Choughs – and their travels

You’re looking here at a 500 year-old Chough! It’s a carving from a medieval rood screen in an ancient church at Sancreed, on the West Penwith peninsula in Cornwall. There’s no mistaking it: the curved red beak and the red legs make this the most distinctive of all the corvids. This is an accurate representation but, interestingly, on the rood screen it’s in the company of other curioser beasts and beings which we perhaps would not recognise. Were the others around once in Cornwall, but now vanished? You can have a look for yourselves in next week’s post. But first, a little more about our own Choughs.

This wonderful photograph by our neighbour Oliver Nares (thank you, Oliver) shows Choughs in flight, and you can tell they are Choughs rather than any other sort of crow by the distinctive ‘finger’ feathers on the tips of their wings. But also their call is very particular – they tell you their name!

The pattern of their flight makes them stand out. The other day a chatter of twenty Choughs passed over us at Nead an Iolair and swooped down over and around Rossbrin Cove. They were wheeling and turning, performing acrobatics in the sky – even flying upside down! – clearly enjoying every moment of their airborne peregrinations. Why wouldn’t you, with such a beautiful landscape below you?

I have written about Choughs before, but there is a special relevance now, in my series on links between Ireland and Cornwall, sparked off by the West meets West exhibition currently running in the West Cork Arts Centre’s gallery in Skibbereen – Uillinn. The Chough has always been the ‘national bird’ of Cornwall – it has pride of place on the coat-of-arms of the county, alongside the fisherman and the miner:

It was somewhat ominous, therefore, when the Choughs disappeared from Cornwall, back in 1970, after a long period of decline. Attempts were made to reintroduce them artificially, over the following decades, but without success. And then, suddenly, the birds returned! It seems that changes in agricultural methods on the coasts – removing grazing cattle to inland sites – had upset their habitats. Now, following changed grazing patterns, Choughs are re-establishing themselves and – here’s the exciting thing – they have come over from Ireland to do that! It has been found that the entire new breeding stock originates from here, where the birds are plentiful. Just imagine those pioneering birds setting out to cross the Celtic Sea from Cork, Waterford and Wexford… Another gift from Ireland to Cornwall, following in the path of Saint Ciarán from Cape Clear who floated across himself (on a millstone) to convert the Cornish heathens and giving them their own patron saint, known as Piran in their own language.

Left – Chough fledglings, photo by Oliver Nares; right – Finola’s study of a bedraggled Chough sitting on our gatepost on a very wet day

In Cornwall, the Chough is said to carry the spirit of King Arthur, the Once and Future King who will return one day. In Ireland, however, Choughs are believed to start fires by carrying lighted sticks on to the roofs of houses. The latin name – Pyrrhocorax – means ‘fire raven’, perhaps because of the bright red bill and legs.

A taster for next week: another – curioser – bird-like creature from the Sancreed rood screen in Cornwall

Artists of the Western Coasts

We look forward to welcoming our guest Cornish artists to Uillinn for the West meets West exhibition which opens this Friday – 2 June at 6pm – and runs through to 8 July. The three artists are excellent representatives of the vibrant arts scene in Cornwall, which was established from the late 19th century in Newlyn and St Ives and has been burgeoning through the late 20th century and into the 21st, especially with the opening of the spectacularly successful Tate St Ives gallery in 1993.

Header: Looking towards The Land’s End – Cornwall’s beautiful scenery has attracted artists and tourists for over a hundred years (photo by Phoebe Harris). Above: Tate St Ives – opened in 1993 – a spectacularly successful venue for cultural art tourism (photo by

Our artists are all from the West Penwith peninsula – the furthest landfall in the UK’s westernmost county of Cornwall. Phil Booth, Lamorna, will be showing some of his large sculptural relief constructions. Phil is known for these works but is also a talented landscape designer. His has spent many years teaching design and sculpture in Japan: he has intensively researched the form and meaning of traditional Japanese Gardens in Kyoto and is able to provide a high quality design service for anyone who is planning to construct a Japanese garden, or who might want to introduce Japanese elements into their own gardens.

Above left: Philip Booth. Above right: one of his relief constructions which will be shown at Uillinn – Beach Boulder

Matthew Lanyon sadly passed away while preparing work for our Uillinn exhibition. We will be showing many of his larger paintings (some are seven metres long!), but also some tapestry and a laminated glass piece which will be seen for the first time here in Skibbereen. Matthew’s father – Peter Lanyon – was one of the notable members of the St Ives School of Artists in the mid twentieth century. Peter was a painter and a teacher, and had a strong influence on many artists – not only in Cornwall and the UK but in Ireland as well. Matthew’s Cornish heritage, therefore, is very special in the context of West meets West.

