Thunderstorm in May

Gusts of the sun race north across the grass.
Humped from the eastern hills dark clouds arise,
Knotted God-muscle, mass, and hover,
Coasting near in mantled poise above the earth,
 Cloaking the sun.
Trees, caught in a timeless trice of overshadowed frailty, tremble.
Leaves, upturned, gleam, unreally bright, like fevered lovers’ eyes.
The air crackles, hushed.
Tense, the earth draws breath.

roots of light blossom
 veins of sky made visible
 run down ready channels
 like shivers



[Mortals, cornered on an alien cosmic stage,
Scurry, in averting panic.]

skyseed spears in spurts of sharp white flame
spreads rippling fingers through the moist brown
shuddering flesh of the green earth;
unheralded streak the stabbing thrusts,
recoiling cracks of clinging forms
clash through the heavens, ringing wide.

It pierces, once again it rips:
seeding salts in the dark soil
the knuckled mass passes over

 Cattle gather in the nodes of warm arteries,
 Clustered in the wake of the Old One, Ever-Young,
 Whose new bride hums again in bliss unfolded,
 Combing the clear spring droplets
 From her green sunglistered hair.

[Published in Ocular magazine (early 1990s)]

From the lady’s tower, Elie

haar cloaked our sight,
 bound us in Fife,
lorn booming calls of lighthouse horns
 sounding through mist
like calls of ancient seabeasts
 seeking lost mates.
Evening wind puffed it back to sea,
 lost it towards Scandinavia.

is all breeze-scoured
 through crystal air:
 sky cobalt and high,
 a dome of blue field
 grazed by clouds of white down,
the firth before us indigo,
 danced by sparklets of light.
 A long-ranging gannet
from the sunbright
 Bass Rock,
flapping white paper
 in sunlight
before blue Lothian hills,
 is sudden
 origami spear-head
 stabs white pebble-thunk
 wound of cream froth
 in firth’s dark skin,
 resurrects itself
 as Aphrodite newborn,
the threshing silver in dagger bill
a glinting spangle of the sea itself,
 or star fallen,
 and found.

[Published in Ironstone 2 (2007)]

song thrush

Alert, poised, head cocked, listening:
stab and swallow wriggle worm soil glistening;
spring-hop, stop; attend, repeat:
toss off the luscious living meat.
 The rhythm of the rapt bill
 is jerking syncopation: cock, nail, kill.

Relaxed and ostentatious, head back, trilling,
singing the glories of expert killing,
lilting the evening, rippling the water,
with glutted glissandoes of sweetest slaughter.
 Paradoxical thrush, can cosmic order
 ever reconcile the melody and the murder?

[Published in Ironstone 1 (2005)]


We found a mole one spring evening,
Lying dead by his trampled hill,
His body folded like an empty velvet purse.
His blind little eyes had never blinked
Into the sunlit morning,
His sharp puppet claws had never touched
The grass till then.
Living below ground it seemed correct
To leave him on a branch.

[Published in Ironstone 1 (2005)]

once I met a shepherd

Yan, tan, tethera, methera, pimp,
once I met a shepherd walking with a limp.

‘Pray tell me, good shepherd, does counting your sheep
make you feel drowsy, or send you to sleep?’

Sethera, lethera, hothera, dothera, dick,
he tallied them up on his crooked old stick.

‘I’ll tell thee, me lad:
it depends on the weather;
in summer, in th’heather,
when all the bees buzz,
it does.
But in Cumbrian winters,
when t’frost grips, ice splinters
and shatters the skin of the lake,
when t’wind blows from t’north o’ Cat Bells
and snow-clouds build up ower t’fells,
I manage to keep awake…’

But while he was talking, I counted his sheep,
and when he had finished, I’d fallen asleep…

Yan tan tethera…
depends on t’weathera…
summer in th’heathera…
Bees buzz.
It does.
Sethera lethera…
light as a feathera…
hothera, dothera…
sorry to bother you
hothera, dothera,

[Published in Ironstone 3 (2011)]

This poem is based on the so-called Cumbrian score, a method of counting sheep found amongst Cumberland shepherds and similar to scoring systems found in other upland areas of England and southern Scotland, as well as in children’s counting. Based on 5 and usually going up to 20, it is remarkably similar to Welsh numerals, and some have suggested that it’s a relic of when British ‘Welsh’ was spoken all over the island (as place-names hint), while more sceptical others argue for a later importation by travelling shepherds, or even miners.

the dragon’s lair

Step you softly on the stair,
tiptoe past the dragon’s lair.

