"Boatlines: Scottish Craft of Sea, Coast and Canal" by Ian Stephen is a wonderful book about, as the subtitle suggests, Scottish boats. As the author acknowledges in his first chapter, there is no famine of books about boats in or from Scotland: so is there really room on the bookshelf for another? The thing is, this isn't just "another" book on the subject. From our perspective it fills in beautifully the gaps that are left when authors have turned their attention to fishing boats, or lifeboats, or ferries, or yachts or particular geographical areas. This is a book that tells you more about the other boats, the boats you can see in harbours the length and breadth of the country moored or pulled up out of the water. This is a book about the small boats that do so much to give individual stretches of the coastline of Scotland such distinctive characters.
The book is a beautifully produced hardback that is a real pleasure to hold and to read. The author's love of his subject leaps from every page and the background, descriptions and stories that bring the subject of each of the 37 chapters to life are complemented nicely by the black and white artwork of Christine Morrison. We were left wishing that the images could have been printed at a larger size, but then perhaps you can't have everything.
Most of the chapters focus on a particular type of boat, whether it be the steam drifter; or the baldie of Leith; to the ring netters of Girvan; to the birlinn; to craft by the Stewarts of Grimsay; to the Westray skiff and the Fair Isle yole; and so on. The chapters tend to follow their subjects in having a geographic focus and they begin in on the east coast of Caithness before progressing clockwise around Scotland (via the Forth-Clyde Canal), and then up the west side and back round to the Northern Isles.
The publishers' description brings the book nicely to life: "People are drawn to the harbours and boats of Scotland whether they have a seafaring background or not. Why do boats take on different shapes as you follow the complex shorelines of islands and mainland? And why do the sails they carry appear to be so many shapes and sizes? Then there are rowing craft or power-driven vessels which can also be considered ‘classics’, whether they were built for work or leisure. As he traces the iconic forms of a selection of the boats of Scotland, Ian Stephen outlines the purposes of craft, past and present, to help gain a true understanding of this vital part of our culture. Sea conditions likely to be met and coastal geography are other factors behind the designs of a wide variety of craft. Stories go with boats. The vessels are not seen as bare artefacts without their own soul but more like living things."
This isn't one of those immediately "wow" books that leap out and grab you by the throat. It's charms are rather more subtle: but no less enticing as a result. It's a book we'd wholeheartedly recommend to anyone who's ever listened to an oystercatcher in evening light at an otherwise deserted harbour and wondered about the boats that contribute so much to the beauty of the scene.