Lampreys were famous for making excellent angling bait, having toughness on the hook because of their hard, rough skin. The Brook Lamprey tends to live in the upper waters of a river, in the attic, as it were, above the parlour in which the larger River Lamprey, or lampern, lives.

The River Lamprey is noted for the exceptional sharpness of its teeth: all sources make reference to this. It grows to 20 inches (50 cm) and has the diameter of a thick lead pencil. As with the Brook Lamprey, its young are called Prides. This lamprey is a semi-migratory species. It spends maybe a year in the brackish areas of the sea and re-enters the river in the autumn and spawns in April. The method of spawning is as follows: the male “runs his sucker disc up the left side of her body and fastens anterior to her eye, winding his body round hers. In this position the eggs are shed and fertilised and fall to the bottom.” Both adults then die.


This curious, snouty and to some repulsive creature is found for sure in the Wick and the Naver. Perhaps it lives in other parts of the system too; it is by nature a recluse.

The smallest among the three species that inhabit the British Isles is the Brook Lamprey, which is about six inches in length. It is almost the most common. Unlike the other two species, it is non-parasitic. It obtains nourishment for its adult life from the long period, five or so years, that it spends as larva deep in the river’s sediment. During this period it ingests various microorganisms from the surrounding detritus. Its metamorphosis will last five months. Thereafter it takes no food but lives to breed and die. As with its cousins, the River Lamprey and Sea Lamprey, it is the male that makes the scrape in which the female lays its eggs. It does this by moving soil and stones with the strange sucker disc that is its mouth.


Lampreys can be stewed, fried or grilled. It has no bones, which removes one hazard, but the occasional lumps of gristle, which are an integral part of its anatomy, can disappoint the palate. Lamprey pie can be found on swanky menus in the UK. In parts of France they are considered a delicacy, lamproie à la Bordelaise being a well-attested recipe. In this connection the death of Henry I, the fourth son of William the Conqueror, cannot be allowed to pass unnoticed. This event, which was unlamented by many on account of the severity of his rule, happened at Lyons on the night of December 1st , 1135, when the king was aged 67. According to contemporary sources it was caused by eating lampreys, which had been expressly forbidden by his physicians. Modern historians ascribe it to his age, his general infirmity and the vexation caused him by his daughter Matilda.

The Sea Lamprey is an altogether larger concern. It grows to 36 inches (91 cm) and can weigh 5 ½ lbs (2.5 kg). It breeds in fresh water and then migrates. It is said to be uncommon round the British Isles, but here is a remarkable photo of a Sea Lamprey spawning, taken on the Naver by David Johnstone. This specimen was about three feet long.

In the American Great Lakes the lampreys of the region, which are structurally similar to the true Sea Lamprey and are regarded as a very great nuisance, have the peculiarity that they never go to sea. They spawn in June then leave the lakes to seek out clear brooks, “often stealing a ride by fastening onto large fishes bound in the same direction”.

Sea Lamprey on the Naver

 Photo David Johnstone

The teeth of a Sea Lamprey

 Photo Chris Conroy

Brook Lamprey found dead on the river Vagastie after spawning Photo Chris Conroy