A new wave of learning

22nd July 2011 at 01:00
A boat-building project in Glasgow is helping out-of-work people to gain new skills - and putting them in touch with their heritage

As the elegant, wooden galley from a bygone age is lowered gently into the dark waters of the Clyde, the clouds lift for the first time this morning, bathing in bright sunshine a sleek Emirates aircraft that thunders overhead towards Glasgow Airport.

The Orcuan's place on the boat hoist, which was supposed to drop it deftly onto the water at Rothesay Dock East, has been taken by a brash, blue and white speedboat. So the 30-foot galley is having to be crane-lifted and manhandled from the back of a lorry into the flotsam-strewn corner of the boatyard.

Built solidly of elm and oak, the Orcuan is no lightweight, and her two tonnes, swinging from a chain, take time and skill to manoeuvre into place. The anxiety on Ben Duffin's forehead doesn't dissipate even when the craft, in the capable hands of Darren Marshall, gently kisses the water and seems safely launched.

The next few minutes are also stressful for a boatbuilder, Ben says. "The boat has been out of the water getting repaired for nine months, so it's all dried out. It'll leak at first until the wood swells and the seams become watertight. How big those leaks will be, you don't know until she hits the water. It's always a nervous moment."

Sure enough, the onboard pump soon starts chattering noisily, labouring to propel a thick stream from the Orcuan's bilges back into the Clyde where it belongs. Over the next hour, the pump stutters on and off, the boat stays afloat and the crew and helpers step the mast and ship the oars, before setting off, to the sound of loud cheers from the dock, on the start of a short voyage to the new Riverside Museum where it will be berthed.

It is a great moment for everyone from GalGael, the Govan-based community group that first built Orcuan 10 years ago and has now resurrected it from the bed of the Clyde and rebuilt it from its storm-lashed, seemingly terminal state.

"It's been a massive amount of work," Ben says. "There's a new internal structure, new seats, lots of knees that hold the boat together, and new planking where the old had been staved in. Boatbuilding is one of these crafts you can do till you're 70 and still not know everything. It's a different world, a separate art, skill, craft and vocabulary. It's not carpentry. It's curves."

It does start with carpentry though, he says. "Then you study what happens when curves meet. You have the longitudinal curve down the hull and the lateral curves along the side. You have to learn how each of those interacts with any individual piece.

"You are never working to 90 degrees. Angles change all over the boat and you have to account for that to make things fit perfectly for structural strength. David Delaney and I did most of the work on the boat. He came straight from the benches, having done the course at GalGael, and I taught him about boatbuilding."

It seems a big step from the spice-racks and bird-boxes that participants cut their teeth on during GalGael's rolling 12-week training programme. But it's a step they are well prepared for - and one that lies at the heart of the GalGael philosophy, explains progression support officer Tam McGarvey at the Govan premises where Orcuan began her adventures on the back of a lorry.

"Govan is a former shipbuilding community with a lot of unemployment these days. So our founder, Colin Macleod, decided we should make boats - a style of boat, the building of which would help people learn about Scottish history and our cultural heritage."

The people who come to GalGael often have difficulties, such as mental health problems, substance abuse and homelessness, he says. "We don't go into any of that. We don't focus on people's problems. Instead we provide an environment where they can work together, build friendships and learn new skills. We get a lot of referrals and people come along themselves. It's a big mix. We all support each other.

"We have lots of volunteers coming in to help. It's a sad indictment on society, I think, that so many people with brilliant skills and a will to work are sitting all day with nothing to do. We welcome them here."

Participants who complete the basic course get an SVQ certificate from Cardonald College and a set of tools from GalGael, he says. They also gain something less tangible but more valuable - a support community.

"I've just completed the course and am back here volunteering," says Raymond Ramsay. "I came first because I wanted to use my free time wisely, and get a trade or education. A friend told me about this place. It's fantastic. You learn such a lot. It gives you a focus. It's amazing to see wood being turned into a real boat. We do so many things here."

