Today we bring you a blog about coracles, the small, rounded, lightweight boat of the sort traditionally used in Wales, and also in parts of the West Country, Ireland and Scotland. The word "coracle" is an English spelling of the original Welsh cwrwgl, cognate with Irish and Scottish Gaelic currach, and is recorded in English text as early as the sixteenth century.
Designed for use in swiftly flowing streams, the coracle has been in use in the British Isles for millennia, having been noted by Julius Caesar in his invasion of Britain in the mid first century BC, and used in his military campaigns in Spain. Remains interpreted as a possible coracle have also been found in an Early Bronze Age grave at Barns Farm near Dalgety Bay, and others have been described at Corbridge and near North Ferriby.
The coracle's structure, which has essentially remained unchanged for centuries, is made of a framework of split and interwoven willow rods, tied with willow bark. The outer layer was originally an animal skin such as horse or bullock hide (corium), with a thin layer of tar to waterproof it – today replaced by tarred calico, canvas, or fibreglass. Oval in shape and very similar to half a walnut shell, the coracle has a keel-less flat bottom to evenly spread the load across the structure and to reduce the required depth of water – often to only a few inches. This makes it ideal for use on rivers.
They are an effective fishing vessel because, when powered by a skilled person, they hardly disturb the water or the fish, and they can be easily manoeuvred with one arm, while the other arm tends to the net; two coracles to a net.
Today, coracles are now only seen regularly in tourist areas of West Wales, with the Rivers Teifi and Tywi being the most common places to find them. On the Teifi they are most frequently seen around Cenarth, Cilgerran and Llechryd.
In 1974 a Welsh coracle piloted by Bernard Thomas of Llechryd even crossed the English Channel to France, clocking a time of just thirteen and a half hours. This journey was apparently undertaken to demonstrate how the Bull Boats of the Mandan Indians of North Dakota could have been copied from coracles introduced by Prince Madog in the 12th century. We're not sure how this feat is supposed to prove anything of the sort, but the whole Prince Madog thing is a strange and interesting story that we'll have to tell another day.
These coracles were built by James Pegrum and if you would like to see more models like this follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
The landscape we see today is the product of thousands of years of interaction between humans and their environment. One of the greatest changes has been the transition from a largely wooded landscape to an open one of fields and moors. Currently, only around 13% of the UK is covered by trees, ranging from 19% in Scotland to 8% in Northern Ireland, however thousands of years ago the the level of tree cover would have been much higher.
Following the retreat of the last major ice sheets around 10,000 years ago, the tundra landscape of Great Britain and Ireland started to be colonised by the first trees, including juniper and willow. The height of forestation of Great Britain and Ireland is likely to have occurred by 5,000 to 6,000 years ago where trees would have grown wherever possible, though the exact extent of coverage would have been complicated by the presence of humans.
Woodland clearance likely began in the Mesolithic (circa 9,000 to circa 4,300 BC) when hunter gatherers would have made clearings to attract grazing animals for the hunt and make way for their temporary camps. These small areas of managed wood would have also provided material for the production of wood products.
The first large-scale clearance probably first took place during the Neolithic (circa 4000 to circa 2,500 BCE) as agricultural practices spread and intensified. During this period it was learnt that wood from a regrown stump was of more use than the timber from the original tree and so the practice of management by coppicing began.
The clearing of the forests increased in the Bronze Age (2,500BCE – 800BCE) with clearance taking place in higher elevations. The great majority of the woods still remained up to this time period.
With the arrival Iron Age and the development of more advanced and durable equipment clearances of the “wildwood” increased to allow for the cultivation of additional land and grazing needed for a growing population. During this period there were different methods used to clear the forests; felling, burning and grazing animals. These processes went on for hundreds of years and allowed the population to increase the arable land and the fields which they farmed.
Coppiced woodlands were used as sources of timber for their buildings, fences, roads, carts heating and cooking. They developed their woodworking skills to a fine art, which is in evidence in the remains of the houses, wheels, boats and other artifacts discovered.
And so by the time the Romans arrived the landscape had already been possessed by the local population and the field systems they created in the clearance of the forests have remained can still be seen today in the landscape.
These scenes were built by James Pegrum; find out more by following us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
We are proud to announce the unveiling of another awesome Brick to the Past model – a minifigure scale LEGO model of Dun Deardail hillfort. The model, which was commissioned by the Nevis Partnership, is now on permanent display at the Ben Nevis Visitor Centre, overlooked by the real Dun Deardail on one side and Britain’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis, on the other.
Dun Deardail is thought to have been built and occupied, perhaps over several periods, between 700 BC and AD 900 and is unusual because the stones that once made up its walls have been vitrified. Vitrification is the process by which stones are fused together at temperatures in excess of 1,000 degrees Celsius. It is uncertain why vitrification took place, but current theories tend to see it as either an act of aggression following capture or as ‘ritual closure’ at the end of the site’s active life, akin to the destruction of many Neolithic ritual monuments.
Nevis Landscape Partnership have been running an ambitious project to excavate the Dun Deardail. Working closely with Forestry Commission Scotland & AOC Archaeology, they aim to uncover the mysteries surrounding this ancient settlement and have got hundreds of ‘citizen archaeologists’ involved in the work. You can find out more about this on our previous blog on the project.
The LEGO version of Dun Deardail, which contains approximately 35,000 pieces, delved into this research to come up with a layout and appearance that reflects what the hillfort might have looked like early in the first millennium AD.
The model was built by our builder in the north, Dan Harris, who said:
“I've been visiting Glen Nevis and the surrounding area of years to walk and climb, so it's an absolute delight to have been able to build a model of one of its landmarks. It's great to be able to display at one of Scotland's most popular tourist destinations and I hope that the model will encourage people to get out and explore the real hill fort".
The funding to build the model of Dun Deardail was provided by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Highland Council Discretionary Fund.
You can find out first about all of our projects by following us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram!
New Project - Dun Deardail
We are delighted to announce that Brick to the Past have been commissioned by Nevis Partnership to build a minifigure scale model of Dun Deardail hillfort for permanent display at Glen Nevis Visitor Centre.
Dun Deardail occupies a striking position on a rocky knoll above Glen Nevis and is surrounded by the often snow-capped peaks of the West Highlands. To its east it is overlooked by Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain and to its north, Glen Nevis unfolds, revealing the historic town of Fort William. The hillfort is thought to have been built and occupied, perhaps over several periods, between 700 BC and AD 900 and is unusual because the stones that once made up its walls have been vitrified. Vitrification is the process by which stones are fused together at temperatures in excess of 1,000 degrees Celsius. It is uncertain why vitrification took place, but current theories tend to see it as either an act of aggression following capture or as ‘ritual closure’ at the end of the site’s active life, akin to the destruction of many Neolithic ritual monuments.
Nevis Landscape Partnership have been running an ambitious project to excavate the Dun Deardail. Working closely with Forestry Commission Scotland & AOC Archaeology, they aim to uncover the mysteries surrounding this ancient settlement and have got hundreds of ‘citizen archaeologists’ involved in the work. You can find out more in this video.
The Fort from Nevis Landscape Partnership on Vimeo.
The funding to build LEGO Dun Deardail has been provided by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Highland Council Discretionary Fund.
We’ll be keeping you up-to-date as we build LEGO Dun Deardail. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter andInstagram for the scoop!
BLOG TO THE PAST
On LEGO, History and other things by Brick to the Past