RICHARD WILLIAMSON: Angels of the sea

One of the birds that has been fishing and flying along the coast from Southampton to Seaford recently has been the sea swallow.

That is a name I as a boy grew up with on the Norfolk coast but today hardly anyone uses that descriptive name.

Today it is just called the common tern. The bird has the same streamlined shape of the swallow but it lives on the sea, or large lakes of water where it is not disturbed. A hundred years and more ago it had dozens of different names, many going far back into the antiquity of the Norse tribes or Vikings, and beyond into the reign of the Saxons and on still to the Romans. If you’ve never seen a tern, think of a streamlined seagull.

They were once thought to be the angels of the sea with their grace and pure white feathers, the spirits of the deep waters, and to give magic and power to the shamans or holy people of pre-historic tribes. Thus they gained the Norse name of spyrrd, and spithag, which meant spirit, a name to be both feared and revered as having magic powers. The French called terns hirondelle de mer, the Italians rondine de mare and the Germans swartzkopf.

I wonder if the late Elizabeth Swartzkopf, she with the most magical soprano voice I have ever heard and many will agree; I wonder if she knew she was named after a magical spirit. Probably: she was well aware of her power, choosing all eight records of her own voice to take on her Desert Island when interviewed by the BBC. Many other names derived from the Norse such as picktar, pictarnie, speikintares, were descriptions of how the tern picked its fish from just under the surface of the sea.

Ten names on the variation of tarret, terrick and taring are local dialect names from across Europe on the name tern. But where did tern come from? Some think it to be a corruption of tarn, or water course, which is where the birds would be seen. Tarn was the Norse word for maid servant, a bringer of fresh drink and youth. So they became central in European philosophy.

Local names also derived from the scream the tern makes, and depending on which part of the country you lived in you would call it shrike, skirr, sporre, spirre, spurre, scobby-scray, or ysgrechen – the screamer. Mew-gull, mewer, and sea-mew were gentler names describing its voice. The poet Swinburne used sea-mew in his poem of such a bird that he saw flying off Beachy Head.