Restoring the Rose

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This article was written by Elly Welch and first appeared in Events.  Thanks to Elly for permission to reprint and for the photo of John Macaulay with the Rose.  More pictures of the boat (before and during) can be found in the gallery.

Wandering along Valtos harbour a year ago you would hardly have noticed an old relic called Rose. Engulfed in undergrowth, all sun-bleached larch and broken thwarts, she was just another old boat rotting on the shore.

Walk there today and it is a different story. Thanks to Comann Eachdraidh Uig – Uig Historical Society – the pretty ‘double-ender’, one of the few surviving original Western Isles boats, has been restored to something of her former glory. She is unlikely to ply Loch Roag’s tides again but, for now at least, she will be preserved in situ, for posterity.

Rose, a rare example of the dipping lug open-boats once common locally, was built in Uig around ninety years ago. She was gifted to the Comann Eachdraidh last year by Valtos residents who had inherited her, but had no use for her. Previously, she was owned by consortium of local crofters and used for general inshore duties, from shifting sheep to fetching peats and seaweed. Modern boats finally made her redundant around twenty years ago. Since then she has lain where she was last dragged ashore, next to the tumbled walls of an old salthouse and herring store.

The £2,000 restoration began this summer and is now nearing completion. It has included replacing thwarts, stern and stem posts as well as patching and treating the old planks with Stockholm Tar. This was undertaken by Harris-based traditional boat-builder John MacAulay and was funded by the Comann Eachdraidh from the proceeds of its small museum and heritage centre at Uig Community Centre.

It was in the midst of this maritime heyday, in the early 1920’s, that the Brenish-born boat builder, another John MacAulay, was commissioned to build Rose by the late Norman MacDonald of Reef. Back then she was known simply as SY47. She was named Rose years later when she was swapped her sail for a Seagull Longshaft engine.

“Her name doesn’t seem particularly Scottish!” said Norman’s son Murdanie, who still lives in Reef. “We wondered if it was one of the Customs men that suggested it when she was registered for petrol coupons?”
Murdanie has fond childhood memories of the boat, which was always admired locally for her size and seaworthiness. “She was larger than other Lewis boats, and beamy, so she could carry big loads and she was stable in choppy seas. Seaweed could be a dangerous cargo, full of saltwater, but she was always fine.”
He said it would take at least 10 men to drag her ashore though she spent most of the summer on a mooring.

“When that boat was built, for the first summer she was used without a brush of tar or paint because they were pushed for time. Now that shows what a good joiner John MacAulay was, for otherwise it would have sunk to the bottom.”

Rose is thought to have been the last boat built by MacAulay, who was also known as the Saor Dubh, or Black Carpenter. The Brenish-born craftsman would travel around Uig, Bernera and North Harris to make new boats and carry out repairs. In the days of all wooden boats, when many earned their living from the sea, their skills were a lifeline. Every area would have a boat-builder, and most would work well beyond retirement. MacAulay died in 1938, aged nearly ninety.

“This boat stands out as a fine piece of craftsmanship,” said the present day John MacAulay, who broke his own retirement to restore Rose. “I cannot believe she has sat so long and is still in such good repair. You see so few examples of this type of boat now so it is wonderful that she has been saved.”

He said that the Saor Dubh was in known in local boatbuilding circles as one of the best – and as one of the quickest.

“There is a legend that says he built a boat in a single week on the island of Scarp,” he said. “Now that’s not possible, for I know that even with modern power tools it takes that long just to set up the keel, stem and stern posts before I even start pIanking. But myth springs up for good reason and people were clearly in awe of his skills. Preserving Rose is as much a tribute to him, a great boat-builder, as anything.”

© Elly Welch