Skin boats have an assured but unsatisfactory place in history. Assured, because the literary references to them are many and interesting. Unsatisfactory, S because archaeologically it is unlikely that any remains, by their nature, will ever be found to give an idea of what they were 1ike. James Hornell has summarized many of the literary references to the part they played in Northern Europe during the Classical and Dark Ages in his well-known work on British coracles and Irish curraghs. In the Roman period they are mentioned by Caesar, Lucan, Pliny, Strabo, Solinus, Sidonius Apollinaris and Avienus. Pliny specifically mentions their part in the cross-channel tin trade. The references in Caesar and Lucan are also particularly significant, as will become clear below.
Later in the Dark Ages, according to the old Irish stories, Bran and Maelduin used curraghs, or hide-covered boats, for their voyages and Teigue, son of Cian, raided nearly to Spain. In the other direction, St Brendan reached the Shetlands and possibly Iceland as well. St Columba, of course, travelled from Ireland to Iona in a curragh. Niall of the Nine Hostages raided Wales in a fleet of curraghs and his grandson, Breccan, lost 50 in Breccan’s Cauldron, the Corryvreckan which fishermen still avoid today. In the medieval period, Froissart and Holinshed show that Caesar’s use of leather-covered coracles to get armies across rivers survived amongst the troops of Edward III and Henry V, though one imagines they were stouter craft than those described by Giraldus Cambrensis in his Description of Wales, which, Giraldus claimed, could be overturned by a blow from the tail of the salmon which the coracle fishermen were trying to catch.