The Late Matthew Lanyon with one of his huge paintings – The Listening Sea

Tony Lattimer lives in Penzance and has his studios and kilns on a beautiful wild acreage close to The Land’s End. His ceramic sculpture is large and visually stunning. Like the other exhibiting artists, he is recognised internationally. Tony has won the prestigious Emilia-Romagna Prize at Premio Faenza International Ceramic Art Competition, Italy twice – in 2005 and 2013. The MIC – International Museum of Ceramics in Faenza – is reputed to be the world’s largest ceramics museum and one of the liveliest art institutions in Italy. Tony has also exhibited at the Tate St Ives and many other UK galleries, and we are pleased that he is able to bring a selection of his new works over to Skibbereen.

Above left: Tony Lattimer preparing work for the kiln in his Land’s End studio. Above right: some of Tony Lattimer’s recent smaller works

Phil Booth and Tony Lattimer will be at the opening, and in the gallery at noon on Saturday 3 June to take part in a panel discussion on the artists’ work. Matthew will also be represented at this event. Please come! The following week – on Saturday 10 June, also at noon, I (Robert Harris) will be giving an illustrated talk titled Chasing the Light – Why the Artists Moved West. I will outline the historic connections and remarkable similarities between the two most westerly peninsulas of Britain and Ireland over a three and a half thousand year timespan, and explore the lives and work of artists who settled in both communities.

While this exhibition focusses on contemporary art from Cornwall it is part of a larger project envisaged by Uillinn (the West Cork Arts Centre). It is hoped that artists from West Cork will visit Cornwall to exhibit their work next year, and that this will become part of a regular cultural exchange between Cork and Cornwall in the future. There is a fascinating story to be told about the artists and craftspeople who arrived in West Cork from the late 1950s onwards and helped found a cosmopolitan, creative and free-thinking community here. Ceramicists, textile designers, printmakers, painters and writers all contributed to the mix. Because of that heritage there are many artists and creative people who continue to be attracted to the area today. Believe me, it’s the most stimulating place to live!

Don’t miss – West meets West – the work of contemporary Cornish artists, at Uillinn, Skibbereen, from 3 June to 8 July. Opening at 6pm on Friday 2 June.

Below: stirrings in Ballydehob: in the 1960s potter Christa Reichel and batik artist Nora Golden set up The Flower House as a shop, studio, cafe and haven for artists. “…Word spread that West Cork was a beautiful, creative place waiting to be discovered…” (Alison Ospina – West Cork Inspires) Photo courtesy Andrew Street

Ways West!

Many of you will know that I was a frequent traveller between Cornwall and West Cork from the 1990s and onwards – until I happily met with Finola and we came and settled permanently here in Nead an Iolair just a few years ago. We have never looked back! But I have often wondered about the various ways in which that journey was made – not just in the last century, but three or four thousand years ago… For we do know that tin mined in Cornwall was brought across to the west of Ireland then, in order to manufacture Bronze – the ‘supermetal’ of those advanced times: it symbolized strength and gave wealth and status.

MV Julia, the car ferry which plied between Cork and Swansea: top picture – in her heyday, when she operated throughout the year. Above – Julia leaving Cork in 2012 after the closure of the Fastnet Line. Her name was changed to Wind Perfection and she became a floating dormitory for workers on the offshore wind farms in the North Sea

Not only tin was brought from Cornwall. A study carried out in 2015 by universities in Southampton and Bristol – (using laser ablation mass spectrometry) – concluded that many of the gold artefacts in the National Museum of Ireland and dating from the Bronze Age were manufactured from gold imported from Cornwall – even though there were rich supplies of gold being extracted in Ireland. Author Chris Standish suggests: 

…It is probable that an ‘exotic’ origin was cherished as a key property of gold and was an important reason behind why it was imported for production…

Gold artefacts from Ireland: left – Tyrone Lunula, early Bronze Age; right – Gleninsheen gold gorget, late Bronze Age (photos courtesy National Museum of Ireland)

I would really like to know what type of boat was used all that time ago to bring that precious metal across the Irish Sea. Some have suggested that it would have been a forerunner of the currach – implying a small hide-covered boat. But metal was heavy – even if it was smelted into ingots before the journey: something larger than a currach must surely have been needed. My own not-too-distant memories of having survived a night crossing in the MV Julia, from Swansea to Cork, in a Force 9 storm – with the thudding of huge waves against the steel hull and ominous creakings and crashings coming from the car decks below – lead me to think that any craft that had to traverse those seas in all weathers had to be substantial and sturdy.

