Roamer: Notes, boats and anecdotes about the days of coités, cots and clinkers

Mrs Johnson rowing children to school in a cot, 1960s
Mrs Johnson rowing children to school in a cot, 1960s

The vast web of picturesque waterways around Upper and Lower Lough Erne are part of an expansive lakeland woven by aeons of weather and ice.

The vast web of picturesque waterways around Upper and Lower Lough Erne are part of an expansive lakeland woven by aeons of weather and ice.

The path of the Erne with its multiplicity of loughs, lakes, bogland and streams, covers not just Fermanagh, but laps liberally into counties Longford, Cavan and Donegal.

Like the waters that bore them “the story of the boats will take you everywhere” Fred Ternan, Lough Erne Heritage’s chairperson told me this week. He should know!

In 1949 little Fred was the last baby born on an island on the lower Lough.

His family was one of the last islander-families who, like many thousands before them “were involved to some extent in almost every activity on Lough Erne” - a long tradition that Fred’s community heritage organisation is exploring, preserving and regenerating.

They’re holding a meeting tomorrow in Enniskillen Library at 2pm to highlight their unique history of wooden boat-building.

“Between four and five hundred people lived on the islands according to the 1901 census records,” explained Fred.

“We want to bring out and tell the story,” added Mr Ternan, “of the life and culture of the people on the Lough Erne basin” where boats were part of everyday life for shore-dwellers and islanders alike.

“The boat was used by everyone,” said Fred, accentuating thousands of years of boat-building with almost spiritual singularity.

Some enthusiasts believe that St Patrick came there in a dug-out canoe.

Aptly, every boat in the Erne’s long history has been one of a trinity - the coité, cot or clinker!

The coité was the earliest log boat (or dug-out), in the days when the area “was a wetland, with no clear boundaries to the lough and forests,” Fred explained.

“There were no lanes or pathways, and it would have been dangerous to travel, except by water.”

The earliest known log boat, hacked and hewn from an oak tree, has been dated 3,502 BC “though there could have been log boats thousands of years before that,” Fred speculated.

His heritage group has exhibited one that “could be 2,000 years old. Marks where it was carved can still be seen,” he indicated.

Next came the cot.

“Not sure when!” admitted Fred. “Some people say it’s been here for 1,000 years.”

The Fermanagh cot is unique - “flat-bottomed with up-turned ends” Fred specified, “wide in the middle, narrow towards the ends. Some of them were 50 to 60 feet long.”

Like all local boats throughout history, cots were used for “almost every activity,” Fred stressed, “fishing, farming, races, leisure, drainage, general transport…and for the school run!”

Constructed of “two-inch planks, butted together and tarred” several still-used monikers were born of cots!

Two men and a saw cut the planks which were laid across a deep pit.

“The man in the pit was the ‘underdog’ and the guy upstairs was ‘top-dog’” smiled Fred, adding another water-world record to his family’s accolades - “my cousin Douglas built the last traditionally constructed cot on the lower Lough in the 1950s.”

Wooden clinker-built boats with their narrow, overlapping planks arrived on Lough Erne in the early 1800s.

Probably influenced by the Norwegian ‘Drontheim Yawl’, also known as the ‘Greencastle yawl’ or ‘north coast yawl’, the Fermanagh clinker boasted distinguishing features. The lower Lough’s clinkers were “broad and buoyant” Fred explained, “with a big ‘shoulder’ (bow) to get through all the waves.”

For further information about Lough Erne Heritage come to tomorrow’s public meeting and/or e-mail fredternan@btinternet.com