Friday 12 June 2015


It was a Sunday and we had not booked. We left trusting luck and chance, seeing if we might get the ferry to Mainland from Unst without any bookings this early Sunday morning. To our surprise, we did get the ferry from Unst to Yell. We were one of the few on board. We felt lucky, so drove casually down to Gutcher to get the next ferry from Ulsta to Toft. Halfway there we decided to check the ferry times. To our surprise, there was no reasonable connection. In spite of our increased speed and determination, we arrived to see the ferry leaving. Just why any ferry from Unst might not have a continuing connection from Ulsta to Toft on Mainland remains a mystery. Little wonder that we were one of the few on board the ferry leaving Unst.

View from South Yell
The road to Burravoe

So it was that we found ourselves with an hour to spare: well, an hour to wait for the next ferry. We decided to drive to Burravoe, just to fill in the time. It was a trip that we had driven many times previously. A long narrow road took one along the southern edge of Yell into Burravoe. We liked this small settlement. We were familiar with the Haa and the church that we frequently referred to as the ‘arts and crafts’ church because the building had detailing that reminded one of this period: a simple, brick gable form with a bold semicircular apse complete with exposed rafter ends, neat joinery timber fittings and inventive ironwork. We had time to explore it on our last visit and recalled its quirky entry gate, its lovely light and patinas and fine tapestry cushions – and the invitation to stay for the service given to us by the minister who was choked up with the flu but remained enthusiastic.

The road to Burravoe

A corrugated iron korgabøl

This April morning was fine and cool. We stopped to photograph a corrugated iron korgabøl, a sheep shelter, and then, further along, some fresh peat cuttings. It is always a surprise to see corrugated iron in Shetland being used with as much innovation as we see in Australia. For some conceited, perhaps arrogant cultural reason, we believe that Australia is the home of ad hoc corrugated iron creations. We forget that corrugated iron was invented in Britain and exported to the colonies because of its strength, lightness and adaptability. Peat cuttings are always interesting merely because ones sees them so infrequently. Fewer folk now cut their peats, an activity that took much of the summer effort in old Shetland. I can recall a photograph that showed a peat stack beside the old house at Gue on Unst that was nearly as large as the cottage. Its size conveyed the enormous effort required to accumulate such a heap. The cuttings on the south of Yell were traditional in the style of the cut, and were sizeable given the lack of interest in this activity on most islands where gas, oil and electricity have taken over as fuels for heating and cooking. Peat is much enjoyed when discovered burning, evidenced as a feint fragrance wafting in the breeze. One is reminded of the fine whiskeys made on Isla.

Peat diggings South Yell

It was a bright morning. The free time made us relax and enjoy our aimless trip along the narrow road. With Shetlanders preferring the late evening, there were few others using this strip of road at this time in the morning. Finally we arrived at Burravoe on the southeast corner of Yell. We drove past the familiar white conservatory, the school and the church at the intersection that led right to the Haa. It was here that nature called. Was there a public toilet in Burravoe? The next sign pointed to the pier. Perhaps there were toilets there, so we followed the directions. We had previously thought that we had been to the pier, down the other road of the intersection, left, north of the church, but the signs took us further along than usual, to the edge of Burravoe, and directed us to turn east into a different area. We dutifully followed. It was a region of Burravoe we had never explored so there was a degree of excitement involved.

We approached a rise in the road and continued over to be surprised. It was the pier, a formal wharf structure tied up with an array of fishing boats. To the left facing a newly sealed area of bitumen was an astonishing structure we had never heard of previously, let alone seen. It was the Burravoe boat-roof house. More correctly, it was the service centre for the new camping/caravan area that had been established at the pier. Such facilities were being promoted throughout Shetland as this outdoor activity was growing in interest, both with locals and visitors seeking out the joys of caravans and camping in the wonderful Shetland landscape.

We pulled up nearby. Here we not only had clean toilets to use, but also had a new building to explore. It was a variation on the traditional use of the sixareen or fourareen upturned on stone walls to form the roof of a store: see -  This was a development of the theme, but was still a beautiful building. Its interior suggested that it had just been completed as it looked 'brand spanking new.' It offered toilets, showers, laundry and kitchen facilities for campers and folk in caravans. It was a wonderfully equipped facility, a real pleasure to discover. The building showed that someone had given careful thought to the needs of the users. Masonry walls had been painted a brilliant white both inside and out. The boat-roof was bulbous, smooth and black, perhaps fibreglass, with a gentle swelling. One was a little uncertain about its veracity. Had the ‘boat’ been made for this use, or was it one from another source, recycled? Its slick, black, balloon-like surface made one question its origins. The masonry walls had been made higher than usual, allowing a ceiling to be installed. The interior of the boat had been concealed.

The idea seemed fine: to create a service building using the traditional idea of a boat becoming a roof. The detailing was more sophisticated than that usually seen in the older wooden boat-roofs. PVC gutters and downpipes had been adapted to the lines of the boat-roof that fitted the walls perfectly. Did the boat-roof look just too self-conscious; perhaps a little awkward; forced? One was never certain. The profiles of the aquatic mass were not as pleasing as those of the timber boats whose swellings were emphasized by the echoes of the lines of the twisted planking texturing the surface; but they were still intriguing, albeit somewhat modestly blank. Photos were taken and the return trip to the ferry was started. One did not want to miss the next ferry.

Some time later a brochure was picked up: Caravans and Camping in Shetland. The section on Burravoe was opened. Here it was explained that the boat-roof had been an old P&O lifeboat. So, at last, one cold relax. The architect had based his design on a real recycled object, just as the builders of old had done. He had chosen a ‘new’ boat form for this version of the idea. It was indeed a ‘certified’ design, not a fabricated fake. It was certainly good to see an old theme refreshed with a new rigour, making a modern and extremely well appointed facility that fitted place perfectly.


A quick review of Google images shows that the idea of a boat-roof house/shed is not new or limited to the Shetland Islands. Its simple logic has always been functional enough to recur as a practical theme time and time again. All of these images show old wooden boats used as roof. The Burravoe project is the only one using a newer boat and is exemplary.

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