The making of coracles (also known as ‘currachs’, ‘bull boats’, ‘quffas’ and ‘parasils’), small, keel-less boats, traditionally used for fishing or transport. See the separate entry for general boat building. .
|Historic area of significance||Wales and River Severn|
|Area currently practised||UK|
|Origin in the UK||Bronze Age|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)|
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
||Calico 25-30; Hide 3-4 (see ‘Other information’ for further details)|
|Current no. of trainees||Calico 20-25; Hide 0 (see ‘Other information’ for further details)|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required||Unknown (see ‘Other information’ for further details)|
The coracle is a small keel-less boat with very little draft, and is usually light enough to be carried by one person. The name comes from the welsh word ‘corwgl’. There is evidence of the use of coracles from the early Bronze Age, and perhaps as far back as the Ice Age. They are found all of over the world, and it is likely that such basic vessels came into use simultaneously in different regions.
The history of coracle making is closely related to the uses to which they were put over the centuries. The Iceni would have used them in the shallow waters of the Fens and there is evidence that Caesar, having seen them in Britain, used them in his expedition against Pompey to transport his troops across the Segre when the bridges had been washed away. Pliny, in his account of Britain, speaks of a six day navigation in the open sea in coracles.
In the west of Britain coracles were sometimes used along the coast, but the majority would be found on the larger rivers of Wales and the border counties. Erasmus Philipps, recounts fishing on the Tywi in 1717 “in a sort of boat called a coracle which is made of hoops, and pitch’d blanketing and is portable.” Many later tour reports record various types of construction of coracles. In 1760 W. Linnard “saw here the portable fishing boats made of horsehides, [coracles] which the inhabitants here use for their fishing in the springtime. It was one and a half yards long and one wide and so light that the man can put it on his back and carry it home with him together with his basket. It was rowed with one paddle which the man operated with his hands without supporting it against the boat. This was made inside of thin wooden laths, which hold the boat in its shape.”
Where transport was needed to cross rivers, especially before there were toll free bridges, the coracle was larger, to accommodate the ferryman and his passenger. This was also true on the upper Dee near Llangollen, where landowners would employ coracle men to take their guests angling.
It was only at the beginning of the 19th century that coracles were adapted for net fishing, with a pair of boats stretching a net between them. Malkin tells us that, “There is scarcely a cottage in the neighbourhood of the Tivy . . . without its coracle hanging by the door.” Jenkins reports an estimate that by 1861 there were 300 coracles being worked on the Teifi alone.
The earliest forms would have been made of green poles lashed together with twine made from animal hair, and covered with the skin of a large animal. The fat from the animal would have been used to waterproof the skin. The maximum size would be dependent on the size of animal used. In most areas the poles were replaced by thin laths, of either ash or willow. Originally they would have been cleaved and formed using hand tools, but now they are usually made in a saw mill. The laths are then interwoven or in some cases nailed together. The gunwale is either formed from more laths to hold the top of the frame together, or is made of woven willow or hazel rods. The seat is either worked into the gunwale weaving or is nailed on across the top. A carrying strap is fixed to the seat. The original twisted willow gave way to leather and rope, but has now sometimes been replaced by thick electricity cable.
By the 18th century hide covers were being replaced by flannel that had been soaked in a melted pitch. This was in turn replaced by calico or canvas that was painted in a pitch and turpentine mixture. The waterproofing is now usually done with bitumen paint. People are now exploring other coverings, and at least one maker uses the pvc coated fabric produced for the curtains on ‘soft-sider’ lorries, which does not require waterproofing.
There has been an increase in the production and use of fibreglass coracles. They have the advantages of lasting much longer than ones with canvas cover, being less likely to be damaged by rocks in the water, and being repairable. The remaining fishermen on the Tywi made their own mould from an original handmade coracle.
Instructions on how to build a coracle can be found on the website of the Coracle Society.
The size, shape and materials used in coracles vary across the UK, and the Coracle Society identifies more than twenty different coracle types in the UK. The types are usually named after the rivers they were used on, although those from rivers with several types tend to be named after their locale.The Coracle Society identifies the following types – Teifi, Tywi (Towy), Taf, Cleddau, Llwchwr, Usk, Wye, Dyfi, Welshpool, Dee, Llangollen, Conwy, Dwyryd, Severn – Ironbridge, Severn – Shrewsbury, Teme (derivative of the Ironbridge), Avon, Bewdley, Spey, Boyne, Donegal.
The Teifi coracle is the easiest to identify, with its flattish prow coming in to a ‘waist’ at the central seat and a smaller semicircular stern. It sits deeper in the water than most other coracles as the user has to cope with some very turbulent water. Other varieties are more saucer shaped allowing the boat to ‘skim’ across the more gentle waters of rivers such as the Tywi.
The Ironbrdge and Shrewsbury varieties tend to be the staple of coracle making courses. They are simple craft for beginners to make in a weekend, and are ideally suited for first time coraclers on the water.
Dimensions varied considerably, as each traditional coracle was originally made for a particular fisherman, whose height and weight had to be taken into account. This will still be done for specific commissions, but the coracle made on a weekend course will be from laths pre-cut to a standard length.
