All aboard - in memory of the Bard

24th July 2009 at 01:00
A maritime festival held in 17th-century Portsoy harbour attracted visitors and boats - some hand-crafted by schoolchildren - as part of the Homecoming Scotland 2009 celebrations. Jean McLeish watched as young and old found their sea legs. Photographs: Simon Price

Eating freshly cooked kippers and oatcakes out of a box she bought from a stall at the end of the pier, Jennifer Litherland looks down over the old harbour and breathes a sigh of contentment.

The retired teacher from Lossie-mouth has responded to the call and come home to Scotland to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns's birth for Homecoming 2009.

When it's cold and grey and the bankers and politicians have reduced national pride to a record low, you'd wonder who would bother coming home. But beneath blue skies with a warm sea breeze, you wonder why they left.

The 17th-century harbour is packed with traditional boats which have sailed here from all around the coast for this maritime festival. Some, like the 70ft Fifie "Reaper", have the brown sails, which have become a symbol of this nautical pilgrimage to Portsoy for the Scottish Traditional Boat Festival.

This year's festival - the 16th - has been extended to four days to mark the year of Homecoming. Distinguished international guests take part in a symposium on boat history and design, and there are opportunities to learn about rope making and rigging, and even to watch the world's fastest knitter at work.

Jennifer, an education consultant now living in London, is soaking it all in. She has extended her trip to a month and will join the celebrations to mark the Burns anniversary in Dumfries later in the month. "I'm having a brilliant time. The weather's fantastic and I'm enjoying the sea breezes," she says, sitting on a bench on the hillside overlooking the Moray Firth. "Scotland does play on the heartstrings - but the family and grandchildren are all down south now, so that's where we are."

Next time, Jennifer should bring the grandchildren to join the fun.

Half-a-mile away, at Loch Soy, hundreds of children from rural primaries have been learning to sail. On a hot day like today, the capsize drill is more welcome than usual.

This annual venture is part of the Royal Yachting Association's "Sailing in the City" programme, co-ordinated by Portsoy School's former headteacher Lorna Summers, who retired two years ago. "I've seen what fantastic benefits kids get from this experience, there's such a lot of co-operation and team skills, everything you would want," says Lorna, watching the fun from the loch-side.

She is also involved in the gentler pursuit of Knitting Portsoy - a 12-ft knitted wall hanging illustrating this community. After the summer, pupils will start knitting too. "There was a lot of traditional knitting in this area, which is vanishing, and we want to stop that from happening."

Children aged between 10 and 12 from Bracoden, Whitehills, Ordiquhill and Fordyce schools have taken to the water in the past nine days and, today, children from Portsoy School are chasing each other across the loch in nippy dinghies, called a "Topper Taz" and made of rounded heavy plastic that looks as safe as a baby's bath but robust enough for the most exuberant young sailors.

It's an idyllic morning and they are having such fun, as some adults stop to watch them. "We never got anything like that when I was at school," one of them says.

"For children, it's about new experiences and having something that you enjoy. We can start sailing with them aged eight - it's great and so good for them being outdoors," says Alex Buglass, lead senior instructor with the RYA for this event. "We get kids who can't swim, who come along and take part. By the end of the day, they will be just as enthusiastic to jump into the water as the other kids who swim well."

This morning's improvers' group are kitted out in waterproof sailing suits, helmets and buoyancy aids, playing tag with a ball to sharpen their skills in handling the dinghies at speed. Two 11-year-olds, Scott Simpson and Steven George, are taking turns at the helm - they're spirited about the boat festival. "People put up stalls for food and there are boat races and old boats in the harbour that you can take a look on," says Steven.

"There's the `Reaper' in the harbour and it's 107-years-old - it's an old herring drifter and it comes here for the festival," says Scott, who is from a sea-faring family. "My grandad used to fish, and so did my other grandad, and my dad is now fishing. Dad's on a clam boat and they sometimes go as far as Wick or Wales, and into other countries as well. He goes away for a week at a time. I want to be the skipper of a boat when I'm older."

