The Dogskin Buoy. A post on The Dabbler.

From The Dabbler Facebook page , a post on this rather startling (to contemporary ears) role of man’s best friend:


Recently I read Dónal MacPolin’s “The Drontheim, Forgotten Sailing Boat of the North Irish Coast” My own ancestry is in Donegal and Sligo and ultimately Argyll (ultimately ultimately Africa of course), and now I live near one of Ireland’s major rivers I have become interested in the multiplicity of near-vanished boat types, seemingly unique to each river.

The “Drontheim boat” was the pre-eminent boat of the coastal fisherman of the North Coast of Ireland, right across to Islay. “Drontheim” was a corruption of “Trondheim”, for these boats – in contrast to the smooth-timbered carvel of the more famous currach of the West coast -were clinker-built i.e. with overlapping planks, in the Norwegian style. Originally imported, over time Ulster boat builders made their own Drontheims.

While marking the loss of the skills and craft that went into the Drontheim, MacPolin is under no illusions about the fisherman’s lot. The text is interspersed with the reminiscences of surviving Drontheim fisherman, many of which feature the words “it was a hard ould life.” The work was crushingly hard. Mac Polin observed that the diesel engine, once available, quickly spelled the end of the drontheim. Nevertheless, they were superbly adapted to their setting.

All of this is probably of limited interest to most Dabblers. However while reading I unexpectedly came across a jaw-dropping passage which, for me, brought home the reality of life in those times (no doubt, some readers will have another reaction):

“Lines needed buoy markers and before the day of plastic or glass these were made by the fisherman themselves with a the skin of a dog!”

“‘You’d take a big useless dog that was no good. They’d make a job of him, legs, arse, and everything’ (Bob Cavanagh)”

As well be further proven shortly, Bob Cavanagh, from Strove, Co Donegal, is or was evidently not a man given to sentimentality about canines. Readers of a sensitive disposition dog-wise would be advised to skip what follows:

“The unfortunate animal was hanged, to avoid puncturing the skin, skinned and cured, sewn and finally tarred. A wooden spool with a bung served to inflate the dog-buoy! The strong tides flowing off the north coast generally pulled the buoy underwater. It would then reappear as the tide slacked at the turn. The fisherman waited until they saw the ‘dog watchin’ which was the time to haul the lines.”‘

“Them ould dogs would do nothing … at least they’re workin’ now!’ (Bob Cavanagh)”

For Bob Cavanagh, a dog was primarily a working animal.

Urbanite sensitivities may be further disturbed by another practice recorded by MacPolin:

“Dogs had another function – this time alive. When boats were caught at sea in fog a dog was put in a bag and left on a cliff or harbour. The constant whining and yelping dog guided the men home. Hard times for the family pet!”

A dogskin buoy survives in the Strathnaver Museum in Thurso:…/artefacts/

and can even be seen on YouTube

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