Not so long ago, wooden salmon cobles could be seen all around our coast, the busy workhorses of the commercial salmon fishing industry. Venturing out to fish the nets in all but the wildest of weather, these were tough, sturdy and dependable little boats. Specifically designed with a flat base and recessed propeller to work amongst floating nets without becoming entangled, they were powerful enough to tow heavy ropes and carry massive anchors. In the nineteenth century, crews of four to six salmon fishers would row their cobles out to the nets, though in the early years of the twentieth century engines began to be installed.
The distinctive shape, flat bottom and high bow, developed to cope with local sea conditions around the coast. Often these boats were launched from sandy or rocky shores and had to deal with surf and high waves. Clinker built locally, lengths and angles were varied to suit the particular needs of the coastline. Craftsmanship on many cobles was superb, making them highly versatile and giving them a long working life.
The coble has all but vanished from our shores, to be found rotting away near former fishing stations, or converted for other uses. No new wooden cobles have been built since the 1970s, although fibre glass examples continued to be constructed for a number of years. The disappearance of the coble coincided with the downfall of the salmon fishing industry in the early 1990s. For a variety of reasons, one after another, long established companies regretfully decided to give up their fishing rights, and with them their salmon cobles.
The Sellar family, based in Macduff held salmon fishing rights along the Moray Firth from Gardenstown to Portgordon and including Portsoy. They not only fished themselves, but built and maintained their own beautifully constructed salmon cobles, also supplying cobles to other salmon fishing companies and to river fishing proprietors. Few of these now survive. Puffin, now a creel boat at Portknockie, originally served the Portsoy fishery and Tern, one of the largest cobles ever built locally that fished from Macduff, are remaining examples of their work. These two boats are a valuable reference point for our project and we are taking Tern apart to see exactly how she was built. Hopefully, Tern’s engine and running gear will be refurbished and fitted to the new boat.
Where exactly the design for salmon cobles came from has not been specifically identified. It may be that the boat contains elements of Norse and Dutch construction. Seagoing Whitby cobles from the North East of England have been well recorded, little however, has been written about the unique Scottish version.
To remedy this, we plan to investigate and document the coble’s construction by building one from scratch, following the process all the way from timber selection to launch and beyond. A significant grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund has made it possible to re-create this important vessel, once so vital to the Scottish Salmon Fishing Industry.
We are extremely fortunate to have skilled boat builders in the area, who have generously offered their help. The coble was a specialised boat, however, designed to fish bag nets, collecting salmon from the traps in all kinds of weather. They had to be strong, stable and reliable – designing and building them needed great expertise. We don’t underestimate the task we’ve given ourselves, it won’t be easy, and we have much to learn as we go along. We are very willing to take advice and will be delighted to hear from anyone who was once involved in coble building in any way.
The coble will be the end product of the project, but the main aim is to make sure all the unique skills needed for its construction are recorded and not forgotten. There will be opportunities for anyone who is interested in learning about traditional boat building to become involved. We feel that only by getting stuck in and facing the challenges the coble will throw at us, will people come to realise what a great heritage, taken for granted, has almost been lost.