Iain Oughtred - A Life in a Wooden Boat by Bruce Stannard

Iain OughtredIain Oughtred is one of the world’s most distinguished small craft designers. His distinctive wooden boats are renowned for the elegance of their traditional lines and for their timeless style and character under oar and sail. Iain is to be Guest of Honour at the Australian Wooden Boat Festival in Hobart this month. Bruce Stannard spoke with him at his home at Bearnisdale on the Isle of Skye.

To wooden boat enthusiasts around the world, the name Iain Oughtred invariably invites a warm and knowing smile, a nod of instant recognition and respect. Although most people probably won’t be able to tell you much about the man himself, they’ll almost certainly know every detail of the lovely little vessels he creates.
In their mind’s eye they’ll each have their own vivid picture of a small but beautifully proportioned boat distinguished by its clean, uncluttered lines and traditional good looks. It may be a handsome clinker-built Acorn Skiff, a double-ended Ness Yawl, a flat-bottomed dory, a sprit-rigged Caledonian Yawl or any one of his 110 designs.
Each boat will be different and each will embody its own unique appeal, but they’ll all have one thing in common: the unmistakeable stamp of Iain Oughtred’s artistry.
Iain’s international fame as a designer is however in inverse proportion to his personal profile and that’s very much the way he likes it. The idea of self-promotion is anathema to him. He prefers to allow his boats to speak for him and they are eloquent in their testimony to his creative genius.
A shy, quietly-spoken, bespectacled 70-year-old with a grey bushy beard and a head of wiry salt and pepper hair, Iain lives alone in Struan Cottage – “a wee But and Ben” as he calls it – in the tiny village of Bearnisdale near the head of Loch Snizort in the beautiful hinterland of Skye.
In the solitude of this remote and idyllic rural setting he’s able to focus uninterrupted on perfecting the lines of his boats.
Iain Oughtred rows his 13ft Acorn skiff.13ft Acorn, Hoolet.His cluttered kitchen cum living room doubles as his studio with plans, books and filing cabinets, photocopiers and his drawing table all crammed into a space barely big enough to house one of his dinghies. I’d imagined that he’d have a smart, purpose-built office with a full-time team of drafting assistants, secretarial and accounting staff or, at the very least, someone to handle calls from his clients around the world, but no, he somehow manages to juggle all those responsibilities at home, alone.
Although he was born in Melbourne and brought up on the shores of Sydney Harbour where he learned to sail, Iain has always been deeply aware of his strong Scottish family ties. His mother’s forebears were Hendersons from Orkney and he says he has always regarded Scotland as his spiritual home.
He’s lived in Scotland since the 1980s and after all that time he’s become so thoroughly Scottish that he now speaks with a soft Highland burr. I asked him what it was about Scotland and Skye in particular that had made him feel so very much at home.
“It’s not one thing, but many,” he said. “It’s a wonderful combination: the unqualified warmth and welcome I’ve been shown by the people; the complete absence of any class consciousness; the richness of the cultural heritage and the willingness to share it. All these things add up to the simple joy of being alive.”
Inspiration for many of Iain’s most successful boats has come from the traditional vessels which once played key roles in Scotland’s long maritime history. Some, like the Faerings and the Ness Yole or yawl, have a lineage that goes all the way back to Scandinavia at the time when the Vikings ruled Scotland’s Northern Isles.
He was travelling through Norway in an old camper van in the mid-1970s when he first saw the lovely traditional Faerings afloat in the fjiords between Oslo and Bergen. Shaped by hand and eye, they had evolved to an easy, seaworthy perfection over centuries of use in all weathers. They were so beautifully simple, and their lines so perfectly suited to their purpose that he felt compelled to stop and make detailed pencil sketches on the spot.
He recalls the moment as something of an epiphany. A disembodied voice, his own, told him quite distinctly: “You should be working with boats.”
Up until that time he’d been a footloose drifter, a sometime model maker, instrument maker, van driver and leather worker. Now he had a Vision, a Mission that would ultimately see him play a pivotal role in the worldwide revival of interest in traditional wooden boats.
Iain Oughtred has never trained as a naval architect although he worked with several long enough to absorb the basics. He is instead a gifted, intuitive designer, someone with a rare natural ability, and an unerring eye for the sweeping curves that come together in a sublime hull shape.
Neither is he a trained professional boatbuilder, but a gifted amateur, a perfectionist who has built scores of beautiful boats. He does everything in the time-honoured traditional way, by hand and eye. There’s no hint of Computer Aided Design in any of his meticulous drawings.
