Prominent in Girvan since 1946
Entering the reception of Alexander Noble & Sons Limited is like stepping back in time. It reminds me of an old-fashioned ironmongery: shelves stacked floor to ceiling with nuts, washers and screws, all neatly labelled alongside tins of paint, filler and tubes of adhesive. A wooden ladder rests against a high shelf and a metallic smell hangs in the air. That, however, is where the similarity to Arkwright’s ends.
My attention is immediately drawn to the display of photographs on the wall, some of which are black and white, others, taken more recently, boast colour. What they all have in common is that every single one of them shows a boat built in Girvan by Noble & Sons.
The business was set up in 1946 by Alexander Noble. His photograph is also prominently displayed, taken on 4th July 1989, 70 years to the day since he started work as an apprentice.
“There was an opportunity after the war,” Alastair Noble (Alexander’s grandson) tells me. “Boats had been requisitioned, the country needed food. The government put money into building new fishing boats and that is what Alexander was able to do.”
We’re joined by Director, Kevin Livingstone, who started work at the boat yard aged 16. The two men clearly have a lot of respect for each other and both are passionate about the yard, its history and its continued standing in the community.
“There was nothing here,” says Kevin. “It was just wasteland. They mapped out an area and started building the first boat. They never had a slipway or anything. There was lots of manual labour… no machinery. It’s remarkable.”
By “they”, he means Alexander and his sons, Peter and James.
The business soon gained a reputation for its finely crafted, wooden fishing vessels resulting in it building a total of 137 boats. The last of these was launched around ten years ago.
“Things changed,” says Kevin. “It used to be wooden boats, but then people started building steel.”
Recognising the shift, the company moved on to building steel boats. But steel wasn’t entirely alien to its skilled workers.
“The company very successfully made the transition,” Alastair explains. “Wooden boats were quite simple, built of almost all wood. But the wheelhouses got bigger and became built of steel or aluminium. Nevertheless, it was quite a big leap.”
Although still more than capable of building boats, the company’s primary role is now marine engineering services which includes the repair, refit and maintenance of steel workboats as well as major hull repairs on wooden vessels.
Whilst maintaining traditional skills and values, the company has always been forward thinking and been able to keep up with the ever-changing needs and demands of its customers. This was never more evident than two years ago when they invested in a £350,000 mobile crane.
“We needed a big crane for the work we do,” Kevin admits. “It’s a big, big outlay for a small company.”
That said, with 30 employees all from the local area, it’s important for the yard to remain competitive and to do that, it must invest. In that respect, it’s no different to any other business. Likewise, it has to deal with and manage disappointment.
“We were one of three yards in the UK who were doing the planned maintenance on all of the all-weather lifeboats for the RNLI,” Alastair informs me. “We did that for 25 years. We would start on one boat, then 16 or 17 weeks later we’d finish that and start the next one, non-stop.”
Unfortunately, the contract came to an end five years ago when the Institution transferred the servicing of its boats to its All-weather Lifeboat Centre in Poole, Dorset.
“We had 12 people employed full-time on that project,” Kevin tells me, the disappoint still obvious. But he doesn’t dwell. Instead, he talks about other ways of ensuring the yard’s longevity.
“We’re looking at another big project… slipway rails.”
“It’s labour intensive to get a boat up out of the water,” adds Alastair. “In Kevin’s dreams he’d like a Syncrolift but the site doesn’t lend itself to that.”
The two men share a smile before showing me an aerial picture of Girvan. There’s no denying the boat yard looks both central and significant but it also demonstrates how limited it is for space. It would certainly struggle to accommodate a multi-million-pound hydraulic platform, much to Kevin’s regret.
“Nothing’s impossible,” continues Alastair, “but then you’d lose the flexibility with the facilities you already have.”
The conversation seems to yo-yo from the original boat building days, spoken of with an element of nostalgia, to the present day and the constant need to keep abreast of change.
But the reality is, according to Kevin, that repairing boats is more lucrative than building them.
“When you’re building boats, you’re feeding the tiger. Once you’d finished that boat, you had to have another boat to build. It was a cut-throat business. We found you actually do better repairing them than building them.”
Nonetheless, they share a sense of pride at the fishing boats that wear the Noble & Sons crest.
“Our boats always had the traditional yellow thistle welded or engraved at the bow,” Kevin tells me. “That represented a Noble’s build.”
And it’s still possible, of course, that they may be required to service or repair one of their own vessels.
“We just had the Village Belle come back and it had the original shaft,” Kevin continues. “It’s over 50 years old and it’s still working. We had the Maureen Patricia come back to get the steering done and it’s away back to sea again.”
“The whole thing about the names is very interesting too,” Alastair interjects. “A lot of them were girl’s names but a lot of them were names like Integrity, Providence, Faithful, Good Hope. There are even some boats named after men.”
Talk of the names prompts him to tell me of an interesting collection of photographs, each taken on the day the Noble boats were launched. There’s one such picture displayed on the wall, champagne foam dominating the image.
“It was a special day when the boats launched. It could be a wee girl of 3 or 6, or it could be an older lady, or a young girl in her prime. The fashion alone is interesting. There’s one lady… in seamed stockings.”
“Fishermen are very superstitious,” adds Kevin. “It used to be they would never put anything with swans on. And they would never mention the ‘s’ word (salmon), it was always called the ‘queer fella’. A rat was a ‘long tail’. And they wouldn’t want a boat launched on a Friday!”
It has to be said, Kevin is quite the raconteur but it’s Alastair who tells me of one memorable job way back in 1968.
“You’d read about this storm in the history books, it was quite something. These two boats were torn from their moorings and cast up on a rocky shore 30-40 feet from the reach of a high tide. It was a major operation to salvage both boats. We had ways of jacking the boats up… sometimes with just wedges and blocks and willpower. Eventually, we were able to slide them back into the water and they made their way here for repairs.”
There was also an unusual job at Ardnamurchan involving a boat that had almost completely sunk. Alastair shows me a photograph of the part-submerged vessel and I find it hard to believe they not only got it back floating but they recovered it to Girvan and refitted the whole thing.
One thing’s for sure, no two days are ever the same. Maybe that’s why, having recently celebrated his 70th birthday, Alastair is yet to retire?
“He was down here stoking the fire when he was five years old,” Kevin says, answering on behalf of his friend and colleague. “There used to be a coal fire in the office. He was down here every Saturday morning.”
Although he admits to cutting down his hours, Alastair doesn’t appear to have any definite plans to retire. It seems to be a family trait. Alexander lived to 88 without ever having retired. James Noble, Alistair’s uncle, also spent many years at the yard.
“He would work from eight in the morning and he’d be the last one out of the premises at six o’clock. He would not stop… beyond coming in for a drink of cold water. He worked here since he was 15 until he was almost 87. Beat that!”
“Alastair’s dad, Peter, was the same,” adds Kevin. “I don’t think he ever slowed down to see what he’d actually achieved.”
Although Alastair is the only member of the Noble family still involved in the business, the future of the company is in good hands. Several members of staff have worked at the yard for over 40 years and it’s clear that Kevin and his team take pride in what they do. After all, Noble’s is as much a part of Girvan as Ailsa Craig. The town just wouldn’t be the same without it.