Monday 18 March 2013


The hypothesis that the timber construction of mediaeval roofs arose from the design of boats that were once inverted to be used for shelter, has always been an interesting theory that is difficult to prove. The unique intricacy of these roof structures makes the idea persuasive. There seems nothing more sensible than a boat being used for a roof: both boat and roof need to keep water at bay. This common function that accommodates two ideas in one object brings an Irish joke to mind: “Paddy, what is the height of that ladder lying there?” “I don’t know; but I can give you its length.” Here, one object becomes a boat or a roof. The idea is fascinating if only for the appropriateness of the inversion. There are no aplogies to any function or form; no guile; no manipulation; just the enrichment of a new integrity.

The newly erected replica of a Viking long house at Haroldswick, Unst - the island that carries the cliché subtitle, Shetland’s 'most northerly isle’ - has been constructed out of dry stone walls around a log-framed roof. There is no indication here of any subtlety that might suggest nautical origins in this rudimentary structure that seems to have more in common with the post-beam-rafter model of the Japanese house than anything marine. Indeed, given the lack of trees on Shetland - all of the hundreds of logs for this build were imported from Norway - one is tempted to suggest that the archaeological research for this reconstruction is flawed: such is the credibility of the commonsense in the idea of using boats for shelter when materials and labour were scarce, and when there was a necessity to provide protection quickly. All that was needed for a roof was the upturning of the boat that the newcomers had arrived in.  

A quick review of early Viking settlements does indicate house forms similar to that reconstructed on Unst: a low earth-and-turf-covered gable/hip roof on top of dry stone walls. So what is this boat-roof idea? Where did it come from? Looking at the replica Viking longship standing next to this new building, (it was sailed across from Norway to prove a point), one could wonder if it was indeed possible to ever get this weighty mass turned upside down, necessity or not!

A small shed at Skaw, a place that is described by a variation of the cliché:Britain’s most northerly residence,’ does give some credence to the possibility that mediaeval timber roof structures did have a maritime origin. Such seafaring adaptations might have been a source of inspiration rather than a development or imporvement of an actual boat-roof example, even if only small scale exemplars of this phenomenon ever existed. The alternative is that the boat-roof relationship might simply come from a common technique introduced by the skills of timber workers involved in both boat building and general construction.

Located adjacent to the croft house a Skaw, a sixareen - a classic Shetland timber deep-sea fishing boat rowed by six men - has been inverted to become the roof of a shed. The beautiful swelling lines of this boat are on full display, as well as the simple rigour of the horizontal keel from which the whole boat is formed. The supporting dry stone walls that complete the enclosure have been carefully shaped to accommodate the three-dimensional form of this traditional boat that makes a marvellous roof. The celebrated lines are on full display. The curving transition from the vertical bow and stern balloons over the legendary broad beam. It is entrancing.

Whether this example proves anything is unknown, but it does add a poetically romantic, almost nostalgic touch to the possibility of a parallel between boat construction and mediaeval roof structures. It also provides a real example of the re-use of boats as roofs on Shetland and highlights the islanders' native ingenuity. Perhaps the building techniques for these and larger boats were the inspiration for those exotic, high delights of mediaeval times; but these spectacular structural wonders are not as subtly captivating as this simple Skaw boat-roof that is splendid: intriguing; mesmerising. It is a thing of wonder and beauty that remains such a basic and ordinary concept, unpretentious and transparent in its intent: innocently clever in its necessity. There is a living idea buzzing here, a vision that 'saw something as,' that is still reverberating - like Wittgenstein's duck-rabbit.

The talent involved in the completing of the enclosure can be clearly seen at Houlland in central Unst, where the stone walls remain without the boat-roof. Even with the timber boat shelter now gone, the ghost of its presence still remains in the clever forming of the walls: the boat-walls. It is this skill that one can see throughout the islands in the dykes - the dry stone walls that crisscross the naked hills to delineate fragmented fields. The astonishing scale, size and exactitude of these dividing walls never fail to amaze. They have all been assembled from a pile of rubble, just like the boat-walls. It is rustic masonry that can, at times, be seen to surpass that of some mediaeval stonework. Mousa broch comes to mind: see  The dykes are truly ageless; some may be mediaeval themselves.

 NOTE - 12 JUNE 2015
see also:

6 January 2019

NOTE - 15 JAN 2023


One of the more recent boat-roofs in Shetland has been constructed at Voe, a small village located at the end of Olna Firth, Mainland Shetland. It is a cute, compact shelter located at the pier adjacent to some traditional sheds.

But the traditional centre and most attractive part of Voe is around the pier that projects into Olna Firth from its south shore. The pier was at the heart of a herring station that was set up here in the 1800s. Olna Firth was also home to a whaling station operated by the Norwegian Whaling Company from 1904 until 1924. The pier has recently been extensively rebuilt to allow the development of a marina.

Today this part of the village retains its strong Scandinavian appearance. The pier now also services fish farming in Olna Firth. One side of its landward end is occupied by the workshops of the fish farming operation, while on the other is one of Shetland's camping bods.



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