Heart and craft

1st August 2008 at 01:00
A passionate team of young boatbuilders is helping to keep traditional skills afloat, writes Jean McLeish

It is always an emotional occasion when a boat is launched in a small community, especially when it has been built by four boys in Plockton, in the Highlands, and is named after them.

Ceathrar Bhalaich, which means "four boys", was towed to the slipway by tractor to the sound of the pipes, then sent to sea with a few drams thrown across the bow.

Traditional wooden boats of this kind are known as Plockton local boats. This one is made from oak and larch and is ready for rowing or rigging with distinctive red sails. It is 15ft and clinker-built, which means the lower end of one plank in the side of the boat overlaps the next below it.

Three of the four boys are at the launch. The fourth has already launched himself on a personal voyage of discovery in his gap year. The ceremony marked the end of the first year of Am Bata, a three-year boat-building project at Plockton High that aims to build a boat a year.

Some children in the village are out sailing before they can walk, and summers are spent racing in dinghies or fishing in boats off the palm- fringed west Highland shoreline.

Am Bata - meaning "the boat" - began with a gift to the school's head of technology, Jamie Kean, in 2005. He plays tenor sax in the 14-piece Big Field Blues Band, and the generous offer of a pile of wood from the band's pianist came with one condition.

"He bought the wood to build a boat himself and he really wanted it to be turned into one," says Mr Kean, who enjoys sailing. "He offered me enough wood to build one boat on the condition that I did it.

"I thought it would be a really good thing to do because I like boats, and loads of people around here do too.

"We had built a plywood Canadian canoe before, but that was a different type of thing."

Mr Kean is not averse to challenges. He is an experienced member of the Kintail Mountain Rescue Team, based at Morvich, and the inventor of a resilient lightweight stretcher for the Mountain Rescue Committee of Scotland, which is expected to be exported worldwide.

The technology department at Plockton High is a wonderful clutter of books, tools and models of boats and woodwork in progress. The project would be a Boy's Own dream if girls had not also realised that it was just too good to miss.

With enthusiastic backing from Duncan Ferguson, the headteacher, the project pursued funding for a boatbuilder in residence after a successful earlier venture with a jeweller in residence. Plockton Small Boat Sailing Club became partners and backing was secured through the Highland Year of Culture 2007, with contributions from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

"We involved Susan Walker, who is the cultural co-ordinator for this area for the council, and she helped enormously to pull all the different funding sources together," explains Mr Kean. Further support came from the European programme Leader+ and the defence contractor QinetiQ, which is based in Kyle.

Ullapool boatbuilder and former classical guitarist Mark Stockl began working two days a week at the school as boat-builder in residence in October last year. He enjoyed working with the four boys and found them motivated and enthusiastic: two of them say they would be thrilled to join him as apprentices if an opportunity arose.

The project aims to revive interest in the history and culture of boats in the area, with evening classes in boat-building for adults, a live webcam in the boat shed during construction, and art and film-making ventures inspired by Am Bata.

Traditional boat-building skills are dying out in the area. "In the school's catchment area at the moment there's no commercial wooden boat- building at all," says Mr Kean. "One or two people will do repairs. There's fibreglass boat-building going on, or rather fitting out. They don't build the hull, but they fit out hulls brought in for fishing boats after the hulls are moulded, down in England."

Yet there is demand for wooden boats like this. Even before Ceathrar Bhalaich touched the water, offers were made for it, and now it is part of the Plockton Small Boat Racing Club fleet for training and racing.

"People like them. There's something very tactile about a wooden boat," he says. "If people come past it, they just want to feel it and knock it and hear the sound it makes. Plastic boats have taken over. They're much more convenient, but people say they lack soul."

The four sixth-year boys are Iain Cameron, Christopher Matheson, Jonathan Trout and the intrepid Ruairidh Macleod. Their mentor, Mr Stockl, is thrilled with what they have achieved. "To go from nothing to this in 46 days - it's an amazing amount of work and they have done really well," he says.