Take care!

If he hears the slightest sound,
he will wake and look around,
and spy you sneaking past his den
and rise and roar and flame
and then…


Step you softly on the stair,
mind the dragon sleeping there.


[Published in Ironstone 3 (2011)]

Deep thoughts on the Devon, and a fresh look at the Nith[1]

Devon < *Domnona?

A fine river cutting eastward down from deep Glendevon in the high Ochils, the River Devon PER KNR CLA veers southward through the Yetts o’ Muckhart, turning sharply back at the Crook o’ Devon to drain westward into the winding Forth downstream of Stirling and two miles upstream of Alloa CLA.[2] The shorter, smaller Black Devon KNR CLA runs westward, roughly parallel about three miles to the south, from the Cleish Hills in Kinross to the Forth a mile downstream of Alloa. The Devon (aquam de Douane c.1173 (Glen)dovan 1210 (Glen)dofona 1271) has always been derived from British (B) *Dubona ‘black river’, ‘Black One’, or even ‘Black Goddess’[3], a meaning which Duibhe, the Gaelic form of the name, appears to confirm. Yet this may only be an assimilation to a perceived dubh ‘black’.

In 1860 Glendevon village was Downhill[4], while in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the highly visible hillfort of Down Hill [NO 001036], which guards the Yetts o’ Muckhart beside the now-dammed river, seems to have been Dundovane[5], evidently an exact equivalent of the Monklands LAN Dundyvan (Dundyvene 1545, Dundyvane 1582, Dundovane 1587 Dundovan 1587[6]), though there is no fort here.[7]

Pardovan WLO hails from the Cumbric reflex of Welsh (W) pa(w)r + dwf(y)n ‘deep pasture’, ie ?‘lush grazing’[8]: Pardufin in 1124 (an almost ‘Welsh’ form), Purduuyn 1282, later Pardovin and Pardovan in 1541.[9] Namesakes exist in Pardivan by Haddington ELO, Parduvine by Gorebridge MLO and Perdovingishill RNF, this last in fifteenth century orthography.[10]

Devon, the English shire, is itself derived from Defnas ‘men of Devon’ < B Dumnonii (‘the name of the Celtic aborigines, …transferred to their Saxon conquerors’ as Ekwall perceived it[11]), an Iron Age kindred probably related to the so-called *Damnonii (after Ptolemy’s Damnonioi[12]) of Strathclyde, recte the Dumnonii[13], perhaps ‘worshippers of (the god) *Dumnonos’, ?‘the mysterious one’, a figurative use of B *dubno- *dumno- ‘deep’.[14] A proto-Pictish or North British form *domno- or *dobno– has been deduced and proposed[15], which perhaps confused Ptolemy’s sources, and gave us forms in dov-.

There is another Glendevon in Winchburgh WLO (Glendaven 1754), probably transferred from the Ochils (if in fact this represents the same toponym), as ‘the topographical features do not in the least correspond with the meaning of the name (Celt. gleann, a narrow valley; Dubona, the black river); indeed, no river is near.’[16] Local antiquary Hardy Bertram McCall tells us that

on 1st October 1484, there is a charter by Gawin of Levinstoun [Livingston] of the lands of Howatstoun lyand in ye barone of Caldor [(Mid)calder MLO, now WLO] in favour of Mergrete Hay, spouse of John of Glendony. Six years later an action was raised in the Court of Session by John of Glendovyn and Mergrete Hay his spouse against Gawin Levinstoun of yt ilke for wrangwis vexacioun and distrubling thame in ye peaceable possessioun of ye landis of Howatstoun… On 5th July 1492… [four tenants raised] an action against Johne of Glendony and Mergrete Hay his wife, [and Gawin’s son and apparent heir Henry], for taking dowble malez of the said landis, and that Glendony had wrangwis awaytuke and withhalden fra the forsaid tenents five horses and four hed of nolt…[17]

While there is no absolute assurance of this, it seems likely that Glendony and Glendovyn are alternative late fifteenth century spellings of a Glendevon, not noted elsewhere.

