Shetland Vernacular Boats 1500-2000

  • Marc Chivers

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (awarded by OU/Aberdeen)


This thesis provides a more accurate narrative of the origin and development of the Shetland vernacular boat in all its forms. Shetland, being treeless, imported boats from Norway, described as ‘kits,’ implying that they were quick and easy to assemble. New evidence suggests that this is incorrect; instead, boats-in-boards were rough-cut smuggled components that took longer and required a higher degree of boatbuilding skill to construct than previously acknowledged. This new evidence also establishes that boatbuilding began in Shetland c.1780, some 27 years earlier than formerly thought.
Scholars espouse that Shetland boats were of lineal Norse descent. Analysis of
late nineteenth century indigenous boats found some Norse features, but, when hull-forms, and methods of construction were compared with similar craft from Faroe and Norway it was discovered that Shetland boats diverged from the west Norwegian Oselvar (that retained a hull-form, and many construction features found in the Norse period) proving that indigenous boats were not of direct Norse descent; instead they were a unique Shetland product.
Subsistence, ferrying, and recreational boat use had been neglected by previous researchers. This thesis corrects this imbalance, discovering that boat ownership was ubiquitous across all strata of society with subsistence and ferrying use remaining unaltered for several centuries. By c.1880 competitive boating had become popular. Although vernacular in origin, these new racing boats were influenced by construction methods from elsewhere. The new evidence suggests that the continual development of the Maid Class made what was once an egalitarian sport into an elitist one, and, ironically, this contributed to the disappearance of the vernacular boat. Road transport superseded vernacular craft, exemplified by the introduction of the roll-on-roll-off ferries during the mid 1970s, and it was a combination of these factors that caused Shetlanders to drift away from their vernacular boat heritage.
Date of Award20 Sept 2017
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Edinburgh
SponsorsShetland Amenity Trust & Lerwick Airport
SupervisorAndrew Jennings (Supervisor), Donna Heddle (Supervisor), Thomas McKean (Supervisor) & Brian Smith (Supervisor)

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