Four emblems representing key themes of Sailmaker: family relationships, grieving, social class, and religion

Family relationships

A main theme of the play is family relationships. The four characters belong to the same family, although the two father-son relationships differ. Alec and Davie’s family situation is forced to change at the start of the play with the death of Alec's mother.

At the end, it changes again, as Alec chooses to leave the family home and live by himself when he goes to university. Billy and Ian's home life remains static throughout. This symbolises their lives and ambitions as, even when redundancy forces them to seek work elsewhere, they both move to Aberdeen.

Davie is presented as a traditional Scottish working man who cares about his family and shows few feelings. Even when Alec recalls learning of his mother’s death, his father’s words are honest, blunt and unemotional Ah’ve got a bit of bad news for ye son… Yer mammy’s dead. Davie makes no attempt to soften the blow and no reference is made in the stage directions to him holding or comforting his son.

We learn that he turns away and says Ah’ll make a cuppa tea... It is only in a soliloquy that he reveals his feelings of grief. This indicates that, while Davie cares deeply for his son, they are not close and cannot communicate in an open way with one another. This is why it is perhaps easier for Alec to choose his own direction in life at the end of the play.

At the start of the play, Alec is both proud and supportive of his father. He boasts about his father’s trade as a sailmaker to Ian, whose attempt to deflate this by reminding Alec his dad is a tick man is ignored.

He sees an opportunity for Davie to return to his trade when he finds the yacht and asks Davie to make a sail, only to be let down when Davie does not get around to it. Billy, by contrast, promises to paint the yacht, and he and Alec enthusiastically discuss colours. The job is completed within a few days.

Cousins Ian and Alec get on well at the start of the play and are seen playing action and adventure games, football, discussing comics and making bows and arrows together. They have a mutual interest in Rangers and like the same music. However, even at this young age, Alec is seen as more sensitive and intellectual than Ian, who is practical and loves football.

Ian has no interest in girls and teases Alec when he admits he likes Maureen. He also mocks Alec when he finds the holy medal and is shocked his cousin would keep a Catholic symbol. Davie’s influence is clear when Alec does not reject the medal as a symbol of another faith but keeps it, reasoning A just sorta … liked it. This demonstrates his open-mindedness.

Billy is largely supportive of Davie, although he fails to understand his grief and believes he needs to pull himself together. His attempt to scare off the bookie to whom Davie owes money ends in failure when the firm closes and all are made redundant. The family separate when Billy and Ian move to Aberdeen in search of work, leaving Davie and Alec behind in Govan.

It is clear from his reading that Davie is a clever man and he impresses upon Alec the importance of a good education and a decent job. Ironically, this leads to the final breakdown in their relationship as Alec's learning encourages him to seek out new opportunities and distances him intellectually from his father.

When he goes to private school Alec is already climbing the social ladder out of Govan, leaving behind his father, who is upset over their lack of communication:

Can ye no talk tae me these days? Can ye no tell me anything? Think ah came fae another planet.