Staffin Stories

Staffin family's sgadan boat restored

More than a century after she first fished for sgadan in north Skye, a much loved family boat is once again seaworthy and back to her former glory.

And it is believed the old herring boat, called “Mary Ann”, could be the last of her type still in working condition in Skye after being restored across the Minch. “Mary Ann” was specifically made in 1911 for Earlish crofter/fisherman Donald MacNeil by Skye boat builder John MacKenzie. She has now had new life sparked into her by Ronald John MacLean and his team at the Grimsay Boatshed in North Uist, 115 years on.

The boat was kept in storage for more than 20 years by Donald’s grandson, the retired Stenscholl fisherman Lachie Gillies. “My grandfather placed the order in 1911 to build a boat which was 15-ft long, capable of holding four herring nets, with four oars and a mast, sail and rudder,” said Lachie. “He had it built at Penifiler and it cost him £14, which would have been a fair sum in those days, I believe he would have been paying it up over a period of time. She is made of larch and oak, and is very beamy (wide) – she had to be for the nets. She is a cracker”

Prior to the purchase, Lachie’s grandfather gained plenty of experience at sea in the south of Ireland and the Isle of Man. Donald MacNeil fished out of Uig and Earlish in “Mary Ann” – named after his wife – for several decades. He died in the early 1950s. It was in 1963 that Lachie bought the boat for a nominal sum from his aunt Ciorstaidh.

Lachie Gillies with the restored Mary Ann.

Lachie then used the family boat for more than 30 years when he fished for prawns and lobsters out of Staffin, Uig and Portree, until his 1994 retirement.

Lachie stored the boat in his shed because of his emotional attachment. “I wanted to keep the boat out of the elements because she was my grandfather’s”, he said. “I kept her for sentimental value really”.

It was not until his nephew, Charlie Elder, of Brogaig, asked what he was doing with the old boat, that it was agreed he could become the new custodian. Lachie was delighted to hear that Charlie’s intention was to get her restored and seaworthy in Uist and the 86-year-old has even enjoyed a spot of fishing in Staffin Bay with his nephew on the old herring boat.

Donald and Mary Ann MacNeil.

Charlie’s late mother – Lachie’s sister – was also called Mary Ann and was named after her grandmother. The boat, which was varnished upon her 1911 construction, was fully restored, painted and with much of the original woodwork still on show.