Medieval Welsh fish weirs

Kelly Kilpatrick writes:

One ancient method of fishing that I have always found fascinating is the use of weirs and traps, and this article will take a brief look at the place-name evidence for medieval fish weirs in Wales. By examining the evidence for fish weirs, we can learn a lot about water-management of rivers and estuarine tidal flows in the Middle Ages. Fishing was a vital part of the medieval diet and economy, and in the words of Terry Moore-Scott (2009: 31), ‘It is not always appreciated how important a food-source fish was in medieval times.’ The use of weirs was a widespread method of trapping fish in the Middle Ages, and evidence of their use often survives in the place-name, archaeological and historical record. The place-name evidence in particular can sometimes provide additional information about the type of weir (and therefore its method of construction), ownership, species of fish caught, amongst other things. In Wales, it has been noted (Geraint Jenkins 1974: 5) that the widespread use of place-name elements denoting weirs and the ‘artificial damming of the flow of water, give some indication of the importance of weirs in the economic history of rural Wales’.

Welsh weir

Fig. 1 The remains of a medieval fish weir at Lligwy Beach, Anglesey. © Wikimedia Commons.

There were various types of weirs used to catch fish in the Middle Ages, all of which are found in the archaeological and documentary record throughout Wales. A fish weir is essentially a barrier placed in tidal water or across a river to divert the path of fish, leading them to an area (often a contained area) from which they cannot escape. Weirs require flowing water, and can be constructed in tidal races and across rivers or streams. Weirs can be made from rocks, stones and timbers, usually in combination with withy-plaited fences or brushwood (see Fig. 1), though in many cases weirs were built entirely of stakes and plaited withies or wattle fencing, constructed to form a v-shaped trap (see Fig. 2). Both stone weirs and wattle weirs used the ebb or flow of water to trap fish, as described by Heather and Terrance James (2003):

In river mouths and estuarine channels the point of ‘v’ shaped traps faced down stream. Fish are guided on the ebb by the stake and wattle walls, or ‘leader hedges’ (which could be of great length) towards the apex of the ‘v’ where they were finally trapped in a woven basket or a net. The stone-walled weirs had lines of stakes set along them, supporting nets. The fish would be trapped in the large pool formed by the weir’s walls on the falling tide. The ebbing water would guide them towards the mouth of the weir towards a cage … where the fish would be gathered up at low water.

Irish weir

Fig. 2 A medieval fishing weir in the Fergus Estuary, Co. Clare, Ireland. Image from         University College Dublin News 2011, and © UCD School of Archaeology.

Many weirs used a type of conical woven basket for a trap known in English as a putt (Moore-Scott 2009: 32). Weirs were also built in mill races and leats, and these could be used to catch eels as well as fish in some areas (see Fig. 3), though these types of weirs were abolished after the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Acts of the 1860s (Geraint Jenkins: 5-6).

Luttrell

Fig. 3 Luttrell Psalter (c.1325-1335), f.181  British Library Add MS 42130. Image ©        Wikimedia Commons. Notice the fish and eel trap in the mill race.

Some weirs, especially tidal weirs, were indiscriminatory in their catch and could trap a variety of species depending on the season (see, for example, descriptions by Mr David Phillips in James 2003). Other weirs were designed specifically for the capture of migratory fish, especially salmon.

The survival of medieval weirs varies. Weirs could be adversely effected by inland and maritime hydrological changes, including silting and shifting sands. Fish weirs, often lurking just beneath the water’s surface at high tide, were also dangerous for shipping and navigation, and in some areas ‘viewed by the authorities as an intolerable nuisance’ (Moore-Scott 2009: 34). Furthermore, the maintenance and upkeep of a weir could be a demanding business. Though weirs were strong enough to cope with tidal and river currents, they could be damaged by flooding, boats, floating debris, gales and other natural disasters (ibid: 33). Nevertheless, the benefits of fishing weirs ensured their survival throughout the Middle Ages, and in many areas they operated as late as the twentieth century.

