Cornish National Piskey Reserve and Cornish animal name trail at Newquay Zoo, 2002


Myttin Da!

Our March offering on our Newquay Zoo History and Archive monthly blog is timed ready for St. Piran’s Day (March 5th), the nearest Cornwall has to a national / patron saint’s day.

Happy St Piran’s Day  or Gool Peran Lowen in Cornish!

For over ten years this “unofficial” Piskey Reserve sign from 2002 survived in place at Newquay Zoo, until recently cleared in a resignage programme.  I thought it best to preserve it on this archive blog online. I’m sure the Piskeys are still there unseen and unphotographed.

What Happened Was

Back in 2002 Cornish speaker and musician Matthew Clarke and I put together a Cornish animal names trail at Newquay Zoo, probably in the days before the new unified Cornish language. Matthew is very active in the Cornish Language Fellowship, even broadcasting on radio regularly in Cornish.

As well as creating trail boards featuring Cornish animal names, we also declared part of the zoo around the stream,  Maze and wooded areas to be the Cornish National Piskey Reserve or  Gwithva Genedhlek Pyskiow Kernewek.

Cornish National Piskey Reserve or  Gwithva Genedhlek Pyskiow Kernewek.

After all, if zoos are about the conservation of endangered species and their habitats both here and abroad, then why not offer sanctuary to some of Cornwall’s legendary creatures? We have had a Cornish Dragon Maze since 1983.

It’s basically creating good spaces for ‘Native Wildlife’ in all its forms!

If Newquay Zoo’s home of Cornwall and its local culture is celebrated both at home but also internationally throughout the Cornish diaspora, a good modern zoo is also outward looking and multi-national,  working in partnerships around the world with hopefully a good understanding of the local cultures around it. Which includes our own …

From Sulawesi where we support the Selamatkan Yaki project to protect the critically endangered macaque monkeys (or Yakis) to projects in Vietnam and Colombia, staff from Newquay Zoo as part of the wider Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust have had to learn a smattering of some unusual languages to gain local support.

So what is a scientific research and conservation charity to do with a once almost extinct language and strange superstitious tales of piskeys? To be fair the Cornish National Piskey Reserve was established at Newquay Zoo almost a year before it became part of the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust in Summer 2003.

A Cornish flavour to Newquay Zoo?

As well as using local produce in our retail outlets on sustainability grounds, we have also explored our Cornish location in interesting ways over the years. Cornish explorers and planthunters  like Richard Lander or Thomas Lobb have featured on family activity trails in the past, whilst Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle southwest  and Cornish connections were celebrated in his bicentenary year in 2009.

The zoo’s past and its present ‘sebra’ logo has kept the black white and gold of the St. Piran’s flag (and the black, white and gold of the Cornish rugby team?)

St. Piran’s Day itself has been marked at Newquay Zoo in a variety of ways over the years from St. Piran family activity  trails to recently the World Cornish Pasty Flinging  competition invented and held here for several years until 2015.

The famous Lowender Peran Celtic and Cornish music and dance  festival is now held in Newquay each year

Penguin – arguably one of the few Cornish or Celtic animal names to survive and make it into modern English?

Naming the Cornish Animals 

Creating a ‘Cornish animal names’ trail posed a few problems. Many of the exotic animals had never as far as we knew  been officially named in Cornish before its use  declined throughout the 18th and 19th century, despite Cornwall’s many people who explored and mined  far flung places.

Cornish is a Celtic language and closely related to Welsh and Breton. It is also connected to Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx in the Celtic language family.
Latest research shows Cornish did not completely die out as the last native speakers lived up until the start of the 20th century, when the revival was already well underway.

(Matthew’s  website 

Matthew Clarke and I sat down at Newquay Zoo in 2002 with several Cornish and Celtic dictionaries, along with a list of what the animal’s scientific or Latin names meant, in order  to explore what a new or old Cornish name might be. We were trying to put ourselves into the mind and naming tradition of   any Cornish speaking person who had ever encountered and tried to name  a South African  Meerkat or a South American Coati in their own local langauge.

