The coracle is a small, roundish shaped, lightweight boat of the sort traditionally used in Wales but also in parts of Western and South West England, Ireland (particularly the River Boyne), and Scotland (particularly the River Spey); the word is also used of similar boats found in India, Vietnam, Iraq and Tibet. The word "coracle" comes from the Welsh cwrwgl, cognate with Irish and Scottish Gaelic currach, and is recorded in English as early as the sixteenth century. Other historical English spellings include corougle, corracle, curricle and coricle.
Oval in shape and very similar to half a walnut shell, the structure is made of a framework of split and interwoven willow rods, tied with willow bark. The outer layer was originally an animal skin such as horse or bullock hide (corium), with a thin layer of tar to make it fully waterproof – today replaced by tarred calico or canvas, or simply fibreglass. The Vietnamese/Asian version of the coracle is made somewhat differently: using interwoven bamboo and waterproofed by using resin and coconut oil. The structure has a keel-less, flat bottom to evenly spread the weight of the boat and its load across the structure and to reduce the required depth of water – often to only a few inches, making it ideal for use on rivers.
Each coracle is unique in design, as it is tailored to the river conditions where it was built and intended to be used. In general there is one design per river, but this is not always the case. The Teifi coracle, for instance, is flat-bottomed, as it is designed to negotiate shallow rapids, common on the river in the summer, while the Carmarthen coracle is rounder and deeper, because it is used in tidal waters on the Tywi, where there are no rapids. Teifi coracles are made from locally harvested wood – willow for the laths (body of the boat), hazel for the weave (Y bleth in Welsh – the bit round the top) – while Tywi coracles have been made from sawn ash for a long time. The working boats tend to be made from fibreglass these days. Teifi coracles use no nails, relying on the interweaving of the laths for structural coherence, whilst the Carmarthen ones use copper nails and no interweaving.
They are an effective fishing vessel because, when powered by a skilled person, 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; two coracles to a net. The coracle is propelled by means of a broad-bladed paddle, which traditionally varies in design between different rivers. It is used in a sculling action, 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.
Another important aspect to the Welsh Coracle is that it can be carried on his back by one person. 'Llwyth dyn ei gorwgl' — the load of a man is his coracle. (Welsh saying).
Designed for use in swiftly flowing streams, the coracle has been in use in the British Isles for centuries, having been noted by Julius Caesar in his invasion of Britain in the mid first century BC, and used in his campaigns in Spain. Remains interpreted as a possible coracle were found in an Early Bronze Age grave at Barns Farm near Dalgety Bay, and others have been described, from Corbridge and from near North Ferriby.
According to Ian Harries, coracle fisherman, coracles are so light and portable that they can easily be carried on the fisherman's shoulders when proceeding to and from his work. Coracle fishing is performed by two coraclers. Where fishing is performed by two people, there is one fisherman per coracle. The net is stretched across the river between the two coracles (the coracler will paddle one handed, dragging the net in the other) and drawn downstream. 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 secured, using a priest (or knocker – a small block of wood) to stun the fish.
In the 1920s and 30s James Hornell personally visited hundreds of rivers in the British Isles to talk with remaining coracle makers and users, in order to save the tradition. This resulted in his major book British Coracles and the Curraghs of Ireland (The Society for Nautical Research, 1938) containing drawings, diagrams and construction details gleaned from regular makers.
Coracles are now seen regularly only in tourist areas of West Wales, and irregularly in Shropshire on the River Severn – a public house in Sundorne, Shrewsbury called "The Coracle" has a pub sign featuring a man using a coracle on a river. The Welsh Rivers Teifi and Tywi are the best places to find coracles in Wales, although the type of coracle differs depending on the river. On the Teifi they are most frequently seen between Cenarth, and Cilgerran and the village of Llechryd.
In 1974 a Welsh coracle piloted by Bernard Thomas (~1923-2014) of Llechryd crossed the English Channel to France in 13½ hours. The journey was undertaken to demonstrate how the Bull Boats of the Mandan Indians of North Dakota could have been copied from coracles introduced by Prince Madog in the 12th century.
For many years until 1979, Shrewsbury coracle maker Fred Davies achieved some notability amongst football fans; he would sit in his coracle during Shrewsbury Town FC home matches at Gay Meadow, and retrieve stray balls from the River Severn. Although Davies died in 1994, his legend is still associated with the club.
The Coracle Society
The Coracle Society is a UK-based organisation was founded in 1990 by its former president, Sir Peter Badge. The five founding aims of the Society were:
- To promote the knowledge of coracles, curraghs and allied craft, their making and use, and also their study and collection,
- To take all reasonable steps to support the continuance of fishing involving the use of coracles and to encourage the holding of coracle regattas, races and the like,
- To publish a newsletter as a means of communication between all those interested in coracles,
- To use its best endeavours to obtain supplies of materials for the construction of coracles, and
- To promote demonstrations, courses, exhibitions, discussions and lectures relating to coracles.
The current president of the Society is Dr Irving Finkel, Assistant Keeper in the Department if the Middle East at the British Museum, who is known for decoding a cuneiform tablet detailing Noah's Ark - the description of which resembles a very large coracle. The current Society chairperson is Jude Pilgrim, a committee member of the Heritage Lottery Fund. She recently played an instrumental part in setting up the Ironbridge Coracle Trust, formed to save the Eustace Rogers coracle hut in Ironbridge from demolition.