Fish weirs are frequently recorded in medieval ecclesiastical and manorial records, because fish formed a significant part of the medieval diet and economy. Many of the great medieval religious houses of Wales owned fish weirs. For example, Tintern Abbey held weirs on the Wye, Severn and Usk; Margam Abbey held weirs on the Afan and Neath; Neath Abbey held weirs on the Tawe, Neath and in Gower; Strata Florida had weirs in Ystwyth and Aberarth; Valle Crucis held a weir at Overton (Geraint Jenkins 1974: 6); and Carmarthen Priory and Whitland Abbey held fish weirs in the Tâf, Towy and Gwendraeth estuaries (James 2003). The lords of Llanstephan, Laugharne and Kidwelly also possessed weirs on the Rivers Tâf, Towy and Gwendraeth (for a detailed discussion see James 2003). The famous weir at Cilgerran (discussed below) belonged to the manor of Cilgerran, and was endowed with a grant from Edward II to the lord of Cilgerran (Geraint Jenkins 1974: 6).

The two main terms for a fish weir in Welsh are argae and cored (see Richards 1974 for a full list of Welsh fishing elements), though in the place-names of Wales we also find terms for weirs in Old English (wer), Middle English (haking), and well as Old Norse (ver and fiski-garðr). The earliest references to fishing weirs in Wales are found in a charter dated to c. 693 (Coe 2001: 709; Davies 1979: 99, 150a) preserved in the twelfth-century Book of Llandaff, which discusses a grant at ager Porthcassec (modern Porthcaseg, Monmouthshire) with duobus coretibus ‘two fishing weirs’ (Evans 1893: 150). This must refer to fishing weirs on the River Wye, as the farm of Porthcasseg is only a short distance to the west. This charter perhaps refers to one of the old weirs on the Wye, as there are many along this stretch of the river that were later in the possession of the nearby Cistercian house of Tintern Abbey, including Plum Weir, Stowe Weir, Wall Weir, and others (for which see Morgan 2005: 176-7 s.v. Plum Weir; Geraint Jenkins 1974: 6). Charter 234 of the Book of Llandaff, another early document dated to c. 895 (Davies 1979: 123), refers to weirs on the Mouric (identified with Mounton Brook by Coe 2001: 612) and Yscuit Cyst (probably located near the mouth of Mounton Brook, Ibid: 902), both in Monmouthshire.

The usual Latin equivalents of cored are piscina and piscarium ‘fishery’, but Welsh cored is Latinised in the Book of Llandaff as coretis (Padel 1985: 65 s.v. *cores). Other Latin terms for a fish weir found in medieval Welsh documents and place-names include gurges (literally ‘whirlpool’) found, for example, in Gurgitem apud Kilgaran 1314 (Wmffre 2004: vol. 1, 60), an early attestation of the famous Cored Cilgerran on the River Teifi. This fish weir is even described by Gerald of Wales (c.1146-c.1223):

Nearby flows a noble river called the Teifi. It is better stocked with the finest salmon than any other stream in Wales. Near Cilgerran, at a spot called Cenarth Mawr, on the topmost point of a rock which Saint Llawddog hollowed out with his own hands, there is a flourishing fish-station (piscariam copiosam). (Dimock 1868: vol. 6, liber II, ch. III, p. 114; trans. Thorpe 1978).

Cored is the most widely attested term for a fish weir in Wales. The term is derived from côr ‘plaiting, binding’ + the suffix –ed, and refers to a weir constructed of plaited withies (Richards 1974: 10). Cored, plural coredau (lenited as gored following the definite article) is related to Old Breton coret and Old Irish corae (Ibid: 10; see also Kelly 2000: 287-290 on fish weirs and fishing methods in early medieval Ireland). It is found in a number of medieval and early modern place-names throughout Wales. Richards (1974: 10-15) lists 73 place-names in Wales containing this element, the earliest attested being Cored Roth (Gored Rothe 1411) in Llan-gain, Llangynog in Carmarthenshire. We have two cored place-names in our database. Coredydd in Cardiganshire is first attested as Coredau in 1184. This refers to fish weirs on the Afon Arth, and a weir is still marked on the Arth at SN482634. A second cored place-name from our database is the now lost Pwll-y-gored, also in Cardiganshire, which is first attested in 1542 as Gwernekored. This cored, according to Wmffre (2004: 155) ‘fed the leat to Melin Bhrithdir’ (a mill); the name is unusual as argae is the general term used to denote this type of weir.

