The Building of Mingulay

— by Norman Smith


Norman Smith was a member of Burntisland Sailing Club since its establishment in 1955.  The picture opposite shows four-year-old Norman assisting at the launch of the SS Merganser, a ship built at the local shipyard in 1946. His mother and granny had been invited to the launch. There seemed to be a delay after the lady pressed the button, but he’s sure it was his push that got things going.

About 5 years later, while fishing for podlies off the long wooden jetty, two men were seen below, preparing their boat to go for a sail. One looked up and said, “Would you like to come for a sail, son?” Norman went down the ladder like a shot, and so began his fascination with sailing. The two men were George and David Wightman, who would later become founding members of BSC and to whom Norman says he owes a debt of gratitude because they helped him learn a lot about boats and sailing.

After leaving school, Norman served an apprenticeship as a mechanical engineer with the National Coal Board, which later became British Coal.

Norman Smith at the launch of SS Merganser

Norman Smith, age 4, assisting the launch of SS Merganser at Burntisland Shipyard

Fury the Flattie

Norman Smith in Fury, the flattie

There were many skilled and practical young people in Burntisland during the 1950s, many of them working at the shipyard, and many harbouring dreams of building their own small boat. There was a book in the local Library at that time: “Small Boat Building” by Edwin Monk, which had a huge influence. Quite a few boats were built from designs in this book.

Two 12ft single chine sailing dinghies were built of the “Truant” class: one by Bob Downie, and the other by Tom Smith. Another Monk design was a 15ft double chine dinghy called the “Curlew” class. Of these at least four were built, including the Spray (by the Wightmans), the Molly (by Bob Downie), Creagh Dhu (by Tom Haxton), and a further one built by Tom Smith. Norman sailed a lot in the boat built by George Dempster, including one memorable trip up to Stirling.

These boats changed hands, and for a few years, Norman owned the Fury – one of the 12ft so-called “flatties”, built by Bob Downie. At that time almost all the local sailing was in dinghies, some self built and some bought from various sources. All this was before the introduction of the Flying Fifteens. Burntisland had a lot of skilled and practical young people, many of whom worked in the shipyard, who were perfectly capable of building small boats.

Fellow BSC member, Tom Mazzoni was a good friend. For 3 or 4 years he and his wife Anne arranged to charter a variety of yachts for two or three weeks each year on the West Coast. They invited Norman along. By this time, he had an eighteen foot ship’s lifeboat, a gaff rigged cutter called the Swallow, with which he had cruised extensively all around the Firth of Forth.

His trips with the Mazzonis made him realise the limitations of the Forth, prompting him to build a strip planked “Folkboat”, Mingulay. Eventually, Norman and his wife, Gillian Smith, were able to take Mingulay through to the West Coast. The following account describes the building of Mingulay.

Mingulay, the Folkboat

A personal account by Norman Smith

I was first introduced to sailing in dinghies when I was nine years old, and I graduated into actually owning one in my teens. Being always more interested in going places, rather than racing round the buoys, it wasn’t long before I became the proud owner of an old ship’s lifeboat with a tiny cabin. I rigged her as a gaff cutter, and happily and extensively cruised around the Firth of Forth. She was a heavy brute to row, so after the first year, I fitted a small and what turned out to be, a rather temperamental auxiliary engine.

My cruising horizons were hugely enlarged by several expeditions on yachts on the West Coast of Scotland. Tom and Anne Mazzoni very kindly invited me to come with them on yachts which they chartered. This was long before yacht chartering became an established business, but some yacht owners were willing to make their boats available for a couple of weeks or so, to suitable people, in exchange for a contribution towards their boating expenses.

Swallow, early boat

Motoring home in earlier boat, Swallow, an old ship’s lifeboat

Folkboat design

Folkboat design plans

I benefited enormously from these trips, learning about handling and managing real yachts, and gaining experience in pilotage and navigation. I became determined to have a boat of my own, capable of sailing on the West Coast.

Being at that time an apprentice mechanical engineer, buying even a small yacht was well beyond my means. The only possibility was to build one myself. Around that time, in the early sixties, lots of home boat building was going on. Locally, many people were building assorted sailing dinghies and the very popular, Flying Fifteens. I didn’t know of anyone building a “real” yacht.

