Scottish coasts, communities and crafts

Travel through an ethnological voyage​

By The University of Edinburgh

A story by the School of Scottish Studies Archives

Fishing boat, South Uist (1936) by Werner KisslingThe University of Edinburgh

MacIntosh's Lament

For centuries life in coastal and island communities has depended on what can be harvested from land and sea. Working lives revolving and evolving around the shifting tides and weathers, the rhythm of the seasons and the natural world.

This selection of images gives a glimpse into coastal and island heritage working practices documented between the 1930s and 1980s. The images are accompanied by oral tradition, the voices of people recorded by fieldworkers from the School of Scottish Studies over the past 70 years.​ 

Spearing fish (1936) by Werner KisslingThe University of Edinburgh

The boy, with such focused attention, looks for flatfish in the ebbing tide. The place is Fadhail a Deas/South Ford between Beinn na Faoghla/Benbecula and Uibhist a Deas/South Uist. ​

Collecting mussels for bait (1953) by James MacGeochThe University of Edinburgh

Inshore fisherman, Angus Campbell, collects mussels from the shore of Loch Ròg, Leòdhas/Lewis.

Baiting hooks, Gourdon (1985) by Ian MacKenzieThe University of Edinburgh

Rena Welsh and her mother-in-law, Isabel, bait the lines for fisherman Alec Welsh in the east coast town of Gourdon.​ ​The boat, Enterprise, sets out very early in the morning and lines are set at first light.

Line fishing, Gourdon (1985) by Ian MacKenzieThe University of Edinburgh

Bob Mellis and Alec Welsh out on the North Sea on the Enterprise draw in the lines and remove the catch, mainly codling. Inshore line fishing took place from October to May starting around a mile from shore early in the season to around eight by the end.​

Lighthouse, Cape Wrath (1974) by Peter CookeThe University of Edinburgh

The light goes on at Cape Wrath lighthouse, located in Sutherland at the most north-west point of the Scottish mainland. A white-washed granite tower, 20 metres tall, it was built under Robert Stevenson in 1828 and manned until 1998 when it became automatic.​

Stake net fishing (1955) by Werner KisslingThe University of Edinburgh

Fishermen prepare a stake or fly net in the River Cree estuary on the south-west coast. The net, stretched on stakes, working by the ebb and flow of the tide, is used to trap salmon. Guy ropes supporting the stakes are placed on each side of the net.​

Creels, Polochar (1936) by Werner KisslingThe University of Edinburgh

​A fisherman works with his creels on the shore at Poll a' Charra/Polochar, Uibhist a Deas. 

Inshore fishermen clearing nets (1956) by James MacGeochThe University of Edinburgh

Inshore fishermen, Angus MacDonald, Murdo MacFarlane and Donald MacLeod, clear the nets of flounder and plaice caught in the bay at Port Nis/Ness, Leòdhas.

Building a dinghy (1956) by James MacGeochThe University of Edinburgh

John Macleod builds a dinghy in his workshop in Port Nis assisted by his sons, John Murdo and Donald.

Steaming the ribbing of a dinghy (1956) by James MacGeochThe University of Edinburgh

John Murdo Macleod steams the ribbing so it bends easily into shape. ​

Finlay MacQueen snaring puffins, Carn Mòr (1938) by Robert AtkinsonThe University of Edinburgh

Birds, St Kilda

Finlay MacQueen shows how to snare puffins during a visit to his old home in Hiort/St Kilda. Birds were a source of livelihood in many coastal areas providing food, oil for lamps and feathers.​

SS Hebrides lying in Village Bay sending boat ashore (1938) by Robert AtkinsonThe University of Edinburgh

The SS Hebrides, which operated between 1898 and 1955, sits off Village Bay, Hiort. The sea is often seen as a separator of lands and islands but it is also a connector, an area of transit.

Harrowing the machair (1960) by Eric MeadowsThe University of Edinburgh

The MacLennan family harrow the machair at Hùisinis, Na Hearadh/Harris with wooden ràcan. The machair is often covered with wild flowers and grasses. 