Near the shore, one of the dinghies capsizes and Amy Watson-Riddoch, 12, and her friend Corban Skillander end up in the water. They follow instructions from instructors in the safety boat and manage to right the dinghy and clamber safely back on board.

Amy says it was "scary, cold and wet", but she's smiling as if she enjoyed it, and so is Corban, who says it was "good" despite a brief period when his sailing shoes floated off into the distance.

Their instructor, Alex, says the RYA is keen to encourage children to get more involved with sailing clubs and progress with the sport. "If you get into racing, it's great for your mind and body, because you have to work hard at keeping the boat going. When it gets really windy, it becomes quite physical. You also have to know all the tactics and the finer points of making the boat go, so it's technical as well."

Back on land, Princess Anne, the Princess Royal has been meeting pupils who have been working on the Portsoy Faering Project. Many started out on the loch at the RYA sailing classes and graduated to boat building.

"We're in about year five of the project," says James Crombie, who runs the scheme, along with colleague Pete Danks. "We started off making little Optimist dinghies. Some of those big lads now were teeny little chaps then. But what's happened is that those big lads are teaching the younger ones. This is gaining momentum, and we are talking about links with marine youth projects all over Scotland."

Their first faering, "Oor Boatie", was launched at the festival last year and local youngsters - mostly from Banff Academy - have been adding the finishing touches."We've made everything from the rope to the sail. We try not to buy anything," says Mr Crombie, vice-chairman and harbourmaster for the festival.

Banff Academy sixth-year pupil, David Allan, 16, has been working on the project since the outset and has built a range of craft over the years: "It's been a lot of team work and communication skills, plus using woodwork, crafts and fibre-glassing skills."

He and his friend hope to be given a boat by one of their teachers. "A ram got into his shed and head-butted a hole in the boat," says David, a keen sailor. "He said we can get it in a couple of weeks and we will repair it, and he said we can keep it. He will also give us the trailer and sails."

As the sun creeps over the yardarm, there's Jennifer on the quayside enjoying the late afternoon sun with an ice cold drink - for today at least, there's no place like home.


In a marquee, a few 100 yards from the harbour, vocalists and musicians are tuning up and parents are queuing for the "Ballads `n' Bairns" performance.

To welcome homecomers like Jennifer Litherland, schools and communities at 12 locations across the north-east are staging Heritage Fairs this year, exploring and celebrating their culture and past. The concept of these fairs originated in Canada. Some link up with existing festivals and events; others are new projects.

The idea is for children and others to explore what is unique in their culture and traditions and showcase the cross-curricular projects to visitors and the wider community. It fits in with the objectives of A Curriculum for Excellence, encouraging joined-up thinking in learning across different genres.

At Portsoy, it is appropriate that traditional music with a sea-faring theme is the focus for primary schoolchildren. This is the fifth year director Dave Francis and his team of professional musicians have helped children make music here. Under the guidance of Lorna MacLaren, Aberdeenshire's Youth Music Initiative co-ordinator, his team has been working since March in the eight primaries linked to Banff Academy.

This year, they are encouraging pupils to investigate their own sea-faring and musical heritage, taking part in workshops on singing, song-writing and instrumental musicianship.

"One of the big themes of the festival this year is sea shanties, so what we have been doing is working on them with the schools, so they each have their own one," says Dave.

Their work culminates in this festival concert where they perform, with great gusto, tunes and songs they have written, along with well-known sea shanties they have recreated using their own communities for inspiration.

In another visual arts project, children's artwork forms a backdrop to performances on the harbour stage - a parade of colourful yachts created by Aberchirder School pupils with help from visiting art teacher Iain Mitchell. Pupils also contributed art reflecting their community to a special Homecoming exhibition assembled by Iain from schools throughout the region (TESS, July 10).

This festival has always given children and learning more than a walk-on part - education is central to its ethos, and it is a feature that is attracting attention from maritime festivals in Norway and France.

Festival chairman Roger Goodyear is keen to develop this educational element - for all age groups. "We are meeting with other festivals in September to see if we can seek pan-European funding to develop the educational side," he says.

"We're also very keen to make it not simply a weekend festival, but something which has a footprint which extends over the year."

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