About the Scottish Traditional Boat Festival
Over recent years I've developed quite a fondness for the charming fishing villages and dramatic cliffs of the Aberdeenshire coast. The scenery is very different to the wilder west of Scotland but I've found the quaint east coast settlements, steeped in history and tradition, are generally less touristy than their west coast counterparts and offer a more authentic local experience.
When I was recently invited to explore more of the area with an opportunity to attend the annual Traditional Scottish Boat Festival in Portsoy, I quickly made some space in my travel diary. The festival was founded after successful celebrations were held to mark the 300th anniversary of Portsoy harbour in 1993. It was decided that an annual festival promoting regional maritime and cultural traditions should take place in the historic fishing port and this year marked the 25th anniversary of the Portsoy Boat Festival. As I was to find out, it is about much more than just boats...
My festival experience
Although the main festival takes place each year on a Saturday and Sunday at the end of June/beginning of July depending on the tides, the party officially starts the night before. On the Friday evening I was pointed in the direction of the main marquee by a gaggle of excited chattering locals as they meandered down the winding streets towards the various festival venues around the village, while I continued to pursue the source of frantic fiddle notes drifting through the warm evening air. After tracking down my destination in Wally Green, I joined the gathered crowd for the next couple of hours while we toe-tapped to some traditional tunes by Ella McTaggart and sang along with folk legend Dougie MacLean, famed for writing 'Caledonia' which has become a bit of a Scottish anthem. As the concert ended, a fiery sunset had taken over the sky and revellers with more stamina than me moved on to continue the shindig at the late night session.
With up to 16,000 people expected over the weekend, I decided to arrive early on the Saturday morning to beat the crowds and the hot afternoon temperatures predicated later in the day.
Before I got there, I naively thought the boat festival would be a small community affair but over the years it has grown in to a major event which spreads along the harbour front and back towards the centre of Portsoy. I was grateful I'd put my comfy shoes on that day!
With four distinct areas to explore, like any sensible person I started at the food fayre. The scent of various local delicacies filled the tent from fudge to gin and coffee to cheese and I was overjoyed to discover The Isle of Skye Baking Company. Being gluten free meant I was a little concerned I wouldn't find anything suitable to eat at the festival food outlets but the bakery stand had me covered with their range of gluten free goodies including fresh bread, quiches and cakes. For a very long minute I seriously contemplated breaking my gluten free diet just so I could feast on all their delicious sounding loaves - malted barley and lavender, Stornoway black pudding, bacon, onion and tomato, and Scottish seaweed with Skye ale - they all had me salivating but I resisted the temptation. Instead I made a mental note to return later when my tummy started its inevitable lunchtime rumble.
With lunch sorted I followed the swirling tunes of the Portsoy Pipe Band as they marched down to the picturesque 17th century harbour and the heart of the festival. Historic and characterful wooden boats with colourful bunting sat anchored by the pier and coracles for hire were a big hit with boatless visitors keen to get out on the water. Personally, I passed up on the possibility of a soaking but those brave enough to venture aboard looked like they were having great fun.
With the aroma from barrels of Arbroath Smokies wafting through the crowd, sea-shanties filling the air and the sun shining, I was in my element immersing myself in the vintage nautical atmosphere. I actually think I may have found my perfect Scottish summer festival in this wee nook of Banffshire.
This year the Scottish Traditional Boat Festival also welcomed exhibitors and performers from Latvia and Estonia as part of a project which builds ties between festivals in the respective countries. I hadn't realised the connections between Scotland and the Baltic States go way back to the late Medieval period when Scottish knights accompanied Teutonic knights on their Baltic Crusade. Since then, economic links have continued the connection and it was interesting to learn more about the cultural and traditional heritage of both countries
By mid-afternoon there was a throng of people meandering between the old and new harbour watching the skiff racing and sunbathing on the beach. I decided this was a good time for my first taste of Portsoy ice-cream, a local award-winning business that had come highly recommended to me on social media. I wasn't disappointed and enjoyed my raspberry ripple filled tub sitting outside listening to live music at the Folk Club Stage. It was nice to take some time out and grab a wee seat with some chilled out tunes.
A big part of the Portsoy Boat Festival is celebrating local craftsmanship and during my wanderings I popped in to various venues around the waterfront to find out more about boat-building and sail making. A large craft area with a variety of stalls selling local goods drew me in and as I can never resist local handmade goods when I'm on my travels, I may have left with a souvenir or two!
Although I spent a good part of the day in Portsoy, there was so much I still managed to miss, from the family activities at the Loch Soy Area to walking theatre performances, food demonstrations and nautical themed talks. I only had one day but with so much to see, you could easily keep busy over the full weekend.
I've been to lots of festivals around Scotland and for me, the Scottish Traditional Boat Festival has to be one of the best yet and I can understand why it has gone from strength to strength, attracting visitors from all over the world year after year
My festival tips
Where is Portsoy?
Portsoy sits on the north east coast of Scotland approximately midway between Banff and Cullen. It is just over an hour's drive north and west from Aberdeen, around 90 mins east of Inverness and about 4 hours north of Edinburgh.
Portsoy is famed for its old harbour which was completed in 1693 and is one of the oldest harbours on the Aberdeenshire coast. Due to the construction process of setting the stones vertically, the structure you see today is mostly original and some of the surrounding buildings also date back to that period.
Portsoy marble is one of the local goods that was exported from here. It is actually polished Serpentine quarried west of the harbour and it was so highly regarded, some of it was used in the construction of parts of Louis XIV's Palace of Versailles. There is still a workshop making and selling Portoy marble goods next to the harbour.
In 1825 a new harbour was added to accommodate the large herring fishing fleet and increasing volume of trade being carried out at Portsoy, although a decline in the herring boom brought changes to the village in the 1900s, as it did in many other Scottish fishing ports.
Today, tourism boosts the local economy and Portsoy is a charming and interesting place to visit. The village was also used as the main filming location in the recent remake of the film 'Whisky Galore' which has helped to attract even more visitors.
More things to do in and around Portsoy
If you're visiting The Scottish Traditional Boat Festival then you will probably be kept pretty busy, however if you have time, here are a few ideas of other things to do in the surrounding area
Disclaimer - my trip to the Scottish Traditional Boat Festival was part of a visit to the area which was arranged and sponsored by Aberdeen Festivals, however as always, all experiences and opinions are my own.
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