There are many Society members across the country who demonstrate at events and/or run coracle building courses, helping meet the Society's founding aims. A list of some of this year's events can be found on the official Coracle Society website.
The Society was present at the 2005 Shrewsbury River Festival, where they displayed various coracles on the River Severn. There is also an annual coracle regatta held in Ironbridge on the August Bank Holiday Monday every year. Organised by the Green Wood Centre until 2014 and the Ironbridge Coracle Trust from 2015, it is run on an informal basis whereby anyone with a coracle can take part in the event. Each year new entrants come with coracles made on the Bank Holiday weekend at the Green Wood Centre.
In 2010, the Society celebrated its 20th anniversary with a number of events planned to recognise this important milestone, including a morning of talks at the National Coracle Centre in Cenarth. In 2015, the Society celebrated its 25th anniversary at its founding home of St Fagans National History Museum. A number of events took place, including a talk from Dr Irving Finkel about his experiences decoding the Noah tablet and making the accompanying Channel 4 documentary. The Society also supported the return of coracles and coracle regattas to Welshpool in 2015.
The design of the craft, as explained above, makes the coracle an unstable craft. Because it sits "on" the water, rather than "in" it, the vessel can easily be carried by currents and the wind. The Coracle Society has published guidelines for safely using coracles.
The oldest instructions yet found for construction of a coracle are contained in precise directions on a four-thousand-year-old cuneiform tablet supposedly dictated by the Mesopotamian god Enki to Atra-Hasis on how to build a round "ark". The tablet is about 2,250 years older than previously discovered accounts of flood myths, none of which contain such details. The earliest known written evidence of a coracle-type boat (quffa), still in use today, is in the Bible, Exodus 2:3.
The Irish curach (also currach or curragh) is a similar, but larger, vessel still in use today. Curachs were also used in the west of Scotland:
The curach or boat of leather and wicker may seem to moderns a very unsafe vehicle, to trust to tempestuous seas, yet our forefathers fearlessly committed themselves in these slight vehicles to the mercy of the most violent weather. They were once much in use in the Western Isles of Scotland, and are still found in Wales. The framework [in Gaelic] is called crannghail, a word now used in Uist to signify a frail boat.
The currachs in the River Spey were particularly similar to Welsh coracles. Other related craft include:
- India – parisal
- Iraq – kuphar or quffa
- Native American societies – bull boat
- Tibet – ku-dru and kowas
- Vietnam – thung-chai
Indian coracles (Tamil:பரிசல், Kannada:ಹರಗೋಲು,ತೆಪ್ಪ) are commonly found on the rivers Kaveri and Tungabhadra in Southern India. Coracles are primitive, light, bowl-shaped boats with a frame of woven grasses, reeds, or saplings covered with hides. Indian coracles are considered to have been in existence since prehistoric times, and are a major tourist attraction at the Hogenakkal falls on the Kaveri river. Although these boats were originally designed for general transport, they have recently been used mostly for giving tourists rides.
The coracles found in the Hogenakkal are of two types, which differ mainly in size. The smaller ones are about 6.2 feet (1.9 metres) in diameter, and are used primarily for fishing. The larger ones, which measure up to 8.4 feet (2.6 metres) in diameter, are used for tourists.
Indian coracles are either saucer or bowl shaped and circular, with the greatest diameter across the mouth. The circular coracles in Iraq are very similar, but they have convexly curved sides, and thus the mouth is not the widest part. Indian coracles are on average about 7.3 feet (2.24 metres) in diameter, but can still hold eight people at a time. Other kinds of coracles usually can only hold one person. Indian coracles, and coracles in general, are made of bamboo and take about a day to build, given all the necessary materials. The bottoms of the boats are covered in hides, or sometimes with sheets of plastic, in order to make them waterproof. In modern times, a sheet of LDPE plastic is often embedded between two layers of bamboo. Sometimes the bottom of the craft is tarred to make it waterproof. Coracles are steered and propelled using a single paddle, making them unique.
The boats are made primarily from bamboo. The first step in construction is a basic framework woven from bamboo sticks. Then the bottom is further reinforced with the addition of more bamboo sticks, making the boat's base sturdy. Once the bottom is structurally sound, the lowest points of the sides are defined by a circumferential band of three flat strips of bamboo woven into the existing lattice. The sides of the boat are then made with 20 to 30 adjacent strips of bamboo. Finally this framework is again strengthened by lightweight bamboo, making sure that the sides are not heavier than the base.
The boats had earlier been waterproofed by using hides of animals, but these days plastic sheets are used for this purpose as they are cheaper as well as easily available. The waterproofing is further enhanced by a layer of tar, a feature which is common in most contemporary coracles.
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- The official website of The Coracle Society
- The National Coracle Centre at Cenarth Falls
- The Coracle Maker – website of coracle maker Terry Kenny
- World of Coracles website
- BBC Legacies – Coracles article
- World of Boats (EISCA) Collection ~ Parisal from Tamil Nadu, Southern India
- Coracle ferries in Hampi
- Historical note from the Coracle Society of Wales
- Brief history and design principles
- Coracle making courses at Green Wood Centre
- The Welsh Coracle
- Coracle-making courses at Assington Mill, Suffolk
- Annual Coracle Regatta