Despite some confusion over vowels—note again though the above-mentioned alternative W dyfn ‘deep, dense’[18] (?as preserved in Dundyvan)—it now seems highly likely that the river-name too springs (as its current form suggests) < B *dumno-, *dubno- ‘deep’, or more likely from its North British reflex *domno-, in a form such as *Domnona ‘Deep One, Mysterious One’, whether divine (and there is considerable evidence of Pictish river-worship[19]) or not.

In truth the oft-proposed derivation seems further challenged by the more southerly Black Devon which rises by the suggestively named Aberdona House (Aberdonie 1652), itself likely < *domn-. Note further Devon, Kettle parish FIF, earlier Dovan < Gaelic (G) domhain ‘deep, low-lying’, also Baldovan near Dundee and a Ball Domin in the Gaelic Notes to the Book of Deer.[20] Devonburn by Lesmahagow LAN may prove to have a similar source, while Blendewing by Kilbucho PEB seems to offer us the element compounded with the Cumbric equivalent of W blaen ‘end; source or upper reaches of river or stream; uplands’.[21] And here the English river Devon LEI NTT (Dyvene 1252 Deven 1342, whose perhaps more southerly phonetics Ekwall equated with the Scottish Devon as ‘black, dark’[22]) naturally shifts its semantics to flow into our pool of ‘deep’ names.

To the northernmore *Domnonii Ptolemy attributed Colania (Camelon? STL), Vindogara (by Irvine AYR), Coria (Barochan Hill? RNF), Alauna (Ardoch PER), Lindum (Drumquhassle? STL) and Victoria (Inchtuthil? PER), ‘so that their territory should have extended from Ayrshire and Renfrewshire across the Forth-Clyde isthmus into Dunbartonshire, Stirlingshire and southern Perthshire’.[23] Could it be that our river Devon once marked a boundary of their land?

Though possible, it is not very likely that the river commemorates the Iron Age kindred-name: ‘The Deep One’ is sufficient. However, Cardowan Wishaw LAN and Dowanhill Milngavie DNB may preserve the ethnicon of these first recorded inhabitants of Strathclyde, and hint at former strongholds,[24] as may apparently unfortified Dundyvan itself. Devonshaw (Hill) LAN (beside the Clyde), and Devonside LAN (by the Douglas Water), where archaeology has found apparently Iron Age features, also merit further study.[25]

*NOVIUS > Nith

The Nith DMF KCB is a longer, more direct, yet equally contrary river: it rises about twenty miles east of Ayr, yet chooses to flow south-eastward the thirty-odd miles through fertile Nithsdale to Dumfries, thence out into the Solway Firth. Its watershed defines part of Ayrshire’s boundary, its estuary part of Kirkcudbrightshire’s.

Ptolemy refers to it (or another river in this area) as the *Novius (Noouiou potamou[26]), < B *nowiio- ‘new’ (Modern W newydd ‘new, fresh’ etc.[27]), an element found also in Gaul.[28] Likely named from the river (a contentious matter[29]), the Novantae, an Iron Age kindred of what is now Galloway, have recently been credited with a guest appearance in The Gododdin, as Nouant (or Ënouant).[30]

While there have been (as ever) some dissenting voices, W J Watson asserts the likelihood of Novius > Nith, though ‘it is difficult to say with certainty what precisely is impossible in the case of a name… trnsmitted from Old British through Welsh into Gaelic and thence into English’.[31] He is followed here explicitly by Rivet and Smith.[32] Watson, though, pursued the matter further, adducing Newburn FIF to his argument: formerly Nithbren, its second element may well be W pren ‘tree’, the first a form of newydd, used like the G úr-chrann ‘a green tree (lit. a new tree)’, and doubly cognate núa-chrann, to mean ‘Green-tree’. He concluded that ‘it would be rash, therefore, to deny that Nith may represent Novios.’[33]

The river Nith is (Stra)nit c.1124 (Strad)nitt 1124 x 1140 Nud 1181 Nyth c.1240, the earlier names showing P-Celtic *strad ‘dale’ (cf W ystrad ‘vale’ < Latin strata[34]), as is to be expected in the south-west and other parts of Scotland (cf 12th c. Stradeern ‘Strathearn’).