After some research, I decided that a “Folkboat” would serve well, and would hopefully be within my woodworking capabilities. The Folkboat was the result of a Scandinavian competition to design a small “weekending” yacht. Originally they were to be clinker built, and had minimal accommodation. At this time, the design was proving to be popular, and several boat building companies were producing them, mostly in carvel or strip planked construction. The strip planked method appealed to me, as it is relatively simple and straightforward. I decided to go ahead, and so obtained a set of plans from the Swedish Sailing Association.

The construction involves “lofting” out full scale cross sections from the dimensions given in the plans, from which templates are made, and from which, in turn, temporary frames are made. These temporary frames are then set up upside down on a substantial base, and transom, stern post, keelson, and stem fitted, and all faired up before proceeding to plank the hull.

But first I had to find suitable premises to build in. It wasn’t easy. Among a lot of searching around, I enquired of the farmer at Newbigging, John Mitchell, if he had anything suitable. The large shed that I had in mind was unavailable, but John said, “There’s always the mine”. A vast area under Newbigging Farm has been mined for limestone by the Carron Ironworks Company since the early 1800s, only ceasing in the 1950s. The method of mining was “Stoop and Room”, in which the full thickness of about 6m of limestone was extracted, leaving large pillars of rock to hold the roof up. During the Second World War, guns and ammunition were stored in the mine, and the haulage engine, rails, bogies, and electricity, were all still able to be used. And so began the building of Mingulay, in surely one of the strangest boat building sites ever, 130 metres underground.

First frame erected in the mine below Newbigging Farm

First frame erected in the mine below Newbigging Farm

All frames and keel

All frames and keel

Strip planking consists of using narrow parallel planks or “strips”, which are glued and edge nailed into each other. Although the strips are parallel, they require to be bevelled so that the edges of the planks mate together, giving a good surface for glueing. This means that the first strip fitted, next to the keel, is very short, and ideally the last strip should closely follow the line of the gunwale. Practice makes perfect, and I found as I progressed, that although the strips became longer, I could still fit two in an evening.

While this was going on, I obtained ownership of a boat shed down beside the old Bathing Pool, and so when the hull was fully planked, it was time to move down to the shed. What we would now term the ‘logistics’ of the move were quite complicated. Help came from many sources. A local quarry supplied a lorry and a tracked bulldozer, the Shipyard provided a huge trailer, and many friends and fellow members of the Sailing Club gave their ‘voluntary’ labour. The move went well, and we finished with the hull, still with its temporary frames, the right way up, in the shed, and looking much more like a yacht.

It was now time to fit steamed oak ribs, fastened to the hull with traditional copper rivets, then remove the temporary frames, fit bulkheads, deckbeams, and all the other requirements for fitting out the hull. One of the earliest installations was the auxiliary engine, a seven horse power single cylinder diesel. The Folkboat has an iron ballast keel weighing one ton, with long bolts through heavy oak ‘floors’, to secure it to the hull.

I really liked the look of the stepped coachroof, with a doghouse, as fitted on the North Star Folkboats from East Germany, but there was a problem. The boatshed was constructed from wartime Anderson Shelter corrugated iron, and had a low flat roof. It simply wasn’t high enough to accommodate the extra height of a doghouse. The result was that like it or not, the coachroof had to be long and low, and actually very close to the original design. Even having decided on the lower coachroof, I still didn’t have enough headroom to work on it, so I had to break out some of the concrete floor of the shed, and lower the boat down into the hole.

Engine, side deck beams and steamed timbers

Engine, side deck beams and steamed timbers

Eventually the time came when she was ready to come out of the shed. I had made up a launching bogie, and we trundled her round to the slipway at the Bathing Pool. That gave me the chance to measure up for rigging and to step the mast. On a miserable easterly day of mist and drizzle, my girlfriend, now my wife Gillian, named her with due ceremony, and she floated!

Launch of Mingulay

The launch of Mingulay by Gillian, Norman Smith standing behind, left. Tom Haxton on board. Peter Clarke in foreground on right, holding chain

Mingulay sailing

Two or three years later, after sailing around the Forth and as far as Dundee, I built a road trailer, and each year for four years we towed Mingulay through to Oban behind an old Land Rover, and spent the month of June cruising in the Hebrides.

She was a boat with a good sailing performance, she looked pleasing to the eye, and was wonderful for a young couple cruising on the West Coast. On these cruises, she flew the Burntisland Sailing Club burgee.

BSC Burgee
Mingulay sailing