5.4 Historic ships and boats

Surviving historic ships and boats offer a direct connection with the maritime past and can provide insights into the operations and experiences of sea-going life in former times. Despite this attraction they have hitherto not featured extensively in archaeological or antiquarian research and have until recently been largely excluded from cultural resource management and heritage protection legislation. This state of affairs had its origins in the perceived sense that historic ships are difficult and expensive to look after and that their potential mobility (in contrast with historical monuments on land) created problems for their care and protection. It also arose because of the specialised skills required to work with historic vessels, which skills were not to be found among those working with other forms of archaeological and antiquarian resources.

This former position is rapidly undergoing change. The setting up of the National Historic Ships Project in 1995 led to the establishment in 2000 of the National Register of Historic Vessels (NRHV), originally managed by the independent NHSC but since 2007 by the centrally funded Advisory Committee on National Historic Ships (ACNHS; see ACNHS Annual Reports 2006-7 et sequ) .

The NRHV comprises detailed records of vessels located in Britain, above 33ft (10m) in length on deck that are over 50yrs old (a rolling age criterion), built in the UK or, if not, of demonstrable significance to UK maritime history, and substantially intact. A similar database, covering vessels less than 33ft long, the National Small Boat Register (NSBR) is maintained by the National Maritime Museum, Cornwall. The two registers together provide for complete coverage of surviving historic craft of all sizes, types and functions in the UK. Details of vessels on the registers which are transported overseas, or which are lost or broken up, are transferred to the NHS Archive. These three registers thus provide detailed records of all known vessels over 50 years old which are or were until recently surviving in the UK .

The registers are backed up by a large database, providing technical information about each vessel, its life-history and the changes in configuration it has undergone. This detailed information is used to evaluate systematically the heritage significance of each vessel, using a multi-variate scoring system, and as a result, the most significant surviving ships and boats in each functional category in the maritime economy can be identified. These vessels comprise together the National Historic Fleet (NHF)

The scale of the Scottish resource

There are currently 1,009 vessels on the NRHV (excluding vessels on the NSBR), of which 212 form the NHF. The Scottish contribution to these statistics is set out in the accompanying tables, showing the number of NHF vessels based in Scotland, both those built here and those originating elsewhere in the UK. There is also a table showing the number of Scottish-built vessels based elsewhere in the UK. (See Tables 2 – 4).

Table 2: Number of Scottish-built vessels in the NHF,  Archive,  and  NRHV that are (or in the case of archived vessels, were) located in Scotland

Status group Number of vessels
National Historic Fleet 18
National Historic Ships Archive 27
Register only vessels 24
Total number of vessels 69

Table 3: Number of Scottish-built vessels in the NHF,   Archive, and  NRHV that are (or were) located outwith  Scotland.

Status group Number of vessels
National Historic Fleet 21
National Historic Ships Archive 21
Register only vessels 51
Total number of vessels 123

Table 4: Number of vessels in the NHF Archive,  and  NRHV,  built outwith Scotland, that are (or were) located in Scotland.

Status group Number of vessels
National Historic Fleet 7
National Historic Ships Archive 11
Register only vessels 18
Total number of vessels 36

From the above tables it can be seen that there are (including archived vessels) 105 historic ships, regardless of origin, with present or recent locations in Scotland, representing 10.4% of the records in the National Registers. Of these ships, 25 (24%) are NHF members. Turning to Scottish-built vessels on the Registers, there are 192 UK-wide, representing 19% of all records; of these Scottish-built vessels, 39 (21%) are of sufficient heritage merit to be included in the NHF. The addition of records from the NSBR would considerably extend this source of information about Scottish-built ships and boats from the past.

These surviving vessels include examples from a variety of functions across the maritime economy, including warships, merchant ships, passenger carriers and ferries, fishing vessels, service craft such as ice-breakers, tugs, rescue boats and light-vessels, a research vessel, ceremonial craft and leisure craft. They form a reference collection against which ship structures from the archaeological record can be compared. They also present opportunities for experimental archaeology and for research into craft practices in the past. Together they comprise an educational and research resource whose potential is only just beginning to be appreciated. Above all they are inspirational.

Table 5 illustrates one aspect of the impact of these vessels by providing recent annual visitor statistics for six of the larger vessels in the NHF in Scotland. A further dimension of significance might be derived from a bibliography of published works in which the NHF ships figure.

Table 5: Annual visitor figures for larger historic vessels in Scotland (to nearest 1,000; figures supplied by management).

Ship Launch date Construction & type Visitors per annum (latest figures)
UNICORN 1824 Wood, sailing frigate (Seppings system) 7,000
GLENLEE 1896 steel barque, merchant, later sail training ship 28,000
DISCOVERY 1901 Wood, polar research vessel.(steam and sail) 53,000
REAPER 1902 Wood, fishing vessel (sail) 18,000
WAVERLEY 1947 Steel, passenger ship (steam, paddle-driven) 65,000
BRITANNIA 1953 Steel, Royal Yacht; hospital ship capability (steam turbine) 250,000

See also the ScARF Case Study: Laser Scan survey and Historic vessels