“No CAD programme can compare with work created from a respect for tradition, years of sailing and building experience and an intuitive sense of what looks right,” he said.
Iain Oughtred’s Ness Yawl, Alba.
“What’s required is a well-practiced and refined sense of the boat’s needs, the instinctive ability to handle her with the fine balance of delicacy and firmness through all the seemingly infinite variety of conditions with the wayward influences of wind and water. Computers cannot know these things and cannot make it look good. I have no intention of ever trying!”
Iain describes himself is an idealist.
“I’ve spent my life looking for an ideal,” he said. “Whether it’s achievable, feasible, practical or not, I’m still looking for it. I suppose I’ll go on looking for it.”
Although the meticulously drawn plans for Iain’s boats are sold to professional and amateur builders throughout the world, the life he chooses to lead on Skye is one of frugal austerity.
Struan Cottage, his 140-year-old stone home, is sparsely furnished and generally goes unheated, even in the bitter depths of winter. He copes with the cold by piling on more and more layers of wool and becomes so immersed in his work that he says he scarcely notices the ice forming on the windows. And besides, he points out, the kitchen kettle is always close at hand for a warming cup of tea.
Iain deserves much of the credit for having sparked the long awaited wooden boat revival in the United Kingdom.
Thirty-odd years ago when he took his Acorn skiff down to London for the fledgling traditional wooden boat show at Greenwich, her lovely lines drew plenty of admiring glances, but no orders. At that time, Britain seemed to have turned its back on its long and venerable tradition of wooden boat craftsmanship, opting instead for a convenient modern alternative in soul-less fibreglass.
In the United States on the other hand, traditional wooden boat enthusiasts not only treasured their old vessels, they also inspired others to build classic boats of their own. Iain Oughtred’s beautifully drafted designs arrived at precisely the right time and his name quickly became synonymous with distinctive boats immediately recognisable for their aesthetic appeal and their performance.
When the traditional wooden boat revival eventually took off in the UK and Europe, Iain found himself front and centre as one of its leading lights. He has been there ever since, borne along on the flood tide of enthusiasm and yet preferring always to remain off to one side, a private individual, shy of the limelight. Although he seems to have at last found his own niche on Skye, he is still bothered by the isolation.
“Being too isolated is not so good,” he says, “but a bit of solitude is necessary once in a while. It’s good to be able to know how to really be alone for a time, to be mentally and spiritually self-sufficient, to develop a sense of who you are without distractions and role-playing.”
Iain is keen to establish a Scottish Wooden Boat Centre on Skye, a dream which has so far failed to materialise.
“In 2001 we had a group of just the right people to make it happen,” he said, “but we were all so involved in our own things that nothing happened.
“Andy Wrate, who founded the Scottish Traditional Boat Festival at Portsoy, put together an impressive business-like proposal, which was perhaps a bit too ambitious. It involved a complete purpose-built complex and needed huge amounts of money.
“My own belief is that it would be better to start off small and to evolve in a more organic and flexible way, ready to move with the wind in whatever way is appropriate at the time.”
Small wooden boat workshops have gone really well in Scotland. They have been held at Forres, Plockton and Lochgilphead.
“These short-term and part-time study courses could be developed into full-time workshops and become part of longer-term study courses. Ideally I’d like to see the Scottish Wooden Boat Centre at a nice waterfront location near or within reach of an attractive community so that whole families could come could come for a week or two.
“As well as traditional and modern boatbuilding workshops, it would teach aspects of restoration, finishing, design, sailmaking, seamanship and sail training. It would have a museum, library and shop as well as databases and facilities for research and education. Wooden boats have such a tremendous potential for education in so many ways and on so many levels.”
Iain Oughtred rowingIn his thoughtfully worded preface to Iain’s newly published biography, Iain Oughtred A Life in Wooden Boats, Peter Spectre, one of the most respected figures in America’s wooden boat revival, sums him up this way:
“Iain Oughtred is an artist, pure and simple and his designs reflect that sensibility. Look at the sheer of the Acorn; the stem of the Grey Seal; the coaming of the MacGregor and its relationship to the sheer and the foredeck; the rudder and the tiller of the Arctic Tern.
“These are the products of a man with an eye for a functional curve, the very essence of boat design and construction. To be successful all boat designers must meet certain technical criteria to do with stability, weight distribution, buoyancy, structural strength etc, but to be memorable they must have heart, soul, an emotional centre – and only an artist can give them that.
“I have great admiration for Iain Oughtred as an artist and a small-craft designer. I also have admiration for his having stuck to his principles all these years without ever resorting to self-promotion.”
Aye to all that.