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The West Highland Galley

A reconstructed West Highland galley or birlinn of the 17th century

Viking Heritage: The West Highland Galley / A’ Bhirlinn

From the fury of the Northmen, O Lord, preserve us! The frightened plea of the Christian clergy of Britain was first recorded in 793 at Lindisfarne in the north of England. But the Northmen who went a-viking had sailed the ‘whale road’ earlier in the century. What allowed the Vikings to get around Europe–right up river estuaries, to Britain, Spain and Byzantium?

The Technology of the Galley

The technology of their longships allowed the Vikings to create sea kingdoms all over Europe. There would have been no medieval Kingdom of the Isles in Scotland without them. Their shallow keels, curved hulls and clinker-built construction allowed them to glide through the water like serpents, for which they were named and decorated. Their flexibility also allowed them to tilt to load animals and cargo or absorb high waves in heavy seas. They were masters of seamanship, and their ships were the cutting edge, the very sharp edge of technology in their day.

An Image of a West Highland galley or birlinn from the tomb of a Macleod chief
A birlinn or West Highland galley from the tomb of a Macleod chief

Viking Longship to Highland Birlinn

West Highland galleys were a direct descendant of Viking ships. The Gaelic word birlinn is derived from byrdingr, a type of Norse cargo vessel. They were clinker-built with a high stem and stern, and a single sail on a centrally-stepped mast. A number of medieval grave-slabs lie, often neglected, in the scattered graveyards of the Highlands. Many of these slabs carry carvings of galleys, symbols of the status and power of their owners. 

Starboard comes from ‘steering board’ which was placed on the right or starboard side of the ship. And, of course, to prevent damage to the steering board, ships lay alongside the dock on the port side. 

The Steering Board

A crown charter of 1498 which granted land in Skye and Harris to the Macleods obliged them to keep one ship of twenty-six oars and two of sixteen. They continued to be built in the West Highlands and Islands until the late 17th century– with one major modification. The Norse steering board was replaced by a stern rudder in the late 12th century. A ‘perfect marriage of wood, wind and water’. The Vikings preferred a steering board on the starboard side of the ship to a rudder. They could easily push the steering board out of the water when the ship was towed far up a shallow river. In the Hebrides, there were no long shallow rivers, and West Highlanders preferred the rear rudder with two handles because it was easier to control in heavy seas.

An Image of a West Highland galley or birlinn from the tomb of a Macleod chief
A birlinn or West Highland galley from the tomb of a Macleod chief

In the High Middle Ages (1000 -3000) the people of the Western Isles depended on galleys (birlinnean) and lymphads (longan fada= longships) for all communication by sea. 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 a ‘portage’ point or isthmus is given the name tairbeart in Gaelic. Tarbert, Loch Fyne, was of major strategic importance in the disputes between the kings of Norway and Scotland over the sovereignty of the Hebrides. 

The Galley of Clan Ranald

Many references to them are found in Gaelic literature, particularly a long poem called The Birlinn of Clan Ranald, written by Alasdair Macdonald, probably the best Gaelic poet of the 18th century. The poem starts: 

Gu’m beannaicheadh Dia long Chlann-Ràghnaill

An ceud là do chaidh air sàl

E fèin ‘s a threun-fhir ‘g a caitheadh

Trèin a chaidh tha maitheas chàich

Gu’m beannaich’ an Co-dhia naomh

Lunnrais anail nan speur

Gu ‘n sguabtadh garbhlach na mara

Gu ‘r tarruin gu cala rèidh

Athair a chruthaich an fhairge

‘S gach gaoth shèideas as gach àird

Beannaich ar caol-bharc ‘s ar gaisgaich

Cum i fèin ‘s a gasraidh slàn.

May God bless the ship of Clan Ranald

The first day she floats on the salt sea

Himself and his brave men which sail her

Heroes who were better than any

By the Holy Trinity may the strong wind 

of the heavens be blessed

May the rough sea  

sweep us to a smooth harbour

Father who shaped the sea

And every wind from every side

Bless our slender bark and our heroes

Keep her and her crew safe.

The Aileach is a reconstruction of a mediaeval galley, usually anchored off Tarbert, Loch Nevis. The crew of the Aileach used to take people on short trips around the Hebrides but ran short of funds to maintain it. It is hopefully being restored after a new campaign. 

The Aileach: a West Highland Galley

Sources:

Dennis Rixson, The West Highland Galley

John MacAulay, Birlinn: Longships of the Hebrides

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