Fish trap on Holy Island?

Photo of the structure looking north from the south end

I’ve spent a lot of time visiting Holy Island – Lindisfarne over recent years, and every time I come I discover something new. Over the weekend I was up leading a conference fieldtrip, and after the tour was over I went down to the little beach below the parish church on the west side of the island, overlooked by St Cuthbert’s Island. I’d originally planned to pick up some seaglass (top tip – it’s a fantastic place for seaglass!). However, whilst gazing wistfully out to sea, I noticed that one of the ridges of what I assumed was a natural rocky outcrop on the shore looked very straight and relatively coherent. Once I’d got my eye in, it was distinctive enough that I thought it merited a closer exploration. I walked out and had a good look (see pictures) and I’m pretty convinced that this is not a natural feature and has clearly been deliberately constructed.

As you can see from the images – the stones are not part of a natural outcrop of rock but comprises a series of larger squarish blocks of stone with a crude infill of a smaller rubble fragments. The coherency of the structure is not as clear as it appeared from the shoreline, but the larger blocks appear to form a distinctive feature with the rubble more spread around by the action of the sea. This side of the island faces onto the mainland so is not exposed to the full force of the North Sea and I’ve rarely seen large waves here, which seems to have preserved this structure fairly well. Overall, based on a quick measurement from Google Earth, the structure seems to b about 70m long, running roughly parallel to the shore (N-S) from a point about 65m from St Cuthbert’s Island.
Stone structure circled in red- St Cuthbert’s Island to the south

So what is it? My current best guess is that it is the remains of a stone fish trap. Fish traps and weirs are not unknown from the coast of Northumberland – there is a nice set, entirely undated and uninvestigated in Budle Bay a few miles south of Lindisfarne on the other side of Ross Point, one was identified at Dunstanburgh below the Castle and it has been suggested that an early stone feature close to the later harbour at Beadnell may be a stone fish trap (Adrian G. Osler & Katrina Porteous (2010) ‘Bednelfysch and Iseland Fish; Continuity in the pre-Industrial Fishery of North Northumberland 1300–1950, The Mariner’s Mirror, 96:1, 11-25; Oswald et al., ‘Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland, Archaeological, Architectural and Historical Investigations’, English Heritage Research Department Report, Series 26 (Portsmouth, 2006), 80.)

 The classic shape for a fish trap is a simple V-shape, which would allow the tide flow to draw fish into the point of the V where they could be collected. The structure I have found does not conform to this – it is a simple straight stone bank. In many ways this is reminiscent of the stone feature known as the ‘Black Dyke’ that lies in Budle Bay, but other parallels can be found e.g. the stone fishtrap at Balleghan in Lough Swilley (Co. Donegal, Ireland) (Montgomery, Paul. (2015). Intertidal Fish Traps from Ireland: Some Recent Discoveries in Lough Swilly, Co. Donegal. Journal of Maritime Archaeology. 10. 117-139). The publication of the Balleeghan example suggests that this was originally a V-shaped trap with only one arm surviving which is a possibility in this case. The examples from Budle Bay show a mix of V-shaped traps and simple banks/barriers. 

Range of fish traps and similar structures in Budle Bay

It is not easy to date this structure- some of the work on Irish fishtraps suggests that generally wooden fish traps might be earlier (prehistoric/early medieval) with stone fish traps coming in later (medieval/post-medieval), although it is unclear how firmly this applies to the Irish examples and how far the Irish chronology can be applied to English material. It is noticeable though, that as far as I can ascertain there are no documentary references to the Budle Bay or putative Holy Island fish traps – including in the account rolls from the medieval Holy Island Priory. There is a place name on Holy Island – “The Yares” (a local dialect term for fish trap) which belongs to an area of the sea lying between Castle Point and the sandbank known as Long Batt, but this seems to be too far south to relate to the structure I’ve found; there is also a place name “The Cages” just to the south of Beal on the mainland, more or less opposite Holy Island village, but again too far away to be related to the new structure.

Overall, it is clear that fish traps were used in this area – not surprising given the tidal range and large open sand flats – however, we know precious little about their functioning or their date. I’d hazard a guess that these Northumberland examples are broadly medieval – the lack of any documentary trail suggests they are probably not later. However, it is quite possible that they are of an earlier (early medieval?) date. The key job now is to (a) record this example properly (b) have a think about how such a stone structure might be dated.

Published by David Petts

Assc. Prof Archaeology, Durham University - landscapes - old music/books - folk traditions - early med Britain - community heritage - post-medieval - views own @davidpetts1

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