Highland Galleys



The reconstructed galley "Aileach"
© Sarah Clark

Throughout the mediaeval period the Highlanders depended on galleys and birlinns for all communication by sea. We have many references to them in Gaelic literature - and in particular in a long poem called "The Birlinn of Clan Ranald", written by Alasdair Macdonald, one of the most famous Gaelic poets of the 18th century. (Alasdair is buried somewhere in Arisaig churchyard and there is a small plaque on the wall in his memory). However, we also have a rich series of grave-slabs which lie, often neglected, in the scattered graveyards of the Highlands. Many of these slabs carry carvings of galleys which were symbols of the status and power of their owners. These have often caught the imagination of viewers and in 1991 an Irish boatyard built a replica of a small galley which sailed up the West Coast and even called in at Mallaig to replace a broken mast.

Galleys are direct descendants of Viking ships - the Gaelic name birlinn probably derives from byrdingr, a type of small Norse cargo vessel. They were clinker-built with oars and a single sail on a centrally-stepped mast. They had high stem and stern but the Viking steering-board was replaced by a stern-rudder from about the late 12th century. Their relatively small size and weight meant that if necessary they could be dragged overland where a narrow stretch of ground lay between two arms of the sea. Such 'portage' points are given the name 'Tarbert' in Gaelic. Some, such as Tarbert, Loch Nevis, have purely local significance. Others, such as Tarbert, Loch Fyne, were of major strategic importance in the disputes between the kings of Norway and the kings of Scotland over ownership of the Hebrides. One of the photographs in the Heritage Centre Collection shows Aileach, the reconstruction of a mediaeval galley, anchored off Tarbert, Loch Nevis. Another shows her being 'portaged' at West Loch Tarbert, Argyll. Traditionally she would have been pulled on rollers, whale-ribs or along a trackway. In this case a tractor was called in!

Related Books

The West Highland Galley 
by Denis Rixson