Argae, plural argaeau, is another term for a fishing weir (cf. Old Irish aire ‘woven fence, act of making a dam; fence (on a stream); weir’, see eDIL 4 aire and Kelly 2000: 287). This term does not always refer to a fishing weir, and can also mean ‘dam, floodgate, sluice, lock; embankment, barrier, obstruction’ (Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru). Geraint Jenkins (1974: 5) notes that sometimes argae refers to weirs ‘built in association with a mill’. Richards (1974: 10) has 10 place-name examples with argae in his list. One example from our database is Rhydargaeau in Carmarthenshire, first attested in 1747. The name means ‘ford at the weirs’, and is located on Nant Brechfa.

Another term for weir which is infrequently attested in place-names is Welsh cryw ‘weir, fish-trap, creel’. This element is found in the Montgomeryshire name Crew Green, first attested as Crew in 1265 (Morgan 2005: 64). This is located just south of the confluence of the Afon Efyrnwy and the Severn.

As previously mentioned, terms for fish weirs in Old and Middle English and Old Norse are also attested in Welsh place-names. Old Norse fiski-garðr ‘fish-trap; fish-pond’ is found in Fishguard in Pembrokeshire, first attested as Fissigart c. 1200 (Charles 1992: vol. 1, 50). Two stone weirs have been identified on the north and south side of Fishguard Harbour.  The dates of their construction is unknown, though it can be speculated, thanks to current sea-levels, that the south trap may be medieval or earlier in date (see Coflein, NPRN 407699  ‘Fishguard Harbour North-West Fish Trap’ for description and images).

Old Norse ver ‘weir’ is possibly found in the local place-name Earwear in Amroth, Pembrokeshire. This is first attested as Eyreweyre in 1446 and Charles (1992: vol. 2, 466) suggests it is derived from Old Norse eyrr ‘sand-bank, gravel-bank’ + ver. Old Norse ver is cognate with Old English wer ‘weir’, and it is possible that Old English wer has influenced this place-name. Charles (ibid.) notes that ‘There is a reference to a toll of fish here’ and that Earwear was located by Amroth Castle, on the flat ground near the sea on a stream. This possibly suggests that the weir was constructed in a tidal stream.

Old English wer ‘a weir, a river-dam; a fishing-enclosure in a river’ is more commonly found in areas close to the border where English was traditionally spoken, or where English place-names of medieval origin are greater in number. As previously mentioned, many place-names in wer are attested along the River Wye, and these weirs crossed the flow of the river. Those recorded on the Ordnance Survey maps include: Walter’s Weir, Liveoaks Troughs Weir, Wall Weir (Walwere post 1148), Stowe Weir (Staweir 11th century), Plum Weir (Plumwere c. 1160), Ash Weir (Ashweir 1326), Brockweir (Brockewere c. 1328), Coed-Ithel Weir (possibly Ishelsweir 1326), Ridingstream Weir and Bigs Weir (Bykeswere 1295, Brithekeswere 1326). Other weirs on this stretch of the Wye that have not survived in modern place-names include Alfiard’s Weir, Halfwere and Badingsweir (Geraint Jenkins 1974: 6). Another example of Old English wer in our database is Burfa near Offa’s Dyke in Radnorshire. Burfa, first attested as Borewere 1383-4, is possibly derived from Old English bor ‘hill, eminence’ + wer meaning ‘upper weir’ or ‘weir by a hill’ (Morgan 1998: 36). The bor of the name perhaps refers to Burfa Bank just north of Hindwell Brook. The weir was perhaps located on Hindwell Brook, or its tributary Knobley Brook.

The etymology of the Middle English place-name element *haking is obscure, though according to the Oxford English Dictionary it refers to ‘a kind of net, or apparatus with net attached, used for taking sea-fish’. This element is infrequently attested. It is found in Hacking in Lancashire and Hackney in Devon, and in Wales it is found in Hakin in Pembrokeshire. Though Hakin is first attested in 1729, the etymology is certainly correct, and here *haking refers to a fishery (Charles 1992: vol. 2, 592).

