Building boats is in Falkirk man’s blood

Scaling into the sunset: Model boat making can by mighty good fun
Scaling into the sunset: Model boat making can by mighty good fun

When the word model is mentioned you instantly have visions of beauty.

That description can certainly be used for one man’s lifetime love, which was on show at a local church last weekend.

Professor Donald Meek has been infatuated with ships since he was a nipper on the island of Tiree in the Inner Hebrides where vessels passed through the Sound of Gunna from Barra as frequently as an Englishman misses a penalty.

He helped build real boats as a primary school youngster with his great uncle Charles, helping him to shape and rivet the planks, but his passion for creating model boats came from his dad Hector, who was born in Scotia Place, Falkirk.

The Meek family had built a new house in Major’s Place, which is still there, before emigrating to Canada in 1913 leaving Donald’s father with his grandparents in Tiree.

“My father became a naturalised Gaelic-speaking islander,” said the 63-year-old. “He was also a very clever boat builder too. He built his first boat when he was 16 so building boats comes naturally to me. It’s in my blood.”

Professor Meek has admitted model boat building is “pretty near an obsession” for him as many aspects of his life have centred around the sea.

He travelled regularly on the MacBrayne ships between Oban and Tiree and became fond of the ships and their crews.

Time-served shipwright uncle Charles was also trained in the famous Clyde shipyards and had Donald helping to build boats when he was strong enough to hold a hammer.

In his youth Donald dreamed of going to sea and becoming a captain with MacBrayne (now part of Caledonian MacBrayne), but his vision wasn’t good enough and he couldn’t become a cadet for health reasons.

It was a crushing blow for the young man – however, he went on to become a professor of Celtic and Gaelic studies at both Aberdeen and Edinburgh universities, retiring four years ago.

Donald said: “I’ve never lost my love of the sea. It’s something that will never leave me no matter where I am, so building models is pretty near an obsession for me.”

The pride of his model fleet, the Shamrock, is one he didn’t build himself, but it’s been in his family since 1902 when it was built by uncle Charles and his boss in Falkirk.

It’s a replica of the yacht Sir Thomas Lipton sailed in, the Shamrock II, against the United States for the America’s Cup. The model is one of only a handful of surviving models in the UK of the Victorian period and still has its original mast, yards and sails and stands gallantly at eight feet high when fully rigged.

However, the word ‘rigged’ may have been appropriate when it was up for grabs.

Donald said: “When Charles and his boss finished the Shamrock they offered her as a prize in a raffle. Charles bought a ticket and won the Shamrock, but I think she was meant to stay in the family – not for any other reason I hope.”

The infamous Titanic was another of Donald’s impressive armada on show at a packed Brighton’s Parish Church last Saturday where the exhibition raised just under £900 for Christian charity Vis de Copil whose volunteers work with street children in Romania.

It can either take months or years – three years for Donald’s Titanic – to build a model similar to Donald’s.

“It’s all a question of how much detail you want to put in,” said Donald. “It takes a craftsman’s skills to build one, but they are skills anyone can learn.

“I’ve used plans straight from the shipyard to build models and I always use photographs of the real ships too because sometimes the architectural plans would change during the actual building of the ship, so it wouldn’t then be 100 per cent authentic. Everyone has their different ways to build.

“I’m willing to share the detailed records I have for anyone wishing to build any of the models I have and would love to get a group going in this area if there is enough interest.”