A Brief History of Coracles
Coracles have been around for thousands of years. They used to be covered with animal skins, and in certain countries today, they are still built like this.
Julius Caesar had the first accounts of coracles, and this was in 49 BC in Spain when he orders his troops to construct wickerwork boats and cover them with hides that he saw in Britain a few years ago. In Wales, their skin is now made of calico, which is waterproofed with the use of a bitumastic paint.
More particularly, coracles have been popular in the British Isles even before the Roman times. Even as their main uses are transport and fishing, there have been recorded accounts that they were also used for security as well as military purposes.
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There is evidence that they were used by Wellington in his campaigns in India. In the same country last year an Indian newspaper showed a photograph of an Indian coracle being used in the pursuit of a dangerous criminal. In the same country, there were reports of a dangerous criminal being chased down with the use of an Indian coracle.
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Coracles can be found not just in the British Isles, Ireland and India, but also in Vietnam and Tibet. Quite recently, they were found in Iraq, Norway and an area close to Chernobyl.
For 150 years, coracles have not been seen in Scotland, but until almost the 1950s, Ireland was using them. Today though, they are often found in the West Walian rivers called The Teifi, The Towy and The Taf. Here, they are typically used by net fishers, the net being held by two coracles running along with the current, pulling out a salmon or sewin at during restricted periods of the year.
However, all of these coracles must be licensed. They’re growing fewer and fewer everyday. Traditional coracle builders are still on the Severn at Iron-Bridge and Shrewsbury.
During their prime (around the end of the last century), more coracles were used on the River Severn than on any other British Isles river.
Coracles are unique from other river craft in terms of their construction, propulsion and weight. Coracles are traditionally built with willow ar ash laths and have a covering made of calico or canvas with pitch and tar or bitumastic paint in more recent constructions. They weigh from 25 to 40 pounds and can be easily carried on the shoulders. Propulsion is done with one paddle held in both hands over the bow, executing an 8 movement.
Fishermen make use of a similar stroke but only with one hand over the side of the craft, allowing the other hand to hold the net. The Coracle Society is very active in efforts to preserve and protect the tradition of old coracle making, with makers and users alike already becoming very few in number. The group’s purpose also includes helping in the production for a new generation of coracle makers.