In addition to archaeological and historical evidence, the place-name evidence for fishing weirs can provide a wealth of information about the construction of the weir, ownership of the weir, its location, and the type of fish caught to name but a few examples. This information can often be gleaned from the specific or qualifying element in a compound place-name containing an element for ‘weir’ as the generic. As previously noted, place-names in Welsh cored refer to the specific type of weir construction (i.e. a weir of plated withies). Plum Weir on the Wye is named from Old English plume ‘a plum, plume-tree’ + wer. This perhaps refers to a weir constructed of plum branches. Likewise, nearby Ash Weir (from Old English æsc ‘ash’ + wer) likely refers to a weir woven from ash withies. Some place-names in ‘weir’ suggest personal or familiar ownership. For example, Cored Faelgwn in Llanrhos, Carmarthenshire is ‘Maelgwn’s weir’ (Richards 1974: 12). Bigsweir on the Wye is possibly from an Old English personal name Biccel or a Welsh personal name Buddig + wer. Brockweir (located on the Wye in Gloucestershire) is first attested in an annotation on the now lost place-name Pull Brochuail (Welsh pwll ‘pool, lake, pit’ + Welsh personal name Brochfael) in the Book of Llandaff, in a charter dated by Davies (1979: 97) to c. 620. All later spellings of Brockweir, however, suggest the present place-name is derived from Old English brōc ‘brook’ + wer.  Brockweir is located where a small brook meets the Wye; however, there remains the possibility that the first element might be a shortened form of the personal name Brochfael. Some ‘weir’ place-names also contain references to the type of fish caught, such as Cored Sili in Pen-bre, Carmarthenshire, from cored + sili ‘salmon-fry’ (Richards 1974: 13).

Though this article has only briefly touched upon this subject, place-names related to medieval fishing are clearly an important resource through which to study the human exploitation of natural food stocks found in estuaries and rivers. Additionally, they provide evidence of historic industry, local economies and the water-management practices of the Middle Ages, the latter of which is particularly important for aiding our understanding of the medieval environment.

Bibliography

Charles, B. G. 1992, The Place-Names of Pembrokeshire, 2 vols. Aberystwyth: National   Library of Wales.

Coe, Jonathon Baron 2001, ‘The Place-Names of the Book of Llandaf’. Unpublished PhD            Thesis, University of Wales, Aberystwyth. Available on: cadair.aber.ac.uk/dspace/

Davies, Wendy 1979, The Llandaff Charters. Aberystwyth: The National Library of Wales.

Dimock, J. F. (ed). 1868, Itinerarium Kambriae et Descriptio Kambriae, vol. 6 of Giraldi Cambrensis opera, 8 vols. London: Longman, Green, Longman & Roberts. Available      online: https://archive.org/details/giraldicambrensi06gira

Evans, J. Gwenogvryn & Rhŷs, John (eds.), 1893, The Text of the Book of Llan Dâv          Reproduced from the Gwynsaney Manuscript. Oxford: Imprinted at Gloucester by           John Bellows.

Geraint Jenkins, J. 1974, ‘Fish Weirs and Traps’, Folk Life 12:1, pp. 5-9.

James, Heather & Terrance 2003, ‘Fish weirs on the Tâf, Towy and Gwendraeth estuaries,             Carmarthenshire’, The Carmarthenshire Antiquary 39, pp. 22-48. Reproduced on:

http://web.onetel.net.uk/~rapanui/Fish_weirs/fish_weirs.htm

Kelly, Fergus 2000, Early Irish Farming. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Moore-Scott, Terry 2009, ‘Medieval Fish Weirs on the Mid-Tidal Reaches of the Severn   River (Ashleworth-Arlingham)’, Glevensis 42, pp. 31-44. Available online at:

http://www.glosarch.org.uk/Glev%2042%20Pt2.pdf

Morgan, Richard 2005, Place-Names of Gwent. Llanrwst: Gwasg Carreg Gwalch.

Padel, O. J. 1985, repr. 1991, Cornish Place-Name Elements. Nottingham: English Place- Name Society.

Richards, Melville 1974, ‘Some Fishing Terms in Welsh Place-Names’, Folk Life 12:1, pp. 9-        19.

Thorpe, Lewis (trans.) 1978, Gerald of Wales: the Journey Through Wales and the Description of Wales. London: Penguin.

Wmffre, Iwan 2004, The Place-Names of Cardiganshire, 3 vols. Oxford: British    Archaeological Reports 379 (I).

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