Portsoy: ACE Winches Scottish Traditional Boat Festival - Scotland Magazine
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Portsoy: ACE Winches Scottish Traditional Boat Festival

Every July the small Aberdeenshire fishing town of Portsoy welcomes around 15,000 visitors for a weekend celebrating the northeast’s maritime heritage, here’s how the local community built the event into…

Every July the small Aberdeenshire fishing town of Portsoy welcomes around 15,000 visitors for a weekend celebrating the northeast’s maritime heritage, here’s how the local community built the event into what it is today…

Words: Henrietta Easton

On Scotland’s northeast Moray coast, Portsoy’s 17th-century harbour is an idyllic spot for a peaceful afternoon by the sea. With a resident population of just under 2,000, for most of the year Portsoy is relatively quiet, and you could be forgiven for thinking that life here, amid the tangle of lanes that lead up from the harbour, moves slowly. However, for one weekend every July, its population swells as 15,000 visitors come from far and wide to attend the annual ACE Winches Scottish Traditional Boat Festival, which has, in its 30 years since inception, put the village of Portsoy firmly on the map.

Reaper will make her return to Portsoy this summer.

The festival first began in 1993, in the tercentenary year of the old harbour, which is the oldest on the Moray Firth, and it celebrates the maritime history of the area. This year, the festival will be on Saturday 1 and Sunday 2 July, during which a flotilla of heritage boats from across the country will descend on Portsoy for a weekend of celebrations.

David Urquhart, festival chairman, who has been at the festival for more than 25 years, says that this year he is most looking forward to seeing the return of Reaper, a Fifie Sailing Herring Drifter (the most popular style of fishing boat on Scotland’s east coast for the better part of the 19th and 20th centuries), which was built in 1902 and used for great line fishing. In the late 1930s, Reaper held the record catch of herring in Shetland – almost a quarter of a million fish.

In 1974, Reaper was bought by the Scottish Fisheries Museum in Fife, and she is now berthed in Anstruther harbour, in Fife’s East Neuk. Reaper has not been at the festival for several years, as she has been undergoing restoration work after suffering damage to her side. “We will be her first stop when she comes from Fife,” David says. “When you see her in the harbour with her big sails, it is a tremendous sight.”

Reaper is one of three flagship boats at the festival this year. The other two are Swan, which dates from 1900, and Isabella Fortuna, which was built in 1890 – making her the oldest boat at the festival.

Isabella Fortuna. Credit: Allan Robertson

“The public can go onto the boats and experience them for themselves, even seeing where the fishermen used to sleep,” David says. “This is one of the most important parts of the festival.”

Although the festival centres around the flotilla of historic boats, there’s lots more to enjoy, too. “The festival is evolving to be almost like a series of mini festivals in one, with lots of different things going on,” David explains. “In the past we’ve done demonstrations of traditional crafts, like knitting and weaving – I think one year we had the world’s fastest knitter!” Visitors can expect a bustling food fair, with exhibitors serving up locally sourced seafood, sweet treats, and whiskies.

Arbroath Smokies, a local dish on offer at the food fair.

In addition, the festival will kick off on the Friday night with a performance from award-winning Scottish rock group Skerryvore, followed by a series of musical performances and entertainers throughout the weekend, including Highland dancers and local choirs.

The festival is hugely beneficial for Portsoy’s community and economy, employing lots of local suppliers. As chairman, David runs a committee of about 25 people that pull the whole event together. “Everyone brings their own expertise and skills to the table,” he says. “We rely heavily on volunteers, and we’re always so impressed with the amount of people that come forward to get involved in everything. from stewarding to running tickets on the gate.”

Scottish rock band Skerryvore will headline on Friday night at the festival.

David feels that not only is the festival important for the village, but also for the northeast of Scotland. “The festival generates millions of pounds for the economy,” he says, “and people come from far and wide to see the festival, celebrating these amazing historic boats, but also sampling local food, hearing our music, and learning about traditional crafts and northeast Scotland’s heritage and history – it’s the best weekend of the whole year for us.”

After being cancelled in 2020, in 2021 the committee held a virtual festival and people joined from all over the world. This has meant that, even with a physical festival happening in Portsoy, parts of the event are streamed online so that people can watch from wherever they are in the world.

Although the festival has evolved, David insists that it has still stayed true to its roots. “We are keeping the skills and the stories alive,” he says.

Portsoy’s historic harbour. Credit: IAIN MASTERTON/ALAMY

Above all, David says that he is “most looking forward to getting the festival atmosphere back and seeing people coming to enjoy the weekend”, although he is praying for a weekend of sunshine. Whatever the weather, Portsoy’s anniversary festival weekend is set to be its best yet.

Find out more about the ACE Winches Scottish Traditional Boat Festival at stbfportsoy.org

This is an extract. Read the full feature in the May/June 2023 issue of Scotland, available to buy from Friday 14 April. 

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