Updated: Dec 26, 2020
I have built leather boats in the past (see previous blog posts), but have always fancied making a traditional coracle (a wicker frame boat covered with skin). This spring, several conversations with others craftsfolk and the Scottish Crannog Centre culminated in a coracle building project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund to tie in with the Crannog museum to explore early Scottish peoples navigation and trade, and how some of the museum artefacts could have been brought to the Crannog. Craftsmen are often seen as isolated or solitary figures, but traditional craft always form a cycle with craftspeople overlapping, usually around a community working together. I was blessed to work on this project with Peter Ananin of the Woodland Tannery and Jane Wilkinson of Special Branch Baskets. With a tanner, a leatherworker, and a basket weaver, we had the makings of a solid coracle building team.
The Scottish Crannog Centre is on Loch Tay with a full scale Crannog replica. A crannog is a type of dwelling built on an artificial island over water, found throughout Scotland and Ireland from the bronze age to the ironage, though many were reused right up until the 18th century. The centres museum has various groundbreaking arefacts from various Crannog sites in Scotland which include the earliest textile fragment found in Scotland, and a lyre bridge which could be the oldest found in Europe. This has led to questions regarding whether some of these artifacts such as the lyre bridge are indigenous, or imported. if they were important, how would they have reached the Crannog? larger vessels such as log boats would most likely bring trade goods in from the coast, but small coracles would have been in wide use for everyday tasks and trading smaller items that a Crannog would need.
On the way to the Crannog Peter and I came across a road kill deer. After a brief ceremony to give it a last meal we prepared the animal so that it did not go to waste. The meat and organs provided food for us and many others over the weekend, the skin and bones we donated to the centre to be turned into bellows and tools, and Peter kept the stomach to tan. We use the animal in order to honour it, rather than let it's sacrifice go to waste.
And so on to the coracles. We didnt get a chance to snap any images of making the frames, but they were woven from local Willow under Janes expert eye with solid hardwood plank seats. We wanted to experiment with different methods and styles so the two coracle frames were different regional types, one large and round which was more of a two person vessel, and a smaller oblong style. The lashings on the frames were done with modern cordage as we didnt have the rawhide ready to hand, but once they were finished we were able to take them down to where we had the rawhide and relash them with rawhide cut from a deerskin. Once this dried it tightened up creating incredibly strong lashings.
Many hands make light work!
Once the frame was lashed with rawhide, it was time to cover it with hide. The hides had been defleshed and soaked in a lyme solution for two weeks to remove the hair. We had tied the skins in the Loch overnight to keep them supple and stretchy. It was now time to bring them back out the water, and get to work! Peter dragging hides from the Loch.
For the large frame we used a cowskin, large enough to cover it with one whole skin. This was especially hard graft to tension the skin (over 10mm thick) over the frame and lash it in place with rawhide.
The cowskin was lashed to the frame using rawhide strips cut from a deerskin, the same as the frame lashings.
The most relaxing tea break on the job!
Propping up the coracle when finished allows us to trim any excess flesh left on the hide, dry it out in the sun, and also by looking at how much light comes through we can see any potential weak spots.
With a couple of days of graft, we had a complete coracle! It was time for a paddl to celebrate!
It's such an amazing feeling paddling a hide boat, feeling the water pressure through the skin with your feet, skimming over the water with the sun shining through. We could have paddled out there for hours!
Jane paddling the two man coracle like a champion.
After such a successful result with the first coracle, we changed our style with the second, instead using only deerskins which needed stitched together with sinew. We had also collected local birch bark in order to distil our own tar to seal the stitching. Here I am cutting rawhide lace for lashing whilst Peter cooks up bark tanning solution and smokes our meat.
Birch bark being packed into the burner
We compressed the bark as much as we could and sealed the burner airtight with sand. with an even heat around the drum, the bark needs to heat without igniting so that the oils leach out into the bottom pipe. Once the oil is collected it can be reduced down into tar.
After several days work we had a fully finished coracle, and one half finished coracle that we will come back to finish soon. Our tar making experiment worked, so when we finish the second coracle we will continue with that process to tar the seams too. All in all we had a fantastic weekend sharing and learning together, and what a joy to all be out paddling! To be continued... :)
Continued... It's now June and we have been back to the Crannog to finish off the second coracle we were making with deerskins instead of cowhide. We resoaked the skins overnight, then set back to getting them stitched together over the frame.
Meanwhile Jason takes the previously finished coracle out for a paddle!
our two finished coracles.
Voila! another finished coracle. It floated straight away, though there was some leakage through the seams as they need tarred.
The coracle being hung up to dry so that we can tar the seams later. Stay tuned for more coracle adventures!