These were small boats used on rivers and lochs. Bigger versions could be used on the sea too. They had a woven framework of willow and often hazel, covered in animal hide. These are some of the world’s earliest boats. Latterly calico or canvas has been used instead of the hide. This is covered with tar to make it waterproof. The boats were used for fishing and sometimes for transport. These river boats were very light and could be carried on the back. They also could go into very shallow water because of their small draught.
Such coracles were used on the River Spey. Maurice Bichard notes that these were ‘closely woven in split willow with the stakes finally lashed onto a hazel rim (gunwhale)’. The seat was a plank of wood and the boat was manoeuvred with a single paddle with a figure of eight stroke at the front of the coracle. The construction of these Spey coracles differs from the more open framework of coracles in other places. The Spey design would have been heavier and stronger which would help in its manoeuvrability in the fast flowing river.
The Elgin Museum houses one of the old coracles. It was found in the roof of a farm building at the mouth of the river Spey and was donated to the museum at some point between 1859 and 1868. However it had lost the strength of its original structure and was a flattened form of the hide with some of the woven willow inside plus the wooden seat and paddle. This coracle appears to be round although the Reverend Shaw writing in 1775 describes the Spey coracles as oval and being 4′ by about 3′. But maybe both shapes were used. The dimensions of the one in Elgin Museum are: diameter 1450 mm; paddle length 1150 mm; seat length 1140 mm/width 280 mm. When the coracle was displayed in the International Exhibition in Glasgow in 1901
it was said to be upwards of 300yrs old.
Coracles were used on the Spey in the eighteenth century for a different purpose… the timber trade. This was the time when the native scots pine forests of the Strath Spey were being cut down and sold. The rafts of timber were guided down the river by men in coracles to the sea. This was a distance of twenty to thirty miles. To keep the raft straight a coracle went ahead with a horsehair rope attached to the raft. This tow rope could have been held in one hand whilst the other hand did the paddling. This was assisted by a man walking along the opposite banks with ropes attached to the end of the raft to check undue velocity and steer it. Once at the sea the men got out, put the coracles on their backs and walked back upstream to get the next raft. This was dangerous and skilled work as the Spey is one of the fastest rivers in Britain. It also shows how well designed these small craft were to survive such conditions. Around 1730 there were 18 coracles being used on the Spey for this work. The first reference to this practice comes from 1701 in a letter to the Earl of Findlater.
The first historical reference to coracle use in Scotland is from 1487 when net fishing rights were granted to coracle users. There are also historical references to coracle use on the Tay, in Glendochart, in Fife, and in Ross-shire. Oral tradition tells us that coracles were used to ferry people across Loch Dunvegan in Skye from one of the prophesies of ‘Coinneach Ohdar’ , that Clanranald had boats of hide with him at Loch Moy at the end of the fifteenth century and that coracles were in use in Argyle.
Irish coracle design involved willow or hazel rods being stuck into the ground and then a gunwhale being woven around them in willow or hazel. This is similar to creel construction. Both are made upside down and creels also generally use a mouthwale to start off. Holes can be made in a piece of timber to act as a seat and this is put into place with rods going through this from the start otherwise the seat is added afterwards using willow ties. After that the rods are bent over and tied together. A board with stones on is put onto the coracle is used to keep the bottom flat and even for three days. Then the uprights are bound together using twine. The board and stones is put back on for five to seven days before being levered out of the ground. These are often oval. Joe Hogan notes that when using hazel it is allowed to season for about a month before use. In England and Wales coracles were made the other way up with the ribs being bent upwards from the floor and tied to a hoop of hazel that forms the gunwhale like the Spey
coracle. Coracles were and continue to be made in ash lath also. The framework of coracles would often only last about four years but the hides would have been reused.
Coracles were also used in the Western Isles. Dwelly’s lists ‘curach’ as the gaelic word for coracle and notes the willow framework was known as ‘crannaghal’ . This last name has continued in its use in Uist to mean a frail boat.
Historically it was in a coracle that Calum Cille made it to Iona from Ulster and also generally how the Scots from the Ulster area came across the sea and landed in Argyll.
Who made these coracles? Maybe it was a tradition, a bit like creel making, in that they were made by those intending to use them and the techniques were passed on in the family or community. It may well have been the same individuals using their willow harvesting and weaving knowledge that made baskets, creels and coracles.
By Dawn Susan
Peter Badge ‘Coracles of the World’. Peter’s excellent book is to be recommended for anyone interested in these fascinating craft.
Maurice Bichard ‘Baskets of Europe’
Dwelly’s online English -Gaelic Dictionary
Joe Hogan ‘Basketmaking in Ireland’ 2001
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/highlands_and_islands/6519503.stm Accessed 17/12/13
http://www.seanhellman.com/woodwork/coracles.php Accessed 17/12/13
With thanks to Diane McGregor for the photographs and to Heather Townsend at the Elgin Museum for extra information.