The Berneray skiff was initiated by Kirsty O’Connor, who was inspired by St Ayles skiff building fever in Ullapool when she spent the winter of 2009/10 there. She talked to several islanders and was generously offered the Berneray Sailing Club’s Sealladh if she found enough people to form a rowing club. This was the Isle of Grimsay-built sailing boat that had been restored and sailed by Seolamaid in previous years but needed further restoration work. Meantime Kirsty learned some rudiments of skiff building from Robert Taylor, a retired engineer then embarking on his own skiff, Living the Dream, now at Grimsay.
A Berneray group formed in October 2014, which included Norman MacAskill, who had trained with the last of five generations of Stewart of Grimsay boat builders, William Stewart, at Grimsay Boat Shed, and the recently arrived Stu MacIntyre – a champion rower from Ullapool and a joiner to boot! These two became the main boat builders but were ably assisted by many others in the community, especially when it came to sanding and painting! The kit was funded by the sale of Sealladh – to the son of the fisherman who had originally commissioned the boat to be built in the 1950’s – an auspicious beginning to the project!
We’ve been lucky to get further funding from the Comhairle Ward Discretionary Fund, The Gordon and Ena Baxter Foundation. Uist & Barra Sports Council and Loch Duart Salmon Co recently funded a trailer (awaiting the end of lockdown) so we can venture further afield.
A lot of time and labour was needed, both for the build and the administrative side – Viv Halcrow doing a brilliant job as secretary. It was more technical than some of us had expected – but luckily there was a wide range of skills in the group and many people on Berneray helped out in one way or another. Thanks to everyone involved we launched on a gorgeous sunny day at the harbour, at the end of Berneray Week July 2017.
We found the name through a fundraiser: “pay a pound & suggest a name”. Members voted for young Lucy’s great suggestion, Bàta Brèagha, which is ‘Bonnie Boat’ in Gaelic. The prize was getting to launch the boat and a club tee shirt – which she’s yet to get because we haven’t got round to it yet! The colours were chosen to reflect the beautiful turquoise and blue seas around our island on a sunny day.
We are a mostly older and uncompetitive bunch, though we’ve been placed in races at a couple of regattas it’s generally because there have been so few entrants! What we really like, is to paddle around the many little islands in the Sound of Harris, stopping to share some homemade cake and having a few longer expeditions, landing and having a picnic. Rowing is on an ad hoc basis once or twice a week, got together by whoever fancies it, weather permitting. Which given it can be pretty wild here, frequently isn’t very permitting, but often visitors join us in the summer and think it’s idyllic!
For RowAround Scotland we’d planned to row around the island, about ten miles, which we’ve never done before. We’d have had to carry the boat across the causeway and there are some tricky currents where the Atlantic meets the Minch on the north side, so we’d have needed to get some practise in. Meanwhile we’ve missed some really good rowing weather…