Monday 11 September 2023

Wild Garlic and Ravens

Hello Friends!

Recently my friend Caroline over at Ragged Robin's Nature Notes {here} wrote about Eye, a few miles from Berrington Hall, and she explained that "Eye" is old English for island.  Immediately , this triggered a memory of mine, which I wrote about in the comment I left on her blog. It was such a lengthy comment that I have decided to bring it over into my blog as a thread of its own being to enable me to expand on it.

Some years ago my father ran a boat trip company that, amongst other coastal and fishing trips, landed people on Ramsey Island.  For decades, Ramsey Island was in private ownership, prior to which it belonged to the Church, but circa 1996 came into ownership of the RSPB.  As a crew member, I did a lot of research on the Island, surrounding area, and wildlife in order to give our clients the best possible experience when on one of our excursions. 

The area where I live is rich in history, dating back to prehistory. I am surrounded by Stone Age sites, Cromlechs, Iron Age hill forts, Norman castles, birthplace of Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch, and so much more, including what one person hashtagged on the site formerly known as Twitter a "whopping mediaeval cathedral".  It is inevitable, therefore, that the diversity of the past be reflected in the diversity of place names of the present.  Gateholm, Grassholm, Fishguard, Hasguard, to name a few that have a particular Norse influence, for with inevitable predictability, the Vikings invaded here.

This brings me to Ramsey Island.  For years people asked if there were sheep {rams} on Ramsey, which the answer was "yes" but that is not how Ramsey came by it's name.

Back in the day, I had only one, quite plausible, explanation.  At one time, during the Middle Ages when the island was owned by the Church, it is known to have been covered in that most delicious of wild herbs, wild garlic, which you can read about here.  The Old English name for wild garlic is Ramsons, which has it's roots in the Saxon word hramsa.  Please take note of these spellings, their important to what follows.

Although the island is now relatively free of wild garlic, testament to it's presence in the past remains on one small, wild garlic covered point that bears the name Trwyn Garlic, literally Garlic Nose, but in English is simple known as Garlic Point.

I would tell people the history of the wild garlic on Ramsey, and then say that in my opinion the name Ramsey is derived from a contraction of Ramson's Eye, or Ramson's Island {in effect, today we unwittingly say Ramson's Island Island}  It seemed perfectly plausible until along comes the RSPB who changed all that, disrespectfully sweeping it away overnight and replacing it with what I can only describe as marketing.

Now, I'm not saying they are right or wrong in their assumption, just that they are wrong to simply usurp one opinion without giving any credence to it whatsoever, other than a blunt "No, it's wrong". 

Here's what they say.

Quite simply that Ramsey is a derivation of Raven's Eye, which has it's roots in the old Norse word for raven, which is hrafn {pronouncedhrap}. The island was therefore named after the eye of birds of the Corvidiae family, Ravens, which can be found in small numbers on the coast.  No ifs, ands, or buts, that's what they say and there's an end to it.  Eye, according to the RSPB, has nothing to do with the old English word for island.  However, what the RSPB fail to acknowledge is that during the Middle Ages then the primary bird on Ramsey was the puffin.  So populous was the puffin that it was a valuable source of food, especially during Lent when it was consumed during abstinence from meat, as it was declared a fish due to it's overtly fishy taste.

The old English word for raven is hræfn.  To my ear, this is sounds more like raven than the old Norse.  The Norse word for puffin is Lundi.  Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel is testimony to this!

Earlier, I asked you to remember the word hramsa, the Saxon word for ramsons.  To the eye and the ear, hramsa and hrafn are incredibly similar, but hramsa has more in common spelling wise with Ramsey than hrafn does.  The similarities are too close to call!

For over two decades I have listened to the RSPB telling people their version without so much as a nod to the other plausible possibility.  I understand their need to promote by romanticising the origin of the name, but at what cost?  They could actively be erasing the true origin from memory.  I'm not saying either one is correct, or incorrect,  both are plausible, therefore both should be offered for individuals to make up their own mind.  It is wrong to overwrite or ignore one option in the name of marketing.

As an aside, a nearby beach promontory is called Trwyn Hwrddyn, which does translate into English as Ram's Nose!  Confused?

For now, for me, it will always be rooted in garlic not raven or eye of the raven.  I hope I haven't confused with my observations, and look forward to what you think.

Until next time
Stay safe, stay well
Debbie xx


  1. That is so interesting! And if the RSPB is telling only one version, their version, then that is very wrong. What they should be saying is that ‘ It could be this but alternatively, it could be that..’ And the other thing that struck me is that they could well be giving only their interpretation on other issues too. And that doesn’t make for good debate!

    Meanwhile, you are so fortunate to live in an area steeped in history and archaeology! I would love to spend some time there. We have an Iron Age Hillfort right on our doorstep and I’ve walked around that a number of times. The Romans settled on it much later. Only recently, there were proposals for houses to be built not too far from it….much protest was made, at least by me and my family! Thankfully, the plans were rejected but I do worry about the future!

  2. Such an interesting post Debbie and thank you for the mention. The History of Place Names is a really fascinating subject. The Dictionary of Britsh Place Names say that Eye is derived from the old English word meaning a place at "the island or a well watered land or dry ground in a marsh"
    Having read the different interpretations of where the name Ramsey Island came from I have to say I totally agree with your idea as it makes total sense especially with regard to the old Saxon words.

    I agree I think the RSPB should at least give the two possible interpretations to keep the local history of your area alive and to let people make up their own minds. I've been to places eg Llandwyn Island in Anglesey also known as St Dwynwen's Island and Isle of the Blessed and Yns Llandwyn and also Puffin Island and St Seriol's Island.

    A super post :)

  3. It would be better to acknowledge the possibility of various name derivations, but sometimes people are just closed to everything except their own opinion. Thanks for sharing, this was a fascinating read today! Hugs, Valerie

  4. My goodness, Deb. I've never liked the idea of not telling all the facts when it comes to history. We are all paying high prices for that these days. I must admit I am fascinated by word origins. Thank you for sharing this!

  5. Interesting. There is many a story behind place names

  6. An interesting read, thank you.
    My good wishes.

    All the best Jan

  7. Very interesting! I'm in your camp on the origin of the name.

  8. Your explanation makes more sense.


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