I was in Malta for a second time a while back and it was only on this visit I noticed the colourful fishing boats native to the island. Don’t ask me how I missed them the first time around as they are painted in red, white, blue, yellow and green and are used on tourist literature, posters and book covers with abandon. I suspect that for me, coming from dreary Ireland, they were all of a piece with the rich island back drop of ultramarine, turquoise, creamy ochre and Indian red. It was only on my second visit that actual objects began to separate out in my minds eye.

Besides their colour, the other notable feature of Maltese boats are the eyes that are painted on the prow and often carved in relief to boot. The eye is said to be the Eye of Osiris or the Eye of Horus, an ancient Egyptian symbol that wards off evil as well as guiding boats. With eyes they can not only see the way ahead but also see where the fish are. I think the eyes give the boats a certain personality which is all the more affecting for being more comical than heroic.


Some boats also sport a bird with a snake in its beak underneath or in place of the eye but I haven’t so far being able to unearth any information about this. Snakes do have a part in Maltese myth. St. Paul was supposedly bitten by one after he was shipwrecked there. When he did not die from the bite it was said that he caused the snakes of Malta lose their poison. The pretty and non-venomous Leopard or Rat snake may have been the culprit. The Blue Rock Thrush is the Maltese National bird and is known to eat reptiles so it is possible some combination of this bird and the Leopard snake is believed to protect those at seas.


It used to be that the colour of the ‘moustache’ above the eye indicated from which harbour the boat came from and fishermen traditionally repaint their boats in the same combination of colours used by their family for generations.

There are a number of variations of vessel;the Ferilla, which is about twenty foot long, the Kajjik (an arabic version of the word caique) which is slightly smaller and the Frejgatina, the smallest one, for all the world like a row boat in carnival clothes. The most common design of boat is called the Luzzu and is based on a design used since at least the 1500s and which, along with the use of the Eye of Osiris, probably originated by the Phoenicians who dominated the culture of the eastern Mediterranean between 1500 and 300 BC. The Phoenicians by the way, are thought to be the forerunners of the Celts. The Phoenician princess Scota, from whom the Irish Scoti took their name before settling Scotland, is said to be buried in Kerry.

Anyhoo…the Luzzu is pointed at both ends with a wide bottom which makes it very stable in rough waters, essential for an island nation and especially one with a capital situated on such a big harbour where ferries are used frequently to this day.


Speaking of the harbour, I have been researching a diary of my Grandfathers’ which was written after his return from the campaign in South Russia launched by Churchill to support the White Russians against the Bolsheviks and which ended in a rout. Though the diary is sparse on descriptions, Vallettas’ Grand Harbour is one of the places he mentions. You will be hearing more about his journey in a future post but for now I will leave you with his short description of the harbour in the Autumn of 1919 as he was sailing towards war…

We arrived at Malta at 2pm on Sunday 9th Nov, 1919. We went ashore & had a jolly time…When our ship entered the harbour of Malta a large number of small boats came all round our ship, the boatmen of which were trying to sell us different things such as fags, fruit, chocolate and silks. ..These boats…are traditionally called bum-boats… There were other small boats around us in which there were boys…who were diving for pieces of silver which were being thrown to them from our ship. These lads are born swimmers…Malta itself is a beautiful place.




Cummins, P., (2016), In Love With Malta, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Diaper, T., (2016), Tom Diaper’s Logbook: Memoirs of a Racing Skipper, London:Bloomsbury.

Drinkwater, D., (2011),The Olive Route: A Personal Journey to the Heart of the Mediterranean, London:Hachette., (2017), Maltese History & Heritage:Fishing in Malta, [online], available at [accessed 27/01/2017].

Scott, G., (1920), From Buckinghamshire to South Russia & Return Journey, Scott Family Papers.

Smylie, M., (2013), Traditional Fishing Boats of Europe, Stroud:Amberley Publishing., (2017), Maltese History & Heritage:Fishing in Malta, [online], available at [accessed 27/01/2017].











17 responses to “BOATS OF MALTA

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