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Hide boats in prehistoric Orkney: first skin your seal & rub well with oil!

As part of the 3-part BBC TV show ‘Britain’s Ancient Capital – Secrets of Orkney’, the first episode of which airs tonight, the production team had a hide boat constructed in Stromness and paddled it across the Pentland Firth in a bit of a stunt to show that it could have been done in prehistoric Orkney. This is not a new idea, in fact there are very good ethnographic examples from around the world, my favourites are the Alaskan umiaks:

Launching the boat, Little Diomede Island: an Alaskan Umiak
Launching the boat, Little Diomede Island: an Alaskan Umiak

These are great boats, very seaworthy and amazingly good cargo carriers. - an umiak of 10.7 – 13.7m overall length can carry nearly 2 tonnes of cargo yet be carried when empty by its crew. They’re constructed from green, untreated seal or walrus skins dressed with seal oil and caribou fat, and remain waterproof for around four to seven days of continuous immersion, so they have to be continually re-proofed. Traditionally made of driftwood, in the more recent period they were made of imported timber, but still covered with hide:

An umiak frame, Kotzebue, Alaska
An umiak frame, Kotzebue, Alaska

These would be perfect boats for use in Orkney waters, easy to land through surf and all the materials for their construction would be readily available in prehistoric Orkney. Archaeologically in the UK a hide boat would be difficult to find, as unless you chemically tan hide it will decay in waterlogged conditions, so smoke or fat tanned hide wouldn’t preserve. There’s a written reference from Pliny in his Natural History, written in the 1st century AD,which refers to the Britons sailing considerable distances in ‘wicker vessels sewed round with leather’

The best recreation of a voyage in a hide boat was back in 1976-7 when Tim Severin crossed the Atlantic in the Brendan, a replica Irish hide boat. You can still get the book of his voyage & it’s a great read – they treat the hide with lanolin to waterproof it. I read it when I was still at school & for many years waterproofed my digging boats using lanolin – you can’t beat it, but it does take a while to soak in & don't leave your boots where the dog can get at them or you won't have any boots to come back to! I just found the original TV programme on Youtube in 5 parts- well worth a watch:



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