19th Century Cellardyke Boatbuilders

In the 1820s and ‘30s many of the 30-strong Cellardyke fishing fleet had been built in Leith. Twenty years later, with the phenomenal growth in the industry, enterprising boatbuilders set up business in the town. William Jack of Leith was the first builder registered in a yard just east of the harbour. In 1864 a 23 year old Cellardyke fisherman’s son, Alexander Cunningham started building fishing vessels of note on adjoining ground near the harbour and three years later John A Miller (also 23 years old) started his company on the ground that Jack had recently vacated.

The mid 19th Century was a boom period for the fishing communities in the East of Fife and when the KY fishing boat registrations came into force in 1869 Anstruther/ Cellardyke owned 176 boats with only one or two being Anstruther owned.   The boats were recorded under Anstruther as the small harbour at Cellardyke had been out-grown by the fleet.

These young men were building state of the art sailing fishing vessels of up to 49 feet in length and both men’s boats gained reputations for fast, stable and roomy vessels that were much admired for their sea going qualities right up the East Coast.

This was also the time when Cellardyke men first started the annual trek to Yarmouth and Lowestoft fishing in late autumn. These small sailing vessels had to withstand the treacherous winter North Sea for these herring fishing seasons and line fishing trips that could see them caught in storms some 240 miles from home.

Enterprising Young Boatbuilders

Cunningham and Millar were perhaps the most innovative builders of their generation in the East Neuk, with Cunningham introducing a method of deck installation that became standard across Scotland, reducing the trip hazards on deck without compromising the strength of the boats. The introduction of decks and cabins were significant safety factors that also created the opportunity of a boat travelling further and staying out longer, accessing further grounds and catching more, while also protecting the crew from the elements.

Millar was the first to introduce the Carvel method of building replacing the Clinker (or Clench) method of overlapping planking. This created a stronger hull and also enabled larger vessels to be built. Over 100 vessels were constructed in these yards between 1864 and 1880.

By 1880 both builders had moved away to other areas, Millar was working from Anstruther but still supplying the Cellardyke fleet, and Cunningham emigrated to Australia where his descendants are still to this day designing fast sailing vessels.

New Cellardyke Yards Established

The ground East of the harbour lay fallow until the early 1890s when Alexander Thomson (Millar’s foreman) took it over and started building vessels under 35ft. He retired in 1915 having built over 50 vessels.

In 1936 the last of the boatbuilding companies – the East Fife Boatbuilding Company – was formed by William Carstairs, the Provost of the United Burghs of Anstruther Easter, Anstruther Wester and Kilrenny. Provost Carstairs was a leading mover in replacing the cripplingly expensive steam fleet with smaller more efficient diesel powered boats. He brought George Forbes, of the famous boatbuilding family of Sandhaven, just outside Fraserburgh, to Cellardyke to build his 75ft Motor Drifter the Royal Sovereign. Several orders followed for local boats as well as two ring net vessels for the Isle of Man before orders dried up and George Forbes left Cellardyke to set up business in Peterhead after only building 8 vessels.

World War II and with the collapse of the local herring fishery brought an end of boatbuilding in Cellardyke and the end of the town as home of one of the most influential fishing communities in Scotland.

Close Menu