromness lifeboat and built the elliptic-sterned Laverne for local regattas.

© Stromness MuseumJW Mackay started building boats on Fara in 1870 and later moved to Finstown and then Stromness, where the yard continued to build clinker dinghies and motor boats into the 1970s.

James (Pia) Anderson built square-sterned lobster boats in the 1960s. His business expanded quickly and a new yard was built at Ness, but he died suddenly in 1971. The yard survived under new management and continued to built new fishing boats until about 1975.

A time-served boat-builder with Anderson, Ian Richardson, set up his own business in Stromness in 1975. Since then Ian has built and repaired dinghies, yoles and fishing boats as well as a wooden yacht and a replica Viking ship. 

© Dennis Davidson