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3.4 Prehistoric skinboats in western Britain

Appropriate raw materials such as seal skins and tools suitable for the construction of skinboats are present within the prehistoric archaeological record; stone tools, including scrapers and burins for working wood and hide, and bone needles and animal sinew for fixing and sewing. The technology of working hides for skinboats is very similar to, and most likely evolved from, the manufacture of animal-skin clothing (Buijs 2004). Indeed, skinboats could have been built before the tools necessary for the construction of logboats had evolved (McGrail 2001, 11).

Currachs and umiaks are pulling boats, capable of rowing in any direction despite the weather, but are subject to much leeway in strong winds because of their shallow draft and light weight. Rowing courses must allow for this sideways drift and this would be normal for an experienced boat crew. A recent study suggests that a paddled boat, similar to the currach, could make the trip from Brittany around the west of Ireland to Orkney in less than two weeks (Callaghan and Scarre 2009). Skinboats such as currachs and umiaks are too flexible for a functional sail and their shallow draft restricts downwind sailing courses. A small sail, or downwind rig, could have been set for sailing before the wind. Such sails would significantly improve the propulsion of skinboats. Evidence for the use of sails on skinboats is demonstrated historically on currachs, umiaks and kayaks (Arima 1987; Hornell 1938; Synge 1992) (Figure 5).

Figure 5

Figure 5: A mast, for attachment of a down-wind rig, attached to an umiak in Wakeham Bay, Nunavut, Quebec, c.1897. Used with permission (© Library and Archives Canada, Albert Peter Low Collection, Ottawa, Ontario. PA-051464).

Conditions in the Irish Sea, the Minch and the Atlantic are cold, frequently changeable and always unreliable. Boats operating within this environment must out of necessity be seaworthy. In general, skinboats are more seaworthy and sea-kind than their wooden counterparts and thus more suitable for operating along the western coasts of Britain. While no direct archaeological evidence exists for skinboats they are clearly the most suitable vessels for transport on the sea and the technology and skills for their manufacture are present within the archaeological record of Britain from at least the Mesolithic. Skinboats may have been the workhorse boat of prehistory.


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