To strengthen Watson’s argument even more, there is a further number of toponymic analogues which will have percolated through the same strata of tongues (where his ‘Welsh’ is to be interpreted as ‘Cumbric’, his ‘English’ as ‘Scots’):

  • Niddry Kirkliston parish WLO (Nudreff 1370, Nudry 1392, Nudre 1410, Nidre c.1542, Nudery 1571, Nuddrie 1614[35])
  • West Niddry WLO (West Nwdry 1521, Westnudry 1534[36], West-nethrie post1545[37])
  • Niddrie MLO (Nudreth 1140, Nodrif 1160 x 1214, Noderyf 1264 x 6, Nudreff 1296[38], Nudref 1290, Nodref 1335[39])
  • Longniddry ELO (Nodref, Langnodryf 1315 x 1321, Loungnudrethe 1380–1[40], Langnudre 1424[41])

The elements’ order hints at their antiquity[42]: these must all derive directly from the Cumbric development of B *nowiio- ‘new’ + *treb- ‘steading etc.’, Modern W newydd + tref = newydd dre(f), as in (Y) Drenewydd (Newtown MTG). Ultimate -dd tends to drop in Welsh (eg i fyny ‘upwards’ formerly i fynydd ‘to the mountain’; *Castell newi = Castellnewydd (Emlyn) CRD); the following voiced dental here would have assisted this process, and the forms may also have been influenced by G nodha (fem. of nuadh), Irish nuadh < nue[43], or indeed merely by Scots new: cf Kirknewton MLO (now WLO), locally *The Nitton or *Kirknitton.[44] Whatever the process, all these place-names have descended into today as Ni-.

And whatever be proposed as the Cumbric form fossilised in these toponyms (?*nouíd > *nówið), there can be little doubt that the Nith too comes down < B *nowiios ‘new, fresh’, etc., and is indeed Ptolemy’s *NOVIUS.

[1] Published in Nomina (Journal of the Society for Name Studies in Britain and Ireland) Vol. 25 (2002), pp. 139-45.

[2] An earlier condensed version of the first section of this article was published in Scottish Place-Name News (The Newsletter of the Scottish Place-Name Society / Comann Ainmean-Aite na h-Alba), 4 (Spring 1998), Notes and Queries, 9–10. County abbreviations (pre-reorganisation) follow Scottish toponymists’ usage and are as listed in W. F. H. Nicolaisen, Scottish Place-Names. Their Study and Significance, new edn (Edinburgh, 2001), pp. xxi–xxii.

[3] W. J. Watson, The History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland, (Edinburgh, 1926, repr. 1993), p. 438; J. B. Johnston, Place-Names of Scotland, 3rd edn (London, 1934), p. 155; A. Macdonald, The Place-Names of West Lothian, (Edinburgh, 1941), p. 46; E. Ekwall, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-names, 4th edn (Oxford, 1960, repr. 1991), p. 143; Nicolaisen, Scottish Place-Names, p. 228, A. Watson, The Ochils: Placenames, History, Tradition, (Perth, 1995), p. 56.

[4] Watson, The Ochils, p. 56.

[5] Ibid., p. 56. Note Cornish down, Breton doun ‘deep’.Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru / A Dictionary of the Welsh Language, edited by R. Thomas et al. (Cardiff, 1950–2002), s. dwfn; (henceforth GPC).

[6] This last spelling is from P. Drummond, Placenames of the Monklands, (Monklands Library Services Department 1987), p. 11, where it is derived from Gaelic dun dubh-abhainn ‘the fort by the dark water’. My gratitude to him for providing me with the first three forms (pers.comm. March 2001).

[7] To judge from its absence in (R[oyal] C[ommission] on the A[ncient and] H[istorical] M[onuments of] S[cotland], Lanarkshire: An Inventory of the Prehistoric and Roman Monuments (Edinburgh 1978).