A traditional currach in Dingle, Co Kerry – without its covering skin of hide or canvas

I began to research types of craft that were used in the Bronze Age: examples have been found, some preserved underwater or in bogs. These included ‘log boats’ such as the 14 metre long Lurgan Canoe in the National Museum, which doesn’t seem ideally suited to cargo carrying – especially on open sea. The most likely candidate comes from the Mediterranean: the Uluburun Shipwreck, found underwater in Turkey in 1982.

The Uluburun was a cargo boat: we know this because much of its load was intact when the wreck was found. Amazingly, archeologists were able to pinpoint its route: the ship set sail from either a Cypriot or Syro-Palestinian port and was probably heading for a Mycenaean palace on mainland Greece. It was wrecked in the late 14th century BC. The boat was constructed of cedar planks with morticed and tenoned joints and carried a huge cargo: 500 copper ingots; one ton of tin (which when alloyed with the copper would make around 11 tons of bronze); around 150 Canaanite jars, some filled with glass beads, many others with olives and some with an ancient form of turpentine; 175 glass ingots; African blackwood (ebony); ivory; tortoise-shells; ostrich eggs; Cypriot pottery and oil-lamps; a trumpet; quartz, gold, faience, amber, weapons, tools, pan-balance weights and a gold scarab… The list goes on.

Underwater archaeology: it took ten years to excavate and recover the cargo of the Uluburun vessel

This was in the Mediterranean, not in the Irish Sea. But it’s perfectly possible that the marine technology of those times extended to the northern outposts of Bronze Age Europe. We have to be very clear in our minds that we are looking at a sophisticated society capable of metallurgy, communication and long-distance travel.

Coming back to my own journeys from Cornwall to Ireland, I mourn the passing of the Swansea Cork Ferry, in those days by far the best way to get me and my car to the west of Ireland: I have good memories of arriving in the Lee estuary at daybreak and, excited to be here, watching the sun rise as we sailed up through Cobh to Ringaskiddy. On other journeys I also came over by air: there was a wonderful flight in a small aircraft from Exeter going to Cork. The homespun Devon airport in those days was unsophisticated: on one occasion I lined up to have my luggage checked by security and was asked to take my concertina (a constant travelling companion) out of its case for inspection. I was then asked to play it – in front of the queue – and everything stopped so that the serenade could be heard! It was a small aeroplane – about a dozen seats in the cabin, with the pilot up front – no partition. As he started the engines his broad Cork accent came over the speakers: “…let’s see if we can get this thing off the ground…” He succeeded and – once in the air and cruising at a lowish altitude – got out packs of sandwiches and passed them around. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the outline of Cornwall (exactly as it’s shown in the atlas!) passing below us, to be replaced shortly by the distinctive – and similar – geography of south-west Ireland, soon followed by a sketchy and invariably bumpy landing on Cork’s runaway – especially in any sort of stiff breeze.

Air Lingus Regional flights – operated by Stobart Air – now directly connect Cornwall with Cork. Photo – Trevor Hannant

It’s exciting that – just in time for Uillinn’s West meets West exhibition of Cornish artists, there is finally a direct link from within Cornwall to Cork! A new Air Lingus Regional flight – operated by Stobart Air started operating this month and it’s already popular: extra flights have been added to the planned timetable to cater for higher than expected demand. These flights leave from Newquay Airport and are very reasonably priced. I wish them every success… Back in the day, my journey from Newlyn to Skibbereen via the ferry took all day and a night: the new flight barely takes an hour.

Depart here for West Cork! Newquay Airport, in Cornwall

When the Swansea to Cork ferry stopped running the West of Ireland felt the loss: tourism numbers dropped significantly and businesses which relied on visitors suffered. Things have improved since then, particularly with the Wild Atlantic Way initiative. Hopefully the new air link will lead to increased business between the two western outposts of Britain and Ireland, hearkening back to historical times when close links were first forged. Meanwhile, please don’t forget to come along to West meets West and see the work of contemporary artists from Cornwall. The artists (some of whom will have flown over on the Newquay service!) will be speaking about their work at 12 noon on Saturday 3 June, and I will be giving a gallery talk on Saturday 10 June – also at 12 noon – about the many historic links between Cornwall and the West of Ireland. West meets West – the work of contemporary Cornish artists, at Uillinn, Skibbereen, from 3 June to 8 July. Opening at 6pm on Friday 2 June.

