The LK243 SWAN is a sail training vessel based in Scalloway and Lerwick. Each year, dozens of trainees and members of the public are taken aboard to learn various seamanship skills and enjoy sailing trips around the isles and further afield.
The vessel began its career at sea very differently, however; over 100 years ago, as a herring boat. Now Shetland’s only existing example of a Fifie herring drifter, she is an important part of the isles’ maritime history.
The herring fishery was of prime importance to Shetland, reaching its peak during the early 20th century. The scale of the industry cannot be underestimated – by 1905 there were 400 boats in the local fleet, and around 200 gutting stations in Lerwick alone, with an estimated 14,000 people employed locally.
The Swan was built during this boom period, and in 1900, at a length of 67 feet, was at that time the largest ever built in Lerwick.
According to a report from The Shetland News from 5th May 1900, she was “built to the order of Messrs Hay & Co., and Mr Thos. Isbister, and is acknowledged by competent judges, both local and Scotch, to be one of the finest fishing boats afloat in the North of Scotland, as regards to model, strength or workmanship.”
Built by a Mr Leask and launched at Hay & Company’s yard in Lerwick, no expense was spared in fitting her with the latest in labour-saving appliances of the time.
For the next 50 years the Swan had a busy career, working first out of Whalsay with a crew from that isle, before having an engine fitted in 1935 to extend her working life. With the decline of the herring fishing, she was retired in 1950, and towed to Grimsby to be converted to a houseboat. By 1982 she lay neglected in Hartlepool, sinking more than once due to lack of care.
Thankfully, her fate was spared after she was spotted by fishing enthusiast Keith Parkes, who recognised her importance as the only remaining Fifie. Mr Parkes bought the boat in 1989 with the intention of restoring her, however this proved too time consuming, and the Swan was put up for sale.
The boat’s advertisement was seen by local maritime enthusiast and navigation teacher Tom Moncrieff, who, recognising her importance to Shetland’s maritime history, wrote a letter in the Shetland Times appealing for the boat to be brought back to Shetland to be restored and used as a living museum and sail training vessel.
Soon after, the Swan Steering Group was formed, and the boat brought back to Shetland. By 1990 the Swan Trust began the restoration of Shetland’s only existing herring drifter.
Six years of painstaking work by local experts followed, and in 1996 the Swan LK 243was relaunched in Lerwick harbour, almost 96 years exactly since she first took to the water.
In her new capacity as a sail training vessel the Swan LK243 has become a familiar sight in local as well as foreign shores. As well as chartering fishing and sightseeing trips around the isles, she regularly takes trainees further afield, which has seen trips to Norway, Faroe, France, Denmark, Ireland and Holland, as well as the UK to take part in the Tall Ships Races.