Charity events and outings are aimed at helping the less fortunate, he says. "There's an open night every week, where folk come in and have a meal and learn about GalGael. The people here make you welcome. I lost my family four years ago. These past few months feel like I've got a family back again. They have been so warm and kind to me here."

Behind the small front office, GalGael stretches way back from the street, with saws, planes, drills, hammers and chisels hanging from the wall, ready for the students working at twin rows of well-worn benches. T-joints are being learnt today by the new intake, while spice-racks are being built by the old salts who have served six weeks already.

The atmosphere is a mix of industry and good humour. The sounds are of men talking, sawing, hammering, laughing. The smell is aromatic pitch mingled with the mellow, subtle scent of oak. People, piles of planking, waterproof jackets, boots, lockers, coils of rope and half-completed wooden hulls fill the space. There is craft here, and skill and community, and something else as well - connection to the past.

A rectangular block of oak, half carved with a horseback warrior and interlocking Celtic knots, lies against the wall, beside a startlingly lifelike carving of a brown bear's face. "They're mine," says trainer Nori Anderson. "That one's based on the standing stones from a thousand years ago that are on display in Govan Old Parish Church.

"Wood's a beautiful material to work with, so tactile. Carving in low and deep relief like this isn't difficult, but it does take a good few hundred hours by hand. You could speed it up by using an electric router, but I don't like to do that. I batter this about with a mallet now and then to give it character. There's an old technique where you expose the wood to horse's urine to darken it. I might try that when it's finished."

Employed full-time as a trainer now, Nori first came to GalGael 11 years ago, he says. "I've come through the ranks. Our course Navigate Life didn't exist then, so I hung around, went on the benches, helped out and learnt the skills by doing things. The minute I came through the door I thought, `I'm not leaving here'. It is a common reaction, says Omair Ulhaiq, who completed the course last year and now comes in regularly as a volunteer instructor. "It's a fantastic place with a warm atmosphere, like a family. People who come here are often struggling with long-term unemployment, and maybe drink, drugs or depression. It breaks my heart to see people struggling and suffering, in this day and age, as they do in these communities."

At a personal level, GalGael has exposed a rich, unsuspected seam of creativity in him, Omair says. "I draw a lot. I make jewellery. I do felting. It's the opposite to how I used to think. I remember looking for a wooden earring once and a guy said I could easily make one with a knife, and I said `Nah, I wouldn't know where to start.'

"Now I look at really complex things, made of wood or anything else, and the first thing that pops into my head is how can I make it myself? GalGael has given me the confidence to be creative."

It is all there in the name of the little Govan boatbuilding group, says training manager Martin Hughes. "GalGael means strange or foreign Gael. So it's saying it doesn't matter where you're from, because at some point in your ancestry you're from somewhere else.

"We welcome everyone here, irrespective of race, creed, colour or addiction. It doesn't matter what they are or where they come from. They are all people."

GalGael receives European Social Funding, www.galgael.org, www.galgael.orgworknavigatethefuture.aspx

Govan sculptured stones http:freespace.virgin.netgovanold.pcsculpture.htm


A new departure for GalGael last session was taking boatbuilding into Glasgow schools, says training manager Martin Hughes.

"We partnered with Sense over Sectarianism to get St Roch's and Smithycroft secondary pupils working together to build a boat and tackle some of their issues over sectarianism. They came to us rather than us going to the schools, because it's a very creative environment here."

A second boatbuilding project on the same lines, this time with Govan High and Lourdes Academy pupils, has begun and will continue next session, he says. "We would like more partnerships with schools. It doesn't have to be linked to tackling sectarianism. There are 46 of these boats being built now around Scotland. They come as kits from Scottish Coastal Rowing."

Once a popular pastime around the country, especially among fishing communities, coastal rowing died out for a time, he says. "The project to bring it back was founded by a former student of mine, Alec Jordan. The boats come as kits, which don't need specialist skills to put together.

"I'm aiming to write a boatbuilding course around the construction of these boats, so students can get employability qualifications through working on them."

Scottish Coastal Rowing http:scottishcoastalrowing.org.


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