22nd July 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

Maritime: The Dorjoy

Charlie Simpson tells the story of Shetland’s last tall ship.

By the end of the first World War, all seaborne traffic to and from Shetland was carried in powered vessels, while the islands’ fishing fleet was made up of steam or motor drifters and  a decreasing number of obsolescent sailing craft. The “North” boats carried passengers and general cargo in and out, while  bulk commodities such as  coal, salt or cement came in  steam coasters. Earlier in the 20th century a handful of locally-owned smacks and schooners had carried such cargoes,  but the war put all of them out of commission and it was 1927 before another locally-owned ship appeared on the scene again. To put it mildly she was the talk of the waterfront, for she was a 20-year-old wooden three-masted schooner without an engine, renamed Dorjoy after her owner’s daughters, Dorothy and Joyce.

Her registered owner was Mrs. Anne Robertson, wife of John W. Robertson, probably the most dynamic and energetic Shetland businessman of his generation. By 1927  J. W., as he was known, ran a huge conglomerate of marine-related enterprises. He was fishcurer, fish salesman, fishing boat owner, marine civil engineering and salvage contractor, and coal merchant. His assets  included the Malakoff yard and slipway, wharfage at Garthspool, curing yards in Lerwick and Collafirth, a grocery business, a farm in Whiteness,  half a dozen steam drifters and a number of sail drifters and flitboats. In addition, he had been county convenor for five years, served on Lerwick Town Council and Harbour Trust – and was Lerwick’s first Guizer Jarl in 1906.  Early in his career he acquired a coal hulk, one of a fleet of old ships moored in Lerwick harbour for supplying the thousands of tons of coal needed by the hundreds of steam drifters fishing out of Lerwick every summer, and steadily expanded his activities. In 1924 he even set up a company that bought and salvaged four scuttled German destroyers in Scapa Flow.

The wooden schooner was thus something of a step backwards for J. W., who had been at the forefront of many new local developments. He certainly had plans for her, as the Shetland Times reported after her arrival in March 1927 : “we understand it is proposed to install twin motor engines and a motor winch. Modernised in this way the Dorjoy should prove very profitable to her owners, especially in view of the fact that a decided improvement in shipping is now anticipated”.

Shipping had perhaps improved, but J. W. Robertson’s fortunes took a steep nose-dive very soon after. Perhaps he expanded too quickly; perhaps the Scapa Flow salvage was a drain on his finances; perhaps his empire was just too big for one man to manage properly: whatever the reason, J. W. became insolvent. A company would have been placed in administration, but J. W. as a sole trader was  personally liable, so his entire “estate” was placed in a trust managed  by his creditors, and his assets sold off to meet his debts. Nearly everything went: the Malakoff, the curing yards, the boats, the shops, the farm, his membership of the county council and the harbour trust.

Insolvency 80 years ago was a terrible stigma. The local business community closed ranks; little was said and even less reported in the press. Only through advertisements for the sale of assets and a mention or two in reports of council and harbour trust meetings can any light now be shed on the tale.

His wife’s assets – including the Dorjoy – remained intact. A limited company, Robertsons (Lerwick) Ltd, was created in 1928 with few assets other than property leases, but at least it allowed  J. W. to resume his coal merchant’s business on a modest scale. Although the plan to put engines in the Dorjoy never materialised, she was still able to bring in coal for Robertsons to supply from a rented store ashore or straight from her holds into drifters as she lay at anchor; when the cargo was sold she was sent south to fetch more. From harbour trust records and newspaper shipping reports, along with official crew lists and log books for the ship, it was possible to build up a reasonable chronology of the career of the Dorjoy.

The ship, originally named Uranus, was built of oak in Latvia in 1908; she was 118 feet long and 29 wide, measuring 274 tons gross. Designed and built as a timber carrier she was no square-rigger, and no beauty; bluff in the bow, slab-sided and with hardly any sheer to her hull. None of her archive  photographs show her with sails up, but she had topmasts for fore-and-aft topsails above her lower sails, and a long jibboom to set at least one jib ahead of the foresail.