[8] dwfn, dyfn ‘deep, dense’; pawr, pl. porion, ‘pasture, grass, a grazing;’ < pori ‘to graze’ etc., (GPC, s.vv.). It is important to note that W *par does not feature in GPC, but see parlas ‘green patch of ground’ s.v.; Adpar, Llandyfriog CRD (locally *Atpar, W ad- < B *ate- ‘second; again’ etc., GPC) has been explained to me by a native Welsh-speaking farmer as ‘pasture with good regrowth’: thanks to Gareth Ford for this. On par- in Scotland, see Watson, The History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland, pp. 372–3; W. F. H. Nicolaisen, The Picts and their Place Names, (Rosemarkie, 1996), p. 27.

[9] Macdonald, The Place-Names of West Lothian, p. 62; J. G. Wilkinson, West Lothian Place-Names, (Torphin, 1992), p. 29.

[10] Watson, The History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland, pp. 372–3. Note early Welsh spellings: duuin (12th c.), Duvin (12-13th c.), dwfyn, dwuyn (13th c.), dyfwn, dofyn (14th c.) (GPC).

[11] Ekwall, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names, p. 143.

[12] Ptolemy, Geography, II, 3, 7. A. L. F. Rivet and C. Smith, The Place-Names of Roman Britain (Cambridge, 1979), pp.138–40 (Chapter Three, ‘Ptolemy’s Geography’, where the edition of C. Müller & C. T. Fischer (Paris 1883–1901) is referred to).

[13] Rivet and Smith, The Place-Names of Roman Britain, pp. 342–4.

[14] Ibid. It is often proposed that the Dumnonii were miners; they could just as well have been mariners.

[15] J. T. Koch, ‘The Stone of the Weni-kones’, Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies, 29 (1980–82), 87–9.

[16] Macdonald, The Place-Names of West Lothian, p. 46; Wilkinson, West Lothian Place-Names, p. 25 (where the traditional derivation < *Dubona was also followed).

[17] H. B. McCall, The History and Antiquities of the Parish of Midcalder, (Edinburgh, 1894), p. 131 (italics mine). No specific authority is cited, but see his Introductory Observations, pp. 1–6 (especially pp. 2–3) for his many potential sources, probably Acts of the Lords of Council in Civil Causes (1478–1495) here. These alternate forms suggest that the Glendevon’s Innerdounie or Innerdownie (Hill) also refers to the river and glen. Note too the Scots surname Cardownie.

[18] GPC, s.v.

[19] Nicolaisen, The Picts and their Place-Names, pp. 21–23.

[20] I am grateful to Dr. Simon Taylor for these three names (personal communication, June 1997).

[21] GPC, s.v.

[22] Ekwall, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names, p. 143.

[23] Rivet and Smith, The Place-Names of Roman Britain, pp. 342–4.

[24] These references were taken in good faith pre-2002 from local informants but are at best secondary localisations of the names. Read: ‘However, Cardowan Glasgow LAN (Car<d>euien 1144 x 1124, Curdowane 1562 x 1592) and Dowanhill Govan LAN (no early forms found) may preserve the ethnicon of these first recorded inhabitants of Strathclyde…’ Thanks to Dr Simon Taylor for pointing this out and providing the correct locations, January 2014.

[25] Lanarkshire, (RCAHMS): Devonshaw Hill [NS 962286], p. 50 (cairns), pp. 100–1 and p. 150 (enclosures & fort); Devonside [NS 916394], p. 87 (settlement). If *Domnonii represents a derivative of a divine name [see Rivet and Smith, PN Roman Britain, loc. cit.], then *Domnowalos > Dyfngual/ Domhnaill > Donald, by analogy with *Luguwalos ‘strong in Lugus’, the eponym of LUGUVALIUM now Carlisle, is not necessarily ‘world-strong’ but may be ‘strong in *Domn(on)os/Domnona’ or the like.

[26] Ptolemy, Geography, II, 3,2; Rivet and Smith, The Place-Names of Roman Britain, pp. 133–35.

[27] GPC, s.v. Note Middle Cornish nowyth, newyth, Old Breton nouuid (ibid.).

[28] Rivet and Smith, The Place-Names of Roman Britain, pp. 425–8.

[29] Ibid.

[30] J. T. Koch, The Gododdin of Aneirin: Text and Context from Dark-Age North Britain, (Cardiff 1997), pp. lxxxii-lxxxiii.

