By Mike Smylie
A few issues back we looked at the cobles of the coast of eastern England and this time round we’ll travel over the border to investigate the just-as-unusual cobles used, in the main, for the Scottish inshore and river salmon fishery. Although the etymology of the word is unclear – some say it’s from the Celtic ceubal which in turn comes from the Latin caupulus for a small boat; others direct us to the Lindisfarne Gospels where a cuople is mentioned – there are certain similarities between both types. Both have quite a distinctive shape in the flat bottom and high bow, characteristics necessary for beach launching and recovery, although the salmon cobles are generally beamier and shallower. Their construction is more basic as they seldom work more than a mile offshore. Furthermore they have a wide transom to counteract the weight of the net in the stern.
These salmon cobles worked seine nets in and around the estuaries of the well-known salmon rivers such as the Tweed, Tay and Esk, as well as upstream. Others worked from the beaches where drift-nets were set – ie anywhere from Arbroath in the south to Aberdeen up north and in many parts of the Moray Firth. I remember a few years ago travelling around the Easter Ross peninsula and coming across many cobles in places such as Portmahomack and Balintore. In fact, find a sandy Scottish cove and a supply of salmon, and you’d have been guaranteed to find a coble. That was in the days before commercial salmon fishing licences were removed from commercial fishers in favour of the riparian estate owners and their habit of charging absurd amounts for fishing their rivers.
Many were built by the salmon companies who used them, in their own boat sheds, as that was mostly how the fishery was organised. The companies owned the licences and gear whilst the crews earned their share of the catch. Of course the cobles they employed all came in varying sizes and construction. Upriver they were in the region of 14ft long, 18ft downstream and 21ft in the estuary. The older boats were simply flat-bottomed, with longitudinal planking and oak floors and displayed similar characteristics to river and estuary boats of Scandinavia – the Swedish eka comes foremost to mind. When engine power was deemed a necessity over oars, outboards were slung on the transom. However, like their Yorkshire and Northumberland counterparts, the later motorised Scottish cobles had a ram plank and a tunnel to receive an inboard engine. And just to confuse the reader, there’s also another type of river coble, propelled by oars, that is built with a ramplank and a flat bottom on floors, with clinker planking in the Norse style: the sort of boat a ghillie would use on a river.
There it is: a variant or counterpart to the English coble? I prefer the latter!