She arrived in Shetland in March 1927 from Liverpool, with 300 tons of coal and 100 tons of cement. Her first master was Thomas Tait, originally of Aith, with mate Robert Umphray and sailors Robert and James Isbister from Foula. In April she took 150 tons of her coal to Burra, then fetched a cargo of house coal from Leith in early May, around the time J. W. Robertson became insolvent. In June she took coal from Leith to Stronsay in Orkney, and remained there all summer as a coal hulk supplying drifters with bunker coal. In September she returned to  Lerwick and was laid up for the winter, probably because there was little or no demand for bunker coal outside of the summer herring season, and it also saved on insurance premiums. In 1928 the pattern was similar, with voyages to Blyth for coal, once with a  part cargo southwards of fishmeal, and she seems to have ended up for the winter in Stornoway, again probably as a coal hulk. A copy of her 1929 log book shows her arriving in Lerwick from Stornoway on 4th April, still with coal aboard. Her master was now Robert Roberts from Bangor in north Wales, and John Gear of Lerwick was mate. That summer she made four return voyages to Blyth for coal between early May and mid-September, taking between five and nine days for the outward passage, and returning more smartly, with her best trip of only four days. That said, Lerwick to Blyth is little more than 300 miles – and any decent steam coaster would do the trip in about 40 hours.

On Christmas morning in 1929, the little Norwegian steamer Ustetind, bound from Norway to the Tyne with a cargo of telegraph poles, was driven ashore and wrecked at Culswick after losing her propellor in bad weather. Robertsons were involved in the salvage of her cargo, and so the Dorjoy was employed to take the salvaged poles to their original destination. She went from Lerwick to Skeld in a single day, so it’s likely she was towed there; it contrast, it took until the 30th April before her cargo was all aboard. Some of the poles were delivered to Scalloway, for use in the village’s new street lighting system, and the remainder arrived in Newcastle on 8th May. Discharged by 17th May, a run to Blyth for coal was only a day’s sail – but there the trouble started. Normally her turn-around time in Blyth was two days, but the logbook gives her departure date as 13th June – nearly four weeks. A Shetland Times report gives the reason: when loaded, the Dorjoy sprang a serious leak. Her  cargo had all to be discharged before the ship could be dry-docked for repair, then reloaded again for the voyage home, arriving in Lerwick on 18th June 1930. She was anchored in the north harbour as a coal hulk, with her master and three men kept on until all her coal was sold.

That was that; there were to be no more voyages. In addition to the considerable expense incurred in Blyth, her next Board of Trade survey was due around the end of 1930. The stresses and strains of the coal trade on a wooden hull were considerable, and it’s probable that the cost of bringing her up to standard was more than she was worth to the business. Lerwick Harbour records confirm this decommissioning, for no tonnage dues were paid on the Dorjoy after 1930.

So ended the voyages of Shetland’s last “tall ship”. The youngest of her crew to sign on the final voyage were Joe Fraser from Skeld and Andrew Ridland from Lerwick, each aged 18, each on his first voyage. Joe signed on as ship’s boy  and signed off as able seaman, while Andrew joined as boy in Blyth for the homeward voyage. The Dorjoy lay at her moorings for a year or two – a 1932 photograph shows her still afloat, while an undated 1930s photograph shows her abandoned on the beach below the Böd of Gremista. Whether she was  beached by design or accident is unknown. Over the years she was broken up and many of  her oak timber used for fence posts. Bits of her ended up on the Bressay shore, and most of her keel still lies in the ebb just east of Leask’s bus garage.

The career of the Dorjoy is a strange little episode in Shetland’s long maritime history, a hiccup almost in the technical advance in our ships and shipping services, and with her lack of comfort and her hand-operated winches for handling cargo and ballast she was undoubtedly a hard ship in which to earn a living. For all that she never lacked a crew, and today there are more than a few descendants of Dorjoy men who are quietly and rightly proud that father or grandfather “served in sail”.