How My Village “Salmonweir” Got Its Name

I am sometimes a stickler for detail. Early on when writing this book, several knowledgeable people (including my partner) commented that Salmonweir is not a Cornish name. That’s right, it’s not. I’d always intended to explain its meaning although I didn’t want to get too hung up on the naming of the place. I simply wanted an explanation for anyone familiar with Cornwall.

Cornish names often sound Welsh. Cornish and Welsh are both Celtic languages and therefore share a common ancestry with Gaelic, not English (which is Germanic in origin). These places are typically Cornish: Godrevey, Penrose (I have given two characters – a father and daughter – Penrose as a surname), Penryn, Pengelly, Porthcurno. Porth and Pen are common prefixes. lynn and ryn are common suffixes.

Fowey across the bay
Copyright MG Mason July 2016

However, there are many places in Cornwall that are not Cornish names so there is a precedent. On the north coast we have the Saint Places: St Just, St Agnes, St Dennis, St Ewe. More English sounding names include Launceston (Cornish name Lannstevan), Falmouth (English: mouth of the Fal), Boscastle and Bude. Hayle is a funny one. It is a Cornish word apparently, but it is an English style spelling (Cornish “Heyl”). There are many more like this. I want to do a post in Cornish place names in future when I have had a chance to research it a bit more so I won’t bother you further with that. It’s fascinating and feels like a whole other culture not present in the rest of England.

What I do want is to share a writing sample from Salmonweird. How the village got its name.

Let me tell you something else about Salmonweir. If it doesn’t sound Cornish to your ears then well done for spotting that small piece of trivia. It isn’t Cornish and there has never been any salmon around here. The weir is long gone, probably robbed of its components when the river became a stream sometime in the Tudor period.

We know that a monk founded it around the early 13th century as a monastic grange. The excitable young man travelled all the way from Glastonbury… so we are told. Now, this young man came from somewhere in the Midlands and had (apparently) never seen a fish. His father, not knowing what else to do with him (presumably on his inability to identify a fish) packed him away to Somerset to become a monk. When he first saw a strange scaly creature he asked one of the elder monks what it was. The monk told him it was a salmon, which it probably was, but to a young man who had never seen a fish – anything vaguely fish shaped was henceforth “salmon”.

Delighted by his new discovery, he volunteered to be part of the building of a Grange funded by the convenient discovery of King Arthur’s grave at the abbey. They ended up here, in a gentle valley with a stream running through it and built the grange in which the young man swore he had seen salmon. It wasn’t to be. Within months, the young man and the rest of the team had returned to Somerset in shame. There were no salmon and the entire catch of the settlement amounted to something like thirty eels, not nearly enough to feed the crew for more than a day’s worth of meals, and unsuitable for the affluent monks up country. It was reported that on their exit, they told nearby Cornish villagers “the salmon weir is yours” and the name stuck.

So there we have it. That’s how my fictional village Salmonweir got its name. This book is primarily light-hearted and fun with the crime and so I felt that the village’s foundation needed an equally daft story.

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