[31] Watson, The History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland, pp. 54. Colin Smith’s ‘quotation’ from Watson is not verbatim and should be emended as above. I am grateful to Dr. Carole Hough for pointing this out to me.

[32] Rivet and Smith, The Place-Names of Roman Britain, pp. 428.

[33] Watson, The History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland, pp. 54-5. Note, therefore, that some names in New- may be translations through two Celtic tongues.

[34] W ystrad ‘(floor of) valley, vale, plain’ is actually < Clt *strato- < IE *sterə- ‘widen, spread’ with influence from probably cognate L strāta (via) in its secondary and later meaning ‘street’ (GPC, sv., [which hadn’t reached S-Z at that time!]). Thanks again to Dr Simon Taylor for first querying this derivation.

[35] Macdonald, The Place-Names of West Lothian, pp. 43–4.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Cited in RCAHM[ & Constructions of]S, Tenth Report with Inventory of Monuments and Constructions in the Counties of Midlothian and West Lothian, (Edinburgh 1929), p. 211, from Sir Richard Maitland, History of the House of Seytoun (undated). This form was missed in both Macdonald, The Place-Names of West Lothian (p. 43-4) and Wilkinson, West Lothian Place-Names, (p.29).

[38] Nicolaisen, Scottish Place-Names, p. 169.

[39] Watson, The History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland, p. 363.

[40] Nicolaisen, Scottish Place-Names, p. 169.

[41] Watson, The History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland, p. 363.

[42] K. H. Jackson, Language and History in Early Britain, (Edinburgh, 1953, repr. Dublin 1994), pp.225–6: perhaps pre-seventh century.

[43] Nicolaisen, Scottish Place-Names, p. 169; Watson, The History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland, p. 363.

[44] Where orthographic -tt- (locally uttered as a glottal stop) serves to keep the preceding vowel short; -i- is as in fish or him in West Lothian parlance: a terser equivalent of Welsh -y- (eg as in Dyfed).

[Space did not permit this addition to the published article: ‘I should like to thank Dr. Simon Taylor again for his encouragement and typically enthusiastic reading of the initial versions of these two pieces; belated but lasting gratitude likewise goes to the late Professor Colin Smith, who appreciated the evidence of the second.’]

*LANUM and LUGUDUNUM: Full Lune, and Light on an Unkempt Wraith*

With an host of furious fancies,
Whereof I am commander,
With a burning spear, and a horse of aire,
To the wildernesse I wander:
By a knight of ghostes and shadowes
I summon’d am to tourney
Ten leagues beyond the wide world’s end.
Methinke it is noe journey.

From Tom o’ Bedlam’s Song, anon. (?16th century)[1]

To seek a link between an existing place-name and one documented long ago is always very tempting: it is the toponymic equivalent of finding a noble in one’s genealogy, authenticating and validating the line, creating a pedigree. Ancient names, especially Roman ones, have their own chic, and by naming, either in actuality or in notional retrospect, we can recreate this prestigious Romanitas and partake of it to our reflected glory. In this way Huntingdon becomes Venantodunum[2], Perth becomes Bertha;[3] we see a coria, or even a curia, in Currie MLO[4] by popular or antiquarian etymology, a locus in *Locus Maponi (Lochmaben DMF) by scholarly false-etymology[5], each one projecting a Roman prestige, unwarranted in these cases, backwards through time: a few chisel-blows on the epitaph of history rewritten, reinvented in a quasi-Orwellian way. Yet the intention is good, for there are indeed such long-surviving names, and not all of them have as yet been found.

Writing in the fourth volume of this journal, the late Colin Smith rightly warned that “the temptation to perceive possible continuity wherever there is a remote resemblance between ancient and modern forms must be resisted, of course”[6], but there was for long a sort of obduracy in the other direction among toponymists of the Anglo-Saxon school in balking, whether consciously or unwittingly (but not consistently), at recognising Romano-British and therefore Celtic roots in place-names, especially in England. To their eyes, it seems, all desired prestige lay with the imagined invading Germanic hordes, who pushed those embattled Celts that remained unslain to the high lands to north and west.[7]