Potato digging (1953) by Werner KisslingThe University of Edinburgh

Various crops are grown on the machair including potatoes, a staple food in island communities. The cròcan (hook-shaped tool) used here in Uibhist a Deas for grubbing potatoes is also used with seaware.​

Harvesting (1952) by James MacGeochThe University of Edinburgh

The Graham familly of Port nan Giùran, Leòdhas, harvest their crop of oats. Mary Graham uses a sickle to cut the oats which are then tied into bundles and made into stooks to dry. ​

Making hay rope (1936) by Werner KisslingThe University of Edinburgh

Straw, bent grass, hay, horsehair and heather can all be used to make rope. Here in Baghasdal a Deas/South Boisdale, Uibhist a Deas, long grass or hay is wound with a corra-shùgan or wooden twister.

Kelp working (1965) by Iain CrawfordThe University of Edinburgh

Seaweed, harvested here from the shore in Barraigh/Barra, is commonly added as a fertiliser in the creation of feannagan (strips of land) for cultivation amidst rough, stony ground. It is also used in dyes, foodstuffs and medicines.

Transporting sheep from Flannan Isles to Bernera (1955) by James MacGeochThe University of Edinburgh

Caolas Bheàrnaraigh is Uig

Donald Macaulay and Kenneth MacDonald, Beàrnaraigh/Bernera, transporting sheep back home from Na h-Eileanan Flannach/the Flannan Isles where they were taken for the summer grazing. ​

Sheep fank (1959) by Donald MacAulayThe University of Edinburgh

Products from sheep, Shetland

Sheep are gathered into fanks (stone enclosures) for shearing, dipping and marking, a township activity in Beàrnaraigh/Bernera. Sheep are an important part of the domestic and wider economy in the Western and Northern Isles.​

Spreading the fleece (1953) by Werner KisslingThe University of Edinburgh

Kate MacLean, Geàrraidh na Mònadh, Uibhist a Deas, examines a fleece that she has just sheared, picking off grasses and thorns. The fleece is then washed in soapy water to remove dirt and grease before being dyed.

Dyeing wool at Loch Carnan (1936) by Werner KisslingThe University of Edinburgh

Catherine MacInnes dyes wool at Loch a' Charnain, Uibhist a Deas. Crotal (lichen) is scraped off the rocks, added in alternate layers with the washed fleece and boiled to produce a reddish-brown colour. 

Annie Gillies spinning outside No. 11 (1938) by Robert AtkinsonThe University of Edinburgh

Annie Gillies of Hiort/St Kilda spins wool outside her old home on a visit to the island in the summer of 1938.

Cloth waulking in South Uist (1970) by Ralph W MortonThe University of Edinburgh

Waulking is the process of shrinking and finishing handwoven tweed. The wet cloth is kneaded and passed from hand to hand round a group of women seated at a board. This rhythmic, repetitive work is often accompanied by song.​ ​ 

This waulking took place in Iochdar, Uibhist a Deas in 1970.​

Cloth Waulking in South Uist (1970) by School of Scottish StudiesThe University of Edinburgh

Croft, Iochdar (1936) by Werner KisslingThe University of Edinburgh

The harvest and cultivation of land and sea provides food, fuel and shelter for coastal and, especially, island communities. Working together contributes to the oral culture of song, story and collective memory.​​

Audio/video excerpts from the fieldwork collection at the School of Scottish Studies Archives, University of Edinburgh.​

MacIntosh's Lament​
Donald MacDonell recorded by Calum Maclean in 1954 (SA1954.51.A4). Available on The Fiddler and his Art (Greentrax Recordings, 1993).​

Birds, St Kilda
Roderick Campbell, Bragar, Leòdhas/Lewis, recorded by Eric Cregeen in 1958 (SA1958.192B). Available at

Products from sheep, Shetland
Laura Malcolmson: Cunningsburgh, Shetland, recorded by Alan Bruford (SA1970.236.A6). Available at​​

Caolas Bheàrnaraigh is Uig​
Peggy Effy Smith, Cnìp, Leòdhas/Lewis, recorded by James Ross (SA1957.102.B10)​ ​

Cloth Waulking in South Uist filmed by the School of Scottish Studies (VA1970.01). Iochdar waulking group: Kate Nicolson, Penny Morrison, Penny Maclellan, Kate M Macintyre, Elizabeth Macdonald, Mary Hollister, Catherine Campbell, Kate Macmillan.​ ​

Discover more from The School of Scottish Studies Archives:

Credits: Story

Story by Cathlin Macaulay, Archives Curator, School of Scottish Studies Archives.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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