The Name

 of the River

The mouth of the river Roe, near Limavady
The mouth of the river Roe

The river Roe rises at the base of the White Mountain (Sliabh Ban) in Glenshane Forest and flows via Dungiven past Burnfoot through the Country Park to Limavady . From there it makes its way to Lough Foyle where its mudflats are a favourite feeding ground for countless birds.

I have come across at least four explanations of where the name "Roe" might come from.

  • Donald Roe from Tennessee, thinks it could be of Viking origin. This certainly is possible, as the Roe Valley has been the scene of some fearful battles during the time of the Viking raids in the 8th and 9th century.

    Later, when the Norsemen reappeared in the shape of invading Normans, some more heads were cut off - twenty score or more in one memorable encounter. The Normans ruled the area from their "Manor of Ro", so maybe Donald is on to something.

  • The late Harold Gough, a local historian of great repute, had heard that the name Roe means "The Red River". Upstream is a red stone quarry, and the name could come from its produce.
Harold Gough
  • Samuel Mitchell, another historian, says it comes from the Irish "rua", which means red, and that this refers to the muddy water of its torrents, although in that case "Sort of Dirty Brownish River" would have been a much more apt name.

  • A rather fanciful story is related by a Mr. Mason:

    "There is a curious fragment of an Irish poem preserved among the mountaineers, respecting the name of this river. According to this, it is derived from the name of a Saxon heroine called Ruadh who, having by her martial powers carried terror and desolation through the adjoining counties was at length drowned in crossing the Roe during a flood. The river is here celebrated for having overcome this terrible fair one, whom the Lagan and the mighty Bann had been unable to restrain."

  • Nick Jones, who lives in Sumerland, British Columbia in far-away Canada, but who grew up just down the road in Derry, thinks that the name might come from the river's salmon and trout bounty, i.e. it was a very good spawning stream.

    At first reading this idea might seem too obvious, but Nick can back it up with some brilliant research.


    You mention the Vikings. Well, it turns out the word 'roe' is apparently a dialect corruption of the Old Norse word 'hrogn', meaning fish roe. My source is: Funk and Wagnalls, Standard College Dictionary, Canadian Edition.

    An English term for a fish spawning bed is 'redd'. Salmon roe is anywhere from yellow to a bright pinkish red, depending on maturity.

    The word 'roan' in English refers to colour, in horses, a brownish red tinged with white or gray, as does the 'Roe' in Roe Deer. Mr. Mason's heroine 'Ruadh' could possibly have been so named for the colour of her hair, rauthr, meaning red. Mr. Mitchell's Gaelic 'rua'. Perhaps the name goes back even further, to prehistoric times, is there ochre in the area? Red or yellow? Mr. Harold Gough's 'Red River' could equally be 'Redd River'.

I think Nick may have come up with a viable theory.  
The Roe
Pat Eliott writes from Jamesville, USA

I recently came across the River Roe in some family writings - working on genealogy. My relatives are the Roe's. According to the writings:

    James Roe, head of our branch of the Hroe Viking Clan of Norway, the Clan of Hroe left Norway to settle down in Northern Ireland for three hundred years as a Clan Roe, having dropped the H. They had a large holding with a river flowing through it to the North Sea which they named River Roe and it remains to this day, attesting the Viking Roe's once lived there. Mary Abrigal Roe visited the spot in the 1870's where the Roe Clan held forth. She found a large heap of rocks and a lot of smaller heaps over grown with mother nature's plantings.

Either Mr Hroe was geographically challenged or the Vikings called all of the Atlantic Ocean the North Sea, because the Roe flows into Lough Foyle which opens onto the above mentioned stretch of water. Some other bits of information lead me to believe that maybe the second assumption is correct.

Fishing in the Roe has always been excellent. The Ordnance Survey Memoirs report that 'salmon weighing 30 to 40 lbs each' were not uncommon This could of course be a fisherman's estimate but apparently salmon could be bought all the year round in Newtown Limavady for 1d ha'penny per pound. Obviously the fishing season lasted for the whole year in those days.

An interesting legal argument developed around 1793. Until then fishing rights had been owned by the local landed gentry (who, by all accounts, had it landed, salmon and all!), but it was found that when Mr Phillips had divided up the county, he did not mention the river Roe on the different deeds. Apparently he wanted all the fishing rights for himself. He was obviously a dedicated man. People who owned land along the river instantly went to court and won the right to fish in the stretches of the river opposite their own land.

Any poachers caught from that day on could only be charged with trespass - which must have done wonders for their confidence. I am happy to report that although the salmon are much smaller these days, the poachers are occasionally gigantic.

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