Travelling from Cornwall to Cork: Off to Skibbereen – painted by Newlyn Artist  (and Irishman) Stanhope Alexander Forbes in 1901

Pilchards and Palaces

Black Castle, Leamcon

Black Castle, Leamcon – also known as ‘The Hound’s Leap’ – William Hull territory

A little while ago I described an outing we undertook exploring some of the archaeological sites on the Mizen Peninsula. We were out again a few days ago checking on some monuments off to the west of us. I had researched the Archaeological Survey Database, and determined to have a look at the ‘Fish Palace’ located in the townland of Leenane, close to Crookhaven – evidently a substantial establishment set up by Sir William Hull and his business partner, Sir Richard Boyle, first Earl of Cork, in 1616.

Leenane Fish Palace in 2015

Leenane Fish Palace in 2015

Hull was a notorious character – his family home was Larkbeare, near Exeter in Devon. He had been appointed Deputy Vice Admiral of Munster in 1609 under James I, and settled in Leamcon near Black Castle or ‘The Hound’s Leap’, one of the O’Mahony castles built along the coast of Roaringwater Bay. Set on a promontory into Toormore Bay, Leamcon  is one of the most defensible of these, only being reached by crossing a narrow bridge. Hull’s job was ostensibly to protect the southern Irish coastline against piracy. In fact, the post seemed to encourage collaboration with the pirates, where it would financially benefit both the Admiralty and Hull himself.

You probably want to know what a ‘Fish Palace’ is? I had seen the term on Irish Ordnance Survey maps, and had established that it is a class of monument in the Archaeological Inventory of County Cork 1992, where it is well described:

‘…Fish palaces: The fishing and curing (smoking, pickling and pressing) of pilchards (Sardinia pilchardis) became an important industry in West Cork during the 17th century. This industry suffered from the erratic pattern of pilchard shoals (some years none would appear in Irish waters) and was in serious decline by the middle of the 18th century. Today, all that remains are the ruins of curing stations, called “pallices” along the coast. The word “palace” is of uncertain derivation, but probably originated in the SW of England where it meant a cellar used for storing fish. Usually the “press wall” is the only standing structure, with its horizontal line of lintelled support niches. These held one end of a press beam; at the other end a heavy weight was suspended and in the middle was a wooden press or “buckler”. The buckler was placed over an open barrel of pilchards and the downward force of the press beam pressed the pilchards into the barrel. Also fish or “train” oil was squeezed out through a drain in the base of the barrel; this was valuable as a luminant and was used by the tanning industry…’

All this has been ringing bells with me: firstly, because I know from the map that a Fish Palace once existed down below Nead an Iolair – overlooking Rossbrin Cove and Castle – but no trace is left now, except that the field there is still known as ‘The Palliashes’; but secondly because when I lived in Newlyn in Cornwall I looked out over Mounts Bay, where a pilchard fishery had been active since the 16th century. This was a huge business, whose heyday was the middle of the 19th century. Pilchard quantities are measured in ‘hogsheads’ – one hogshead holding 3,000 fish: in 1847 the exports of pilchards from Cornwall amounted to 40,883 hogsheads or 122 million fish! By good fortune we have a pictorial record of the activities, as two of the Newlyn School of Artists chose seining as the subject matter for two impressive paintings.

'Pilchards' - Charles Napier Hemy 1897 (Tate Gallery)

‘Pilchards’ – Charles Napier Hemy 1897 (Tate Gallery)

'Tucking Pilchards' Percy Craft 1897 - Penlee Gallery

‘Tucking Pilchards’ Percy Craft 1897 (Penlee Gallery)


In the good times Mounts Bay was brimming with seine boats. The pilchards were harvested during the summer when the shoals swam in close to the shore. Lookouts known as Huers were posted on the cliffs, from where the shoals could be seen and semaphore signals were sent out to the waiting boats who let out 400 yard long nets to surround and trap them. The nets were kept upright by floats at the surface and weights at the bottom, presenting an impenetrable wall to the pilchards. The pilchards were then removed by smaller tuck nets and loaded into punts and carried ashore. The seine net provided a convenient keep net in which the fish could be kept alive and fresh until they were processed.

Early photographs of seining, and the fishing fleets working out of Penzanace and Newlyn, Cornwall

During my time in Newlyn there was an active pilchard processing plant – now closed down – but I was fortunate enough to visit the works and see the pressing and preserving taking place, using exactly the same methods that William Hull’s workers employed four centuries before. Just as in those earlier times the main markets for the processed fish were in France and Spain.