Further details about coracle types can be found on the website of the Coracle Society
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
As the coracle is a purely functional object, the viability of coracle making is totally dependent on the uses to which it can be put in the foreseeable future. The issue is complicated by the growing use of fibreglass coracles. Whilst coracle making itself may not be endangered, the skills involved in producing a traditional vessel may well be in danger of being lost.
Regulation: Commercial netting of migratory fish provided the main demand for coracles until the mid-19th century. In 1863, the introduction of the licence fee greatly reduced the number of coracles made and used on the rivers of west Wales. During the 1930’s, the river authorities decided that angling as a sport would be more profitable if there were no nets on non-tidal sections of west Wales rivers. At this time, a licence lasted the holder a lifetime, and could be passed down from father to son. As each holder died, these licences were revoked, but it would take 40 years to clear the fishermen and their nets from the upper reaches of these rivers. Only 12 licences are now issued per season to fish the tidal sections of the Teifi. Eight are issued for the river Tywi, and only one licenced pair can fish the river Taf from St Clares. The season on all rivers is limited to five months – between 1st March and 31st July. If angling interests succeed in removing all netsmen from the rivers, the commercial need for coracles will disappear. At the moment young people are still following the family tradition of coracle fishing, but there is no longer the possibility of making a living from the occupation, so it has at best become a secondary source of income, and mostly a hobby that pays for itself. For example, there now only about 750 fish landed from the Tywi each year. Viability is partly dependent on what one fisherman remembers about his own involvement: “When I was young and not particularly interested in coracle fishing, my father said to me, ‘It’s in your blood and it will come to you.’ When I was approaching my 40s it ‘claimed’ me.”
New markets: Interest in coracle making has been revived recently due to the efforts of a few individuals and organisations such as the Coracle Society and the Carmarthen Coracle & Netsmen’s Association. These and other groups organise regattas and races (as well as attending events around the country publicising coracles). They are also keen to engage with the media, writing articles and giving talks. The Coracle Society believes that, thanks to these efforts, the future of coracles in the UK is now pretty much assured.
New markets: There is a small market for one-off projects for the TV and film industry, with an increasing emphasis on authenticity in period dramas.
New markets: Outdoor activity centres are making increasing use of coracles as an alternative to kayaks, but these are all made of fibreglass. Even so the interest created may lead to some individuals becoming more interested in making traditional coracles.
Dilution of skills: Courses are also now available in many parts of the country. These are mostly two day weekends, but some last four days for wickerwork boats. These should be monitored and encouraged in order to maintain interest. However there are few people learning all the skills to make traditional coracles. There are maybe six people in South Wales who could go to the woods, select the timber and withies, cleave the wood, form the laths, make the frame, weave the gunwale, cover the boat, and seal it with a pitch and turpentine mixture. There is only one skilled craftsman in the South Wales area, but there are 6 people learning the skill. The total number of people making coracles in South Wales is twelve.
Carmarthen Coracle & Netsmen’s Association (Facebook page)
Craftspeople currently known
- Kevin Grimley, Small Woods Association, Shropshire – Modern (calico covered)
- Alistair Phillips, South East England – Modern (calico/PVC covered)
- Mark Aplin, Overwater Boats, North West England – Modern (calico covered), laths or willow
- Fred Gillam, The Wild Side of Life, South West England – Modern (calico covered), willow
- Rebecca Oaks, Cumbria Woodlands, North West England
Response from Jude Pilgrim after consulting with colleagues in the Coracle Society:
- Minimum no. of craftspeople required to maintain the viability of coracle making: there are sufficient numbers teaching, demonstrating and practising calico coracle making – around 20-30 across the country. There is currently only one person teaching and practising hide coracle making, and there are rumours that he is retiring.
- Current no. of trainees: Current courses are training around 20-25 people every year in calico covered coracles. There are no current courses or trainees in making hide coracles.
- Current no. of skilled craftspeople: The calico covered types of coracle are generally well catered for in numbers having skills, as several courses are run each year. However, we have a severe shortage of people with the skills to make a hide covered coracle, with perhaps only 3 or 4 remaining active with the skills to teach this craft, including sourcing and treating hides and sourcing willow or hazel for the frame.
- Current total no. of craftspeople: The Coracle Society has around 110 members, with about half of those being active in practising the craft through teaching courses, demonstrations at events or regattas, or making coracles for sale. There may be a similar number (50) of non members , but this cannot be confirmed – it is pure guesswork.
Arnold, J, (1968) The Shell Book of Country Crafts
Badge, P, (2009) Coracles of the World
Blakemore, P, (2009) Gentlemen of the River
Hornell, J, (1936) British Coracles
Jenkins, J G, (1974) Nets and Coracles
Linnard, W, (1981-2) ‘A Swedish Visitor to Flintshire in 1760’, Flintshire Historical Society Journal, 30, (1981-2), p. 145-149
Malkin, B H, (1804) The Scenery, Antiquities and Biography of South Wales
Philipps, Erasmus, Description of a tour in 1717 through counties Carmarthen and Brecon and the south-west of England to London