A spectacular instance of Celtic actualities overlooked could be Ekwall’s suggested derivation of Lydney GLO (Lidaneg 972, Ledenei DB, Lideneie 1221): “‘Lida’s island.’ *Lida is identical with OE lida ‘sailor’. But Lydney may be ‘the sailor’s island’”.[8] Now at Lydney Park on the banks of the Severn is the site of a celebrated Romano-Celtic shrine excavated by Sir Mortimer Wheeler before the first edition of Ekwall’s dictionary.[9] Its temple was dedicated to the widely-culted native healing god, equated with Roman Mars (deo Marti Nodonti)[10] and Silvanus[11], whose RB (Romano-British) form was Nodons, which in Welsh became Nudd, with a common by-form L(l)ud(d), found for instance with his epithet as Lludd Llaw Ereint ‘Lud Silver Hand’, the Brythonic equivalent of Irish Nuadu Argatlám ‘Nuadu of the Silver Hand’.[12] It is surely far more realistic to propose a naming from the recorded presence of the deity himself, rather than to summon a shadowy ancient mariner up from the deep.[13]

This philological habit was firmly taken to task by Smith in the same article, and many further examples of imaginative folk-etymology in its true sense and in its pseudo-scholarly manifestation were given, generally involving false Anglo-Saxon pedigrees, and going as far back in history as the time of Bede, whose vaunted medieval Welsh reputation (it now seems) may have been as deceptive as the scholar himself.[14]

If writers of scholarly intelligence offer such things, we can hardly guess at how widespread the practice must have been among ordinary illiterate folk devoid of linguistic awareness.[15]

False Anglo-Saxon pedigrees? Though the lesson has still not been universally learned, a renewed look at modern English (in particular at the bizarreries of our verbal system) appears to be confirming what place-name evidence proclaims: that anglicisation was a slow process of acculturation undergone by indigenes rather than a sudden invasive event by aliens.[16] Yet, while matters have greatly improved in the near-generation since Smith wrote these words[17], we shall learn while examining a pair of potential Romano-British survivors that ghosts of the ancient practice also linger at the scholarly crossroads.

1. *LANUM = Lancaster?

This name, or rather its lack, has long intrigued commentators. All that we have is a milestone found four miles ENE of Lancaster, inscribed with the enigmatic but suggestive L MP IIII ‘from L– 4 miles’.[18] By a seemingly obvious piece of deduction, we might be able to say what Lancaster used to be called, at least in part.

Our most notorious trait, what could be taken either as sturdy British independence or insular linguistic ineptitude, might have the longest pedigree. Not only did our remote ancestors learn incoming languages (Norman, Anglo-Saxon, Celtic and so back) in an idiosyncratic way[19], those Anglo-Saxon-speaking forebears almost invariably took the first syllable of RB place-namesthe Celts were not the only head-huntersand added their own exotic borrowing -ceaster while discarding the rest, as Colin Smith has shown in more restrained terms,[20] and which Margaret Gelling has strenuously denied:

I pointed out that we have good evidence that Romano-British compound names were taken over in their entirety by English speakers, and that the shorter forms found in late Old English sources and in Domesday Book exhibit the normal late Old English process of dropping the middle element of a triple compound. Names like Dornwaraceaster and Liccidfeld became triple compounds when OE generics were added to the full British names, and they were therefore liable to this process. This point was not noticed by Professor Colin Smith in Smith 1980, where he makes the misleading remark (pp. 32–3) that ‘the Anglo-Saxons found the compounded and polysyllabic R-B names “too much of a mouthful”, and by convention took the first syllable, all that was necessary for identification’.[21]

Was Dornwaraceaster ever a triple compound to anyone but an erudite bi-lingual? If Dr. Gelling’s point be true, it yet distils down to the same process over time, however we express it: an earlier or later incomprehension of individual elements (even among a genetically stable community of erstwhile-Brythonic[22]-speaking-Anglo-Saxon-or-Middle-English-speakers), or a perceived meaninglessness in anything other than the name itself, leading to a slangy truncation ‘akin to such shortenings as colloquial Brom for Birmingham, Chi for Chichester, etc…’.[23]

Thus, what we have (latterly at least) is RB-derived first syllable + an archaising term, and, as far as ‘meaning’ is concerned, one worthy of an uninspired quiz-game clue: thus Ribchester LNC (Ribelcastre DB, Ribbelcestre 1215[24]) became in time ‘Roman fortification, something beginning with Rib-’, and another example of garbling, despite the eponymous Ribble still flowing by the town (and devouring much of the nominal fort).

