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Last Updated: Friday, 6 April 2007, 06:18 GMT 07:18 UK
Snap, coracle and plop on the waves
Gaelic BBC journalist Teārlach Quinnell has taken his fascination with an ancient boat building technique beyond reading about it in books.

He has recreated the practice of constructing a coracle by making one in a back garden, before putting his craftsmanship to the test on the River Ness.

Here Teārlach reveals the history and the methods of building the little light-weight boats.

The coracle is one of the world's oldest types of boat.

Small, light and manoeuvrable, they are ideally suited to fast-flowing rivers, and are easily transported over land.

Teārlach Quinnell and his coracle (Photo courtesy Robin Brown)

In Scotland, and particularly in the Highlands, they have had major, but largely forgotten cultural and historical significance.

When the remains of the last Scottish coracle - known in Scots Gaelic as a curach - were found in the roof of a farm building near the mouth of the River Spey in the 19th Century, Elgin Museum was given little more than a flattened piece of woven willow and cowhide.

It became the caretaker of the last remnant of a tradition stretching back to the birth of modern Scotland, as well as a clue to the disappearance of the Caledonian pine forest.

When the Scots first crossed over Sruth na Maoile from Ulster and made landfall in Argyll they would have made the sea crossing in curaichean - coracles.

It is quite widely known that Christianity was brought to Scotland shortly afterwards when Calum Cille crossed from Ulster to Iona in a coracle.

Back then their use was quite common. Made from easily obtainable materials, cheap and sea-worthy, they were the obvious choice.

In Britain, coracles are still to be found in England and Wales where they are used for net fishing in certain rivers and creeks as well as angling.

There is also a thriving coracle society, which organises demonstrations of their building and use.

In Ireland, the sea-going curach is still used as a fishing craft and for recreation.

There are some coracles in Scotland, but the only known native design has largely been abandoned.

Its last lease of life - possibly having been re-introduced specially - was for a few years during the 18th Century for use in the timber trade.

In the second half of the 18th Century, rafts of timber from the native pinewoods of Strath Spey were floated down the river to be sold to southern markets.

Teārlach Quinnell in his coracle (Photo courtesy Stefan Brown)
Launching is always a nervous business, not because of the boat, but because of the inevitable crowd of onlookers
Teārlach Quinnell

They were steered by men in coracles, who at the end of the run to the sea picked up their boats and carried them on their backs upstream to take more rafts down one of the fastest and most dangerous rivers in Britain.

That they could do this is testament to their own skill and to the design of a boat that died out as a traditional working craft in Scotland.

Today some builders use cowhide as a very durable covering.

Most coracles are covered with canvas and bitumastic paint or, increasingly, rubber roofing paint.

This is stretched over a frame of either willow or ash laths woven together, or of hazel in the round, with a woven gunwale of the same wood or willow.

The round Spey Curach was unique in having - as far as we can surmise given the condition of the only surviving example - a solidly woven willow frame, rather than the lattice work that is more common.

This made it strong, but heavy with its hide covering - a positive advantage in the fast-flowing Spey.

I've always felt safe in a coracle

My own coracle is a bit of a mixture of a few different designs, using a willow (seileach) gunwale or rim, hazel (calltainn) wands for the body of the frame (crannghal), all built around a seat section of a deal (giuthas) plank with two by two supports.

It's about five feet (1.5m) long, by three and a half wide (1m), and has a depth of about a foot (30cm).

Launching is always a nervous business, not because of the boat, but because of the inevitable crowd of onlookers.

The last thing you want is to inform them that it doesn't leak, and then smack into a submerged shopping trolley, going down like a sieve.

Normally though, with the cries of 'it's a turtle' ringing in your ears from your walk down the street, you find it's stable, and surprisingly fast, particularly considering what others called it.

The Spey Curach (Picture courtesy of Conwy Richards)
The last Spey Curach in Elgin Museum

She only draws about two to three inches (about 7cm) of water with one person on board and is deceptively stable, skimming over the water, even in the strong currents around the islands in the River Ness.

I've always felt safe in a coracle.

There's something reassuring about their stability and shape.

I don't feel trapped as I have felt in a kayak. But more than that, there's something special about them.

They're our native take on the small river boat. They're fairly easy to make and to use, cheap, and look more natural to my eye on a river than a plastic kayak with all the high tech expensive equipment that goes with them.

Also, as folk today try to lessen their impact on the environment, there's something to be said for a boat that uses natural materials, can be built in your back garden, carried on your back and is fairly eco-friendly - especially one with a hide cover.

There is also a great feeling of satisfaction in building and using something that has been part of life in these islands for longer than history records.

See Teārlach Quinnell test his coracle on the water

Bātaichean aotrom na h-aibhne
06 Apr 07 |  Highlands and Islands

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