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Coracles: A Brief History

Coracles have been around for thousands of years. Back then, they were covered with animal skins – which remains to be done in some parts of the world today.

The earliest accounts of coracle history are from Julius Caesar who, while combating in Spain in 49 BC, ordered his men to make wickerwork boats wrapped with hides of a kind he had seen a few years back in Britain. 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 proof that Wellington used them while campaigning 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. Very recently, they were even sightings in Iraq, with some reports saying they are also being used in Norway and close to Chernobyl.

Coracles have not been used in Scotland for a century and a half, but in Ireland, they were used until the late 1940s. Nowadays, however, they are mianly found in three West Walian rivers, including The Teifi, The Towy and the Taf. Here, they are often used for net fishing, with the net held by two oracles that drift down with the current, grabbing a salmon or sewin during prohibited times of the year.

These coracles, however, should be licensed. Their numbers are fast declining. 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 differ from other river craft by their construction, weight and propulsion. They are traditionally built from willow ar ash laths, with a covering of calico or canvas that has impregnations of pitch and tar or, lately, a bitumastic paint. They weigh somewhere between 25 and 40 pounds, and they are normally carried on the shoulders. Propulsion is done with one paddle held in both hands over the bow, executing an 8 movement.

The same stroke is used by fishermen, but just with one hand because the other hand will hold the net. The Coracle Society is actively promoting the preservation and protection of the tradition of old coracle makers and users, who are now getting very few.. The group’s purpose also includes helping in the production for a new generation of coracle makers.