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