Ronald John MacLean
Boatbuilder. Grimsay, North Uist.
Grimsay makes up one of the islands of North Uist. It is traditionally known for its fishing heritage and the Stewart family who were well known boat builders. They were known for their unique boats and you can find out more about the types of boats they made in the publication (*weblink) Ronald John learnt directly from the last Stewart boat builder of Grimsay. I met up with him at the Boat Shed to hear about his craft where he repairs and builds boats.
Tell me a little bit about the Boat Shed and what you do here….
The Boat Shed was set up in 2002 and was completed in 2003. People can become members and we pull the boats out ‘haul and launch’ and they pay per day if they are inside or half the rate if they are outside. We have the wood shop for all wood repairs and we have the wee museum that gives a bit of history.
How did you learn to do this and who taught you?
The Boat Project started in 1999. Willie Stewart, who was the last remaining Stewart Boat builder, he was willing to teach people. There were 8 of us and after a few weeks it came down to one or two. I was working with the council (joiner) and came two evenings a week and a Saturday morning.
What was his advice?
He was just happy to teach someone so the skills were passed on. I think that was quite important to Willie. He had retired from fishing, so he then was doing repairs for people down on the shore.
How long do you think it took you to master how to make a boat?
I’m still learning, you come across new things you have to try and work out. The majority of it was done in the first 3 or 4 years. Willie was with me all that time and then the second boat, he started to become unwell. I would take him down just to keep me right maybe an hour a day. He died in 2005 but there were still a few questions I would have liked to have asked him. There’s nobody else really. But you do learn through others…Mark Stockl who was doing the boat building course, with the kids at Plockton High School He’s a knowledgeable guy he’s been at it for years.
You set up a course at the school here, does the course still run?
Yes it does, we set up a course that gives them similar to a Standard Grade. They built a shed at the back of the school for construction skills and boat building - that was ideal.
So who else have you taught?
From that we’ve employed quite a few summer jobs, we employed 3 full time at different times and then the longest would be Calum who worked 6 or 7 years here. So he was good, he can do anything to the boat now himself.
What’s your favourite bit of the process?
When the boat’s finished! I think when you’ve done a boat it’s the satisfaction in completing it. When it’s done to the way you want it then that’s the reward bit at the end.
Why is it important to keep the boat shed going?
Just to carry on the skills. Ideally it would be a young person but we’re struggling to get a young person that’s interested but it might take 10 people in here before we get the right person. Just the way it goes.
What happens on an average day?
An average day – phwoah – don’t think there is an average day. Any kind of repairs - it can range from changing a plank, to fitting a winch, to anything. There is no average day. In here (wood workshop) it’s easier because you’re just doing a repair to an open boat so it’s pretty straight forward.
What do you enjoy most about living on Uist?
I would say the plus is just the peace and quiet. You can leave your door open, you don’t have to lock it. And the weather is the disadvantage. I’m not a fan of the wind and the rain but that’s a part of it. You miss at a certain age the nightlife – but as you get older that means nothing really so you know it changes over time.
Have you got a favourite drink?
Tea is what I drink most of and I’m partial to a Glenmorangie whisky!
Is Gaelic and local heritage important in your work?
Yeah I think so because most of the fisherman, the majority, are Gaelic speakers.
Why do you do what you do?
I was going to say I enjoy it but there are times I don’t! No I do, I do enjoy it! It’s satisfying.
Before you did this you were a trained joiner, did that help?
Hand skills help and a bit of thinking ahead – you have to be one step ahead – it’s not just taking one plank out you’ve got to have the next one ready or maybe the next 3 or 4 ready and think what do I need to do next.
Any advice you’d give your younger self?
When I was in college in Stornoway, I used to on a Saturday, help out John Murdo MacLeod who was the boat builder in Lewis who built the Sgoth. I wish I had taken on board more, when I was helping him. He’s probably the most knowledgeable person regarding boats I knew. When you look at that I was 17 and it was 19 years later before I ever needed those skills again.