Lancaster would then be, according to our unconscious laws and if it were indeed a survivor, ‘Roman fortification, something beginning with *Lan-’, the first letter’s RB status confirmed by epigraphy. Is it not likely that, by analogy with, say, the same Ribchester ‘Roman fort on the River Ribble’ and others such as Doncaster YOW ‘fort on the River Don’, that this *Lan- originally referred to the River Lune?

Now Lonsdale LNC WML ‘the valley of the Lune’ is in DB Lanesdale, in 1134 Lanesdala, and in 1169 Lonesdale,[25] these earliest references suggesting that we might be on the right track. Lonton YON ‘tun on [another] R Lune’ was Lontune in DB.[26]

As for the river itself, there is no mention earlier than c. 1160, when Lanesdale had gone to Lonesdale; the river-name of that time echoes this form: Lon, but also Loin, with later forms Loon 1186 x 90 and Lone 1202. The more northerly river was also Loon in 1201, Lon in 1235.[27]

Reflecting the river, the county town was transcribed as Loncastre in DB, Loncastra in 1127, but was Lanecastrum in 1094, while its shire was (honor de) Lancastre in 1140 and (Comitatus de) Lancastra in 1169, forms that appear to lead straight to our Lancaster ‘Roman fort on R Lune’.[28]

Ekwall derives the river-name from an unrecorded British word corresponding to Old Irish slàn ‘health-giving’ and found as Welsh llawn.[29] Yet llawn is not ‘health-giving’ but ‘full’ in all its senses (including ‘teeming with, abounding in…’), although it has the healthfully related meaning ‘fat, sleek, plump, filled or rounded out in form; pregnant.’ It also bears the significant sense of ‘“in clover”, well-to-do.’[30] Llawn may well be relevant though, deriving as it does from Celtic (Clt) *lano-, cognate with Latin plenus.[31]

Neither is there any reason to look to Irish slàn when G lan (cognate with llawn) is ‘full; flood-tide; swell (of water).’[32] Can we, purely as an hypothesis for the moment, restore the British form of Lune in accordance with other feminine, probably divine, river-names such as Belisama, Verbeia, Clota and many others, as *Lana? It would then seem to mean ‘The Full One’ or perhaps more likely ‘The Prosperous or Abundant One’, an aptly or wistfully fertile name for a river, though apparently unattested elsewhere.

Is there any further evidence that this might have been so?

Not directly, but there may be relevant circumstantial evidence, if we go across the Pennines, south-east to Doncaster. It is here that we find what may be a direct analogue, though it may not be necessary to suppose the shortening of a name which became, on the loss of British case endings, a monosyllable. DANUM was the name of the Roman fort here, deriving, according to Jackson, from the river-name, which he restores as *Danu(n) < *danu- ‘bold’ originally ‘rapidly flowing’[33]. “The British name survived as Cair Daun in Nennius [Historia Brittonum], and via Anglo-Saxon as Doncaster.”[34] Jackson traces the development from Danum > Pr[imitive] W *Dǭn > AS *Dōn[35]; this became the Done (1194 x 99, and of Doneceastre 1002 and Donecastre DB[36]), eventually the modern Don of river and town. In parallel fashion in Brythonic the sequence would be: Old Welsh (OW) *Don > Middle (M)W Daun > ModW *Dawn (pronounced as ModE down), where W dawn < Clt *dan- means ‘…intellectual gift, natural endowment, genius…; benefit, blessing; favour; reward.’, also ‘gift (…literal)’ and ‘thing endowed with special virtue…’, adding numen to Jackson’s prosaic semantics, and offering further meaning.[37]

If we return to Lancaster and assume that, as at Doncaster, the fort was named from the river, we can postulate a *LĀNUM which would then develop (as indeed would the river *Lāna) > OW Lǭn > AS *Lōn > ME Lone-, and in Brythonic as OW Lǭn > MW *laun > ModW llawn; we could even hypothesise a *Cair Laun ‘Lancaster’. Jackson notes of the