Sunday, 28 November 2010


In the British Library the other day, waiting for my books to turn up, I reached for a Devonshire volume of the Victorian County Studies published in 1906 and found therein a wonderful account of the birds of Victorian South Devon. (Yes, I know the volume was published in Edwardian times.) Most fascinating of all is the attention given there to the local names for birds.

For example the Herring Gull is said to have been known on the Exe as the Ladram Gull because it nests or nested on the stacks in Ladram Cove.

The Fulmar was called in South Devon the Mollymew or the Mollymauk and the Great Shearwater was called the Hackbolt .

The local name for the Great Northern Diver was, interestingly I thought, the Loon which, as every schoolboy knows, is how it is called in Canada and New England . Presumably the North American name was the gift of Westcountrymen.

The Great Skua was for some reason known locally as Tom Harry.

The Knot, on the Exe had the name Silver Plover and the Cormorant, so says the good book, was once known here as the Topsham Pilot.

One day I mean to go back and make a complete list.

What is sad is that the list makes it clear that the Victorians' attitude to birds was to hunt them and kill them. Killing was the only way they knew to make scientific observations of the birds. A typical reading is this about the Fulmar: "One killed with an oar on the Exe had a calcereous concretion in the vent. Very interesting but what a shame! And how on earth does anyone get close enough to a Fulmar to kill it with an oar?

There are some comprehensive lists of the old North Devon names for birds here.

1 comment:

  1. I first ran into the word "mollymock" in Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies; I never stopped to think what birds they were. It seems the terminology has drifted: it was originally given to fulmars, but was later applied to albatrosses.