Ideally suited to fishing in Scottish coastal waters, the clinker-built, lug-rigged ‘sgoth Niseach’ take their skippers and crews into the unpredictable waters of the North Atlantic, where danger is never far away for the fishermen seeking whitefish from their miles of baited ‘long-lines’.
The ‘sgoth Niseach’ takes its name from the Ness area of northern Lewis, and provided a successful fishing fleet until the arrival of steam-powered vessels. In this extract, we read about the only ‘sgoth Niseach’ sailing today, SY233 ‘Jubilee’. When the OGA Round Britain fleet visited Stornoway in 2013, ‘Bonita’ captured some video of ‘Jubilee’ sailing.
In 1883, Captain Thomas A. Dymes RN, was asked by the Napier Commission (Highlands and Islands Commission) to submit a report on the potential for development of West Scotland’s fisheries. He wrote:
For Atlantic fishing a large decked boat would be required, not less than 46′ in keel, 56 – 60′ overall, beam from 16 – 18′, lug-rigged foremast to lower, foresail dipping lug when at sea, which could be converted into standing or balance lug when working into harbour. These boats could be used for long-line, hand-line and drift-net fishing, the lines being worked by the boats, or in fine weather, each large boat might carry two or more small boats to work extra sets of long lines. These large boats should have capstan or winch with steam anchor, with a length of chain and long hawser for anchoring in deep water.
Open boats of 24′ carrying 4 or 5 hands could be used near the stations and on the inner side of the Long Island, and 4-oared whale boats could be used for the sun-fishing and might be carried or towed out by the larger boats. The decked boats would cost £300; 24′ skiffs, £25; 25′ whale boats, £23.
Ness, at the northernmost point of the Isle of Lewis, was an important fishing station for whitefish in the 19th and early 20th century. The fishermen, mainly croft tenants, couldn’t afford the vessels outlined by Captain Dymes and besides, there were few natural harbours to accommodate such large craft. They used small open boats catching ling and cod on baited long-lines. Wading into the surf to launch and land their boats, the men were often helped by their wives who carried them through the surf to keep their clothing dry as they set out to sea, often for two days at a time. With steep cliffs and few quays on the shoreline, the women then carried the catch to the curing sheds in creels on their backs.
The fishermen of Ness developed a sturdy, manoeuvrable vessel to serve their needs. Known as the Ness type skiff, ‘sgoth Niseach’, 237 were registered between 1868 and 1901. With a keel length of 21 feet and 11 foot beam, their length overall was typically about 30 feet with pointed stem and stern. Single-masted, the sgoth had a single dipping lug sail and was capable of sailing very close to the wind. Widely regarded as an outstanding sailing craft, the ‘sgoth Niseach’ could not easily be converted to engine power. This effectively heralded the end of the indigenous fishing and boatbuilding industries of Ness and just one original remains today, fishing no. SY233, ‘Jubliee’.
A full-size 33′ replica ‘sgoth Niseach’ was built in 1995.