My own few months of Cornish language lessons at evening classes with Cornish Bard Jori Ansell, amongst a great class of dowsers and proud sons of bal maidens  c. 1995/6,  were by 2002 already a fading memory. So Matthew must take 99% of the credit for these animal names!

The Blue Reef  Aquarium in Newquay has some local names displayed for the many native fish landed here in Cornwall. A lovely local touch.

MAGA Kernow has done much to encourage  with the Cornwall Council to support the naming or dual naming of streets or little word guides to modern life in Cornish.

cornish trail 2 .jpg

We crafted these trail boards using clip art, photos, a few of my own drawings and line illustrations (some done by Natalie Trotter? Art student in residence c. 1993?) and others from the Newquay Zoo colour in children’s guide c.1987/89.

cornish trail 3 .jpg
Cornish bird names – Papynjay is a great word for a parrot, no doubt named after some made it back home with Cornish sailors!

Some animals were easier to name than others as certain animal names already existed in Cornish dictionaries and documents. Cornish people had Cornish names for familiar animals such as owl, frog, spider, snake or seal that they would regularly have seen around the county and coastline.

Other more popular zoo animals we found were already named and illustrated in the pages and pictures of animals in Stephen Cartwright’s fantastic book First 1000 Words in Cornish (we had a copy of the first edition),  written with Cornish language teacher Graham Sandercock .

But what about the exotic animal species that had no Cornish name?

cornish trail 4 .jpg
One name that caused us a bit of a challenge … Black Lemur

Some animals like the rare Black Lemur from Madagascar, one of our early oversaeas conservation projects in the mid 1990s, had no Cornish name.

The name Lemur is said to mean ‘ghost’ or spirit, based on local Malagasy traditions. In Cornish a ghost or spirit is a bucca or boekka.Boekka dhu became the Cornish name for a  black lemur.

The more famous Ring-tailed lemurs that we now work with are also known as ‘cat lemurs’ after their cat-like mewing noises and glowing night time tapetum / reflective cat’s eyes. We called them Boekka gath as gath is the Cornish word for cat.

I brought the knowledge of what the animal names meant, Matthew brought his knowledge as a Cornish language speaker and songwriter. Together we created some interesting new animal names in the Cornish language, part of keeping the language evolving,  fresh and alive.

Meerkat was an interesting challenge – eventually talking about their Afrikaans name and their watchful behaviour, we settled on the similar sounding Mirgath or “far seeing  cat “. Meerkat sentries have to keep watch for danger from the sky or land.

cornish trail 5 .jpg
Alongside the zoo’s logo animal, the sebra,  there is the freshly christened or named mirgath – or far seeing cat?

In some ways, Graham Sandercock and others before us and then Matthew and I  in 2002 were carrying on a tradition of doing what people had done around the world such as Captain Cook, many missionaries and other explorers. They pointed at or shot unfamiliar animals and then asked the native guides the native word for this in order to  learn the local languages and names for places and animals.

Kangaroo, koala, raccoon, armadillo, kinkajou and many other animals achieved their strange names by the native words being roughly and sometimes written down by explorers and clergymen.

Sadly some languages and their rich associations with place and animals are rapidly dying out, as Cornish almost did, the language equivalents of the rare animals we work with at Newquay Zoo.

Over the past century alone, around 400 languages – about one every three months – have gone extinct, and most linguists estimate that 50% of the world’s remaining 6,500 languages will be gone by the end of this century (some put that figure as high as 90%, however). Today, the top ten languages in the world claim around half of the world’s population. Can language diversity be preserved, or are we on a path to becoming a monolingual species?      (  article below)

Sometimes it is for much the same reasons as animals die out – the disruption of habitat loss, modern farming and fast changing ways of life for forest Indians or tribal cultures, sometimes the dominance of other alien invading languages like English. Some of these last native speakers will be the same curious attention as comes too late  the last Dodo or the last Passenger Pigeon. The Dolly Pentreaths of the animal kingdom. (Dolly was supposedly the last fluent speaker of Cornish).   Others like some soon to be extinct plants and animals  will pass unseen and unremarked.