Pressed Pilchards (Richard Greenwood)

Pressed Pilchards (Richard Greenwood)

As in Ireland, the pilchard shoals severely declined – probably because of overfishing – and the industry followed. Nowadays there is a small amount of pilchard fishing taking place in Cornwall, but it is barely viable.

Mousehole, Mounts Bay - Ernest Watson

Mousehole, Mounts Bay – Ernest Watson

To the casual observer, our little expedition to the Crookhaven Fish Palace might have seemed pointless – a lot of scrambling through bracken and brambles to find a few old stone walls and the crumbling remains of an abandoned quay. Through our eyes, however, we saw the industry and energy of former days: Irish men and women labouring long and hard to put clothes on the back of a Knight and an Earl…

canned pilchards

A Chatter of Choughs

Rossbrin Cove: Chough country

Rossbrin Cove: Chough country

One of the many treats of living up here in Nead an Iolair is the frequent appearance of a group of Choughs. Towards the evening we hear them on our roof, chattering to each other. Chatter of Choughs, by the way, is the correct collective noun: all the Corvid family seem to have interesting ones – Murder of Crows, Parliament of Rooks, Conspiracy of Ravens, Tiding of Magpies… These are just some of a very long list: do you of know any to add to it?

Autumn evening at Nead an Iolair

Autumn evening at Nead an Iolair

Choughs are distinctive birds, but easy to mistake for other Corvids when in the sky. Look out for curved red bills, and red legs and claws. Also listen for the chatter, in which the bird tells you its name:

It won’t tell you its latin species name, however: Pyrrhocorax-pyrrhocorax!

Birds on line!

Birds on line!

As an erstwhile resident of Cornwall I have a particular interest in the Chough. This bird appeared on the old Cornish coat-of-arms, together with a tin miner and a fisherman (the two latter have vanished on the new one – perhaps a poignant comment on changing times), and was once a familiar sight on the coast. Changing habitat and trophy hunting led to a decline in the British Chough populations recorded by naturalists as early as the eighteenth century. The last breeding pair was seen in Cornwall in 1947, and not long afterwards the Cornish Chough was pronounced extinct. Amazingly, the new Millennium saw the Chough returning naturally to Cornwall, with three birds taking up residence on the Lizard peninsula and breeding successfully. It’s reckoned that there are now between forty and fifty living on that far western coastline. On my last days in Cornwall before coming here to Ireland I was walking at Nanquidno, near Lands End and – as if to wish me ‘goodbye’ – there was a pair of Choughs foraging happily on the path in front of me! Where did the new generations of Cornish Choughs come from? DNA tests have given us the answer: Ireland…

Cornwall's old and new logos: and the 'Raven King' - in folklore, Choughs and Ravens are interchangeable

Cornwall’s old and new logos: and the ‘Raven King’ – in folklore, Choughs and Ravens are interchangeable

Cornish nationalists, who are campaigning for a devolved parliament, are delighted by the come-back. “This will be seen as a symbol of hope,” said Dr Loveday Jenkin of the nationalist party Mebyon Kernow. “The re-emergence of the Chough is a symbol of the re-emergence of the Cornish nation.”

King Arthur's last battle

King Arthur’s last battle

Cág Cosdearg is the name of the Chough in Irish – this is a literal translation of ‘red-legged Jackdaw’. There are a number of legends attached to this bird: King Arthur turned into one, and the red beak and legs are symbolic of the blood shed at his last battle (presumably this is another link with Cornwall). The Chough was known to Daniel Defoe as a ‘fire raising bird’ in his …tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain…

“…It is very mischievous; it will steal and carry away any thing it finds about the house, that is not too heavy, tho’ not fit for its food; as knives, forks, spoons and linnen cloths, or whatever it can fly away with, sometimes they say it has stolen bits of firebrands, or lighted candles, and lodged them in the stacks of corn, and the thatch of barns and houses, and set them on fire; but this I only had by oral tradition…”

I like the Irish expression, “You’ll follow the Crows for it” meaning that a person would only appreciate something after it had gone.

chough close

Watching our Choughs perform their aerobatics up here is a delight – I’ve seen them turning cartwheels in the air, and they even appear to fly upside down at times. Sylvia Plath puts it wonderfully in Blackberrying:
“…Overhead go the choughs in black, cacophonous flocks—
Bits of burnt paper wheeling in a blown sky.
Theirs is the only voice, protesting, protesting…”