Day 14, the Grimsay boat builders and Kallin shellfish

Grimsay boat

1 July 2013

I am heading north today, back across Benbecula to Griomasaigh (Grimsay), which was connected to both North Uist and Benbecula in 1960 with the opening of the North Ford Causeway, a five mile sweep of single track road across the water.

Roads are commonly single track and at each passing place, as one person waits for the other to pass, a wave and a smile make the driving more sociable and connected than is the norm in a car.

At Grimsay I am heading for the Kallin Shellfish Factory, to meet with Hector. The boats leave from here every Monday morning to collect scallops from the Eastern Minch. Lobster for the Christmas market, and crab, is collected from the Atlantic. Most is exported, Hector tells me, to the mainland and the big cities down south.

Around the factory is a mountain of scallop shells, tumbling to the water’s edge, and I clamber and scramble through the shells for photos and sounds, never quite certain if the shells will slip from under me and I’ll end up in the sea. A pungent smell of fish hangs in the air and gulls lift in one mass, necks outstretched, legs pushed taught, to squawk in indignation as I approach.

By the time I leave water is creeping upwards through the bottoms of my jeans and I fear I am smelling strongly of fish scraps.

Heading back around the island’s circular road I happen upon the Grimsay Boat Shed where historic boats are restored and new wooden boats are built. The door is open and I can let myself in to this small work shed, which doubles as a museum. A large wooden hull dominates the space, and behind it a small, square window set into the wall frames the reeds and the water and the hills outside.

The Grimsay boats have been built by the Stewart family since the mid-800’s. Today Ronald MacLean is heir to the Stewart methods. The boats show Norse and Argyll/Irish influences and are one of the few traditional wooden workboats that have survived.

Until electricity was put into the shed in the 1970’s, the boats were built entirely with hand tools. Nearly 1,000 boats have been built and dozens are still working today.

Pottering home, I pull over to ask a young woman returning from hanging out her washing if I can photograph the scene. Sheets trapped in passing sunshine billow and flap beside a steely lochan, peppered with black, rocky islands. A white-washed house sits alone on the far side.

That photo was used in Day 8, so it’s one of those lovely old boats here. And, of course, take a look at the Scotland Digital Resources page of the blog for some more on the boats and a link to the shellfish factory.