Insh Coracle Club

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12 November 2016

Article and photos by Raymond Green

Insh is a small, former crofting village in the Cairngorms National Park. Today there are 48 houses, of which 25 are holiday homes. The resident population is about 40 with no school age children.

The village is situated on the south side of the Insh Marshes, a Site of Special Scientific Interest and National Nature Reserve, as well as being an RSPB reserve. The north side of the marshes and the parish of Insh is bordered by the river Spey, to the east the river Feshie and to the west the river Tromie. To the south are the Cairngorm mountains. The Coracle Club formed by accident. I grew up in south Wales and was aware of coracles but do not remember seeing one until a visit to Elgin Museum, home of an original Spey coracle. After a visit to the library in Inverness, I became interested enough to think that building one might be fun. I had no real notion of how to go about it except for some pictures. My first effort didn't really work – too flimsy a frame of willow, and what to cover it with? An old tent and some black paint!

Later, while working on a local history project, I read some 19th century accounts of coracles on the Spey and was re-inspired. Then, broadband came to Insh. In October 2011 I found several websites with construction ideas so I decided to try again with plywood strips. Getting an 8ft by 4ft sheet of three ply the 40 miles home from Inverness was not easy – cut in half at the merchants - but cutting in to 1.5 inch strips at home was easy. It took me about a week of experimenting to figure out how to bend the lathes without cracking them. The finished frame looked OK and I covered it with an old double duvet cover, scrounged from my wife. I had some black roofing paint so three coats later, applied liberally with a sponge and a week for it all to dry, I was ready except... No paddle! A curtain pole and a plywood blade saved the day.

The Insh Marshes are criss-crossed with 18th century drainage ditches up to 10 feet wide and between two and three feet deep in summer. The marshes flood over completely each winter and often freeze solid for weeks. However, although by now it was early winter, the water levels were low enough for me to venture out on the nearest ‘canal’. No-one else was in sight for my first tentative launch. It floated. I got in without capsizing.

I paddled, sort of, and moved. It didn't leak! But I had been seen carrying the thing on my back and within five minutes I had an audience of three, then five, then a whole gaggle of neighbours and friends coming to see a crazy man on the water. I was most embarrassed but became less so when several of them wanted a ‘shot’ and did no better than me.

From then on interest grew. The floods arrived a few days later and there was a mass paddle, with just one fragile coracle. I built a stronger version with a tarp cover but that was unsatisfactory – it felt too flimsy – but an offcut from a neighbour’s pond liner came to hand and I was ready to venture further. Another villager decided to try his hand at building and by the arrival of the usual late autumn floods in 2012, we had started to explore the vast area of water over the marshes. Once again we were seen and everyone wanted a go. So the ‘club’ was born.

When does a club become a Club? Not sure, but one day another neighbour asked if he could join The Coracle Club. So here we are with eleven members, over 25% of the total population of Insh - beat that! We have now made seven coracles between us. Most are made from plywood as it is the only suitable material we have at our disposal. Most of the millions of trees around us are pine or birch and none bend very well. My biggest failure was a smaller bamboo model, but the at bottom rapidly returned to a very round one. An early willow one collapsed inward at launch as the ribs progressively snapped. The plywood is fragile too, so we do have to do lot of repairs, but we are learning how and where to strengthen it.

We went public in 2015. Newtonmore, a larger village about eight miles from here, is home to the Highland Folk Museum. It is an outdoor museum, free to visit, with a large indoor collection not yet on public display. My wife and I often visit and took advantage of an Open Day, whereby we could see some of those indoor collections. Sitting there amidst a glory of objects was - A CORACLE - a Spey replica which I learned had been donated by The Coracle Society - a Society I had never heard of

I mentioned to the Collections Curator that we had coracles in Insh and she was quite interested. A few weeks later she phoned me to ask if we would be willing to bring a coracle to the museum at a Vintage Day, where all manner of vintage transport is brought in – ancient tractors, traction engines, bicycles, vans, buses etc. Of course we agreed, planning to paddle on the curling pond water.

It was too shallow, so we moved to the adjacent Mill Pond which was perfect for us - not too big to be intimidating and not too deep to be dangerous. That day we had two coracles and worked non-stop from 10.30 to 5, letting visitors have a try. It went so well that we were invited back for three Heritage in Action Days in 2015. They were all brilliant with about 200 folk trying their hand over the three days.

At the Vintage Day this year we had four coracles, including a visiting coracle (Charlie Quinnell) and are booked for six Heritage in Action days. We also participated with two coracles at the Portsoy regatta, thanks to an invite from Dave Purvis.

So there you have it. We are planning - hoping - to build a coracle using hazel withies later this year as we have found a small stand so wish us luck!