Scotland’s unemployed find hope and new skills in prestigious boat-building workshop
GLASGOW, Scotland—Johnny Millar began to suffer from depression not long after losing his job. Having worked at the same light-engineering company for his entire 37-year career, he was completely lost when the company went bust in 2008 and its employees were made redundant. Now 60 years old, Millar says being out of work for five years took its toll on his health, and at times the outlook was grim.
“There’s not going to be companies who are going to take me on at my age and retrain me for a couple of years for me then to retire, so I think it’s quite bleak for myself,” he said. “I don’t think there’ll be anything worthwhile out there for me to do, to be quite honest.”
However, a unique project in Glasgow has helped to turn his situation around. Amid the wood shavings and machinery noise of the GalGael Trust boat-building workshop, Millar and other long-term unemployed people are learning new skills to get them back into work.
Named after the Gal-Gaidheal, the people who inhabited the Hebrides in the 9th century, the charity was formed in 1997 after Colin McLeod began using trees felled in a former park to build boats and revive traditional craftsmanship.
The former site of Pollock Park was cleared to make way for a highway, and McLeod, affectionately known as “The Birdman of Pollock,” defended the park for two years before development plans finally went ahead. Sadly, he passed away in 2005.
The charity has developed over time, and today, during a six-month training program, participants learn how to work with wood while regaining the confidence to interact with people and get back into working mode.
People who show particular skills after initial training are offered the chance to be part of GalGael’s prestigious boat-building course in which they can assist in constructing traditional boats, skiffs and even Viking longboats.
Millar is just one of dozens of people who’ve benefited from the course.
“The biggest benefit is giving me back my confidence again, giving me back my self-esteem that I’d lost,” he said.
“When you’ve been working for a company for so long, you’re in a safe environment and because it’s only been the one company I’ve worked for, once you’re out of that situation you don’t know what to do, and you feel lost.
“And GalGael has given me that strength again to communicate with people and work with people.”
Jason Kavanagh is another example of the course’s success. Arriving at GalGael in 2011, Kavanagh started on the basic skills course, which was then called Navigate Life. Now he is an apprentice boat builder.
Standing beside the frame of what is soon to be a traditional Viking longboat, Kavanagh described how GalGael helped him immeasurably and turned his life around after he also suffered from mental illness.
“I had been unemployed since the summer of 2003,” he said. “I have ME, or chronic fatigue syndrome, so in the winter of 2010 my mental health had suffered as well; I was having really bad panic attacks and suffering from anxiety.
“I sorted that out a wee bit myself, but coming to GalGael just completely fixed that. It gave me somewhere I felt I could belong to again, and I had a sense of purpose again and a sense of self-worth again. So it not only helped my physical health, but it helped my mental health as well. It was fantastic.”
Workshop Supervisor Alasdair Watson agrees that the most valuable outcome of the course isn’t necessarily the woodworking skills themselves, but confidence.
“The most obvious thing I’ve seen is people coming out of their shell. Some of the hardships that they’ve faced have really got them down and maybe brought them within themselves and I think we bring out their character, encourage them to share their skills. You see people flourish on a weekly basis here.
“The creativity comes out, and new skills come out, and we try to use those within the workshop. It’s a very social space, generally. Politics and things get left at the door, and everybody comes in and really works as a team very well, so I think you can get a better crew out of here than you might on some commercial job sites.
“I think there’s a bit less pressure and we encourage the creative side, so I think people respond to that and you can see them grow and shine, even.”
As well as building boats, GalGael people are also given the opportunity to sail them, a huge draw for Watson, who grew up sailing on the River Clyde. Indeed, a GalGael team recently took part in the inaugural St. Ayles Skiff World Championships, held in Ullapool, Scotland, during the summer with a skiff built in the workshop.
“It was a great event; we had lovely weather. It was during the heat wave this summer. Thank God for that!” Watson said.
“We try and take new participants out every week on the Clyde for rowing sessions, and we have a small sailboat that we get them out sailing in as well.
“We try and do it on a weekly basis so we’re getting people onto the water, but we don’t really have a dedicated crew because we like to get everybody out, mix and match different people and get them some waterborne experience.”
Another GalGael project Watson says he is proud of is the Commonwealth Games baton, now making its way across the world in the run up to the 2014 games, which will be held in Glasgow. The handle of the baton was carefully designed and carved by GalGael’s head boatbuilder, Ben Duffin.
“Ben took that on under a veil of secrecy,” said Watson.
Indeed, Duffin was not allowed to see the head of the baton (an ornate metallic lattice containing granite gemstones that will be given to each nation it passes through) but given a plain machined piece of the same dimensions to make sure the handle would fit to it correctly.
“He fashioned it from some elm with an old boat-building technique called birds-mouthing.”
The tricky technique involves fitting eight rectangular pieces of wood together to make a hollow cylinder, Watson explains while showing off a prototype of the staff. “It’s hollow so it’s lightweight and also allows for the electronics to light up the head of the baton.”
While Duffin’s work is sent around the globe, the GalGael team gets the chance to sell their own work through the craft shop, with all proceeds feeding back into the Trust so they can continue to take people on. The many trinket boxes and whiskey staves they learn to build are sold online as well as at both Stirling and Edinburgh castles.
For those involved, this can be the first step back into employment. For Millar, it’s a way back into life: “Having depression and moods, it’s quite hard for me to open myself back up again and come out to the working environment. But this place allows you to do it because there’s no pressure put on you and they have instructors and staff who are absolutely excellent at the job they do, and they help you 100 percent.”
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