"They've learnt every conceivable woodworking skill. They've obviously done some woodworking with the school in the past, but I don't think as much to do with curves. That's the difference between making a bookcase and building a boat. There's nothing straight really on a boat, apart from the keel. Everything else is compact curves, which are quite complicated.

"We took the basic form of the boat from one of the other Plockton boats and you make up temporary moulds and build the shell of the hull round the three temporary moulds. Then you take them out and steam the timbers, which are the ribs of the boat that give it its basic strength. They have to be heated to quite a considerable temperature to get the wood to bend.

"I think the oldest of the Plockton local boats is 100 years old. It started out as a working boat, then a fishing boat, and then they (the fishermen) used to race home occasionally."

Now the Plockton Small Sailing Boat Club has around 20 of the boats and races them in regattas throughout the summer.

One of the four boys, Jonathan, 18, has recently left school and is currently at work in the Co-op at Kyle of Lochalsh, but is hoping to start an apprenticeship in boat-building or joinery.

"It was quite exciting going out in the boat for the first time," he says. "I thought it might leak a bit, which it did, but it didn't sink.

"It's amazing to think you built the boat and you're managing to row it as well."

Another of the young boatbuilders, Iain, 17, from Applecross, is the son of a retired merchant navy captain. "It was good fun and I learned a lot from it," he says. "It felt good seeing it in the water after seeing it being built."

Christopher, 17, from Dornie, is now working with his dad, who is a builder. "If I can get an apprenticeship with Mark, then I will," he says. "I just really enjoyed it. It was very satisfying seeing the boat in the water."

The fourth boy, Ruairidh, also from Applecross and a seafaring background, plans to study naval architecture and marine engineering at Strathclyde after his gap year. His grandfather was a fisherman who worked in the boatyard in Kyle and his father is also a fisherman.

Ruairidh is tracked down at an internet cafe in Copenhagen and breaks his gap year to talk with The TESS online. "Boat-building was relevant to the degree I will be doing," he says. "It was a lot of fun. Mark is a very good teacher and has infinite patience.

"I'd like to build an old boat and repair it sometime in the future."

Ruairidh is busking his way around Scandinavia and Germany, playing the bagpipes to help fund his travels. He started out with a group kayaking north of the Arctic Circle but is now travelling alone. "So far it has turned out well, although I fell asleep on the train to Hamburg and woke up in Bavaria," he says.

With the four boys having gone their separate ways, the new intake to the project is in the boatshed adding final touches to Ceathrar Bhalaich under Mr Stockl's supervision. Among them are some passionate sailors, including Ross Sproule, 16, who hopes to qualify as a dinghy sailing instructor this summer.

"I've always gone out with my dad, probably since before I could walk, but I started on my own when I was about 7," says Ross, who has just gone into sixth year.

He is a keen racer. "I'm planning on doing it all my life," he says. "I love it.

"I just love boats and everything about them. It would have been a missed opportunity if I hadn't signed up for this. This is the opportunity of a lifetime. The trade's dying out - there aren't many boatbuilders these days."

Dougie Mackenzie, 17, is a shepherd's son and spends his spare time sailing with his grandfather.

"He has got the same kind of boat and it got me into the idea of boat- building," says Dougie, who will be spending this summer working with his father and the sheep at a nearby farm.

"I sail whenever I get a chance, in the same kind of boat as this, which is my grandfather's," he says. "He often takes me out. He's about 78 or 80 and he still goes out fishing and everything."

Another sixth-year student joining the project is 16-year-old Molly Parsons. "I really enjoyed doing practical craft skills, but I didn't really know whether I wanted to stay at school for a sixth year," says Molly, who has done kayaking and traditional sailing during work experience.

"I think the boat is beautiful. It's really cool," she says. "This was an opportunity and I wanted to do it, it's something different. My cousins were over in Norway and have both done a course there in boat-building and they thought it was great and really recommended it."

Next year's boat will need a name: perhaps Triur Bhalaich agus Nighean - "three boys and a girl".

- More information about the project at www.am-bata.org.

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