Cornish monkey and ape names from the Stephen Cartwright and Graham Sandercock book
A few Cornish naming challenges on this board! Coati, Red Panda, Kinkajou …

Some of the animals we named or featured are no longer at Newquay Zoo. These include  a Coati or Troenji brith in Cornish our name meaning “stripy nose dog” (as part of the Procyonidae or possible ancestors of Canids / dogs) and their cousins the Kinkajous or honey bears, which we made into Ors mel in Cornish.

Red Panda or Panda rudh was easier to name, as Panda was named by Graham Sandercock and featured in the zoo section of First Thousand Words in Cornish, despite Pandas of any colour  not being widely known about in the West (or Southwest!) until the Cornish language was on the decline.

cornish trail 8.jpg
Cornish animal names in the Tropical House  and having to invent a name for tropical rainforest in Cornish  … “glawkoes toemm ” ?

Matthew Clarke and I did not always agree on names – I remember half joking that the Sloth should be called a Dreckly in Cornish.

In other world languages that we use in schools MFL sessions at Newquay Zoo  a Sloth is a paresseux in French (for  sleepy, lazy) or in Spanish, a perezoso (which sounds both lazy and languid). We settled on ‘diek‘ in the end, though dreckly remains my jokey favourite.

Another newish Cornish animal name – the Asian Otter, a water dog or  dowrgi, not to be confused with a Celtic Little Welsh dog or Corgi.

These Cornish name trail boards were put together before different forms of Cornish were recently unified into one working language for a modern age, so I’m not sure if Matthew and I would create slightly different names today.

The trail board signs were only displayed for one season in 2002/3 and are not currently on display, residing in our archive.  So I thought this archive blog is a good way to give them a wider audience.


The maze, designed by Adrian Fisher in 1982/3 featured in a zoo style graphics sign (see below)  by Michelle Turton that we put up c. 2002/3 at the entrance to our Maze.

So Happy St Piran’s Day  or Gool Peran Lowen in Cornish!

Find out more about the Cornish language at the MAGA website pages.


Luckily we do not have a Baby Changing Room at the Zoo within this Piskey Reserve area at Newquay Zoo. Maybe the Zebra stables need the odd upturned horsehoe too.


Piskey or Piskie?

Pixy, Pisgie, Piskie or Piskey – the spelling often depends on where in Cornwall and Devon the stories were collected from.

I have sometimes sat late at night by a Cornish granite fireside when staying in an old house down far west reading some of these stories collected in Victorian times by Robert Hunt and William Bottrell.

With the wind whistling around the house and down the chimney, the old roof creaking, I sometimes thought of what spoken versions of those old written stories would have told in dialect or Cornish around that fireside for fun or as a gentle warning many years before.

Piskeys seem to me a Cornish or West Country  version of the modern “gremlin”, something convenient to blame mysterious events or curious losses on. These “blame it on the Piskeys” tales also no doubt covered up a bit of smuggling and black market activity too!

Many of these stories were collected from the areas where my Cornish ancestors came from,  some of the last Cornish speaking areas around Penwith and far west Cornwall. Whilst Dolly Pentreth may have been one of  the last native speakers of Cornish when she died in 1777, I’m sure that the Cornish language and dialect did not die with her.

I’m sure that many dialect words survived with Cousin Jacks, Cornish families like mine who left to find work upcountry or overseas from the mid 19th century onwards.  Even today areas of the zoo have some odd local names that have survived several re- buildings such as our “Crib Room“, our staff room where you eat your lunch or crib. A place to eat the odd pasty,  naturally.

So if anything do go wrong at the zoo or on this blog, we know who to blame, don’t us?

Dyw genes!

More mis-spent evenings turned into blogposts by Mark Norris, Newquay Zoo History project, Newquay Zoo, March 2017