In­trigu­ing images of cur­ragh – the old­est type of boat still in use on Bri­tish rivers

The Oban Times - - Leisure -

IN THE Oban Times’ rich ar­chive, I found in­trigu­ing images of the old­est type of boat still in use on Bri­tish rivers, the cur­ragh, in ac­tion on a loch near Kil­martin Mu­seum 20 years ago.

Bowl-shaped and flat-bot­tomed like a walnut- shell, the cur­ragh would be one of the few things recog­nis­able to a vis­i­tor to our times from the Bronze Age.

The cur­rach or cur­ragh in Scots and Ir­ish Gaelic, or cor­a­cle in Wales and Eng­land from the Welsh cwr­wgl, was for cen­turies used for trans­port or fish­ing. Typ­i­cally they were oval in shape, made of a frame­work of split and in­ter­wo­ven wil­low rods, tied with wil­low bark, with an outer layer of an­i­mal skin such as horse or bul­lock hide, with a thin layer of tar to make it fully wa­ter­proof, and a plank of wood for a seat. Each cor­a­cle is unique in de­sign, tai­lored to the wa­ter con­di­tions where it was built and in­tended to be used, whether in rivers, lochs or seas.

Co­r­a­cles could go into very shal­low wa­ter be­cause of their small draught, and they are also very sta­ble – as they need to be if the fish­er­man is haul­ing up a strug­gling sal­mon. Weigh­ing be­tween 25 and 40 pounds, they are so light and por­ta­ble they can eas­ily be car­ried on your shoul­ders and hung out­side your cot­tage door.

They are an ef­fec­tive fish­ing ves­sel be­cause, when pow­ered by a per­son skilled in the art of ‘cor­a­cling’ ( pad­dling a cor­a­cle), they hardly dis­turb the wa­ter or the fish, and they can be eas­ily ma­noeu­vred with one arm, while the other arm tends to the net, with two co­r­a­cles to a net. When a fish is caught, each hauls up an end of the net un­til the two co­r­a­cles are brought to touch, and the fish is then landed, us­ing a priest or knocker to stun it.

The cor­a­cle is pro­pelled by means of a broad-bladed pad­dle, which tra­di­tion­ally varies in de­sign be­tween rivers. It is used in a sculling ac­tion, with the blade de­scrib­ing a fig­ure- of- eight pat­tern in the wa­ter. The pad­dle is used to­wards the front of the cor­a­cle, pulling the boat for­ward, with the pad­dler fac­ing in the di­rec­tion of travel.

The Celts were us­ing sea­far­ing co­r­a­cles in Julius Cae­sar’s day, and voyagers in the western seas in Ir­ish cur­raghs may have reached the New World cen­turies be­fore Colum­bus. Ac­cord­ing to leg­end St Bren­dan the Nav­i­ga­tor, the sixth cen­tury Ir­ish pa­tron saint of mariners, trav­ellers, el­derly ad­ven­tur­ers, whales and ca­noes who brought Chris­tian­ity to Lorn, sailed a cur­ragh of oak and tanned hides to Amer­ica, 900 years be­fore Christo­pher Colum­bus in 1492.

Around the same time, so one of many sto­ries go, an Ir­ish chief­tain named Columba be­came em­broiled in a copy­right dis­pute over the ‘Cathach of Columba’, the ear­li­est ex­am­ple of Ir­ish writ­ing, caus­ing the slaugh­ter of thou­sands of sol­diers. Over­whelmed by re­morse, Columba left Ire­land to atone by win­ning as many souls for Christ as had been lost in bat­tle.

Driven into ex­ile, in 563AD Columba ploughed the stormy, dan­ger­ous seas to Scot­land in frail wicker and hide co­r­a­cles with 12 sea-far­ing monks to con­vert the pa­gan Picts to Chris­tian­ity. His mis­sion landed at last on Iona, at Port-na- Cu­raich (‘the Cove of the Cor­a­cle’), and atop Carn Cul-Ri-Erin (‘the Cairn of the Back-to-Erin’) Columba scanned the south­ern hori­zon, sat­is­fied Ire­land, Erin, was out of sight.

‘The first his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ence to cor­a­cle use in Scot­land is from 1487 when net fish­ing rights were granted to cor­a­cle users,’ writes Dawn Su­san on the Scot­tish Bas­ket­mak­ers’ Cir­cle web­site, Wo­ven Com­mu­ni­ties: ‘There are also his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ences to co­r­a­cles on the Tay, in Glen­dochart, in Fife, and in Ross-shire. Oral tra­di­tion says 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 15th cen­tury and that co­r­a­cles were in use in Ar­gyll.

‘Co­r­a­cles were used on the Spey in the eigh­teenth cen­tury for a dif­fer­ent pur­pose … the tim­ber trade, 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 – a dis­tance of twenty to thirty miles. This was dan­ger­ous and skilled work as the Spey is one of the fastest rivers in Bri­tain. It shows how well de­signed th­ese small craft were to sur­vive such con­di­tions.

‘Co­r­a­cles were also used in the Western Isles. The wil­low frame­work was known as ‘cran­naghal’. This last name has con­tin­ued in its use in Uist to mean a frail boat.’

Co­r­a­cles have not been seen in Scot­land for 150 years, but they were in use in Ire­land un­til the late 1940s. They are, how­ever, found nowa­days in three Welsh rivers, the Teifi, the Towy and the Taf, where they are used for net fish­ing. The Cor­a­cle So­ci­ety, formed in 1990, pro­motes the use and his­tory of th­ese craft, and seeks to pre­serve and pro­tect the tra­di­tion of old cor­a­cle mak­ers and users, and the Na­tional Cor­a­cle Cen­tre can be found at Ce­narth Falls, New­cas­tle Em­lyn, Dyfed.

Cur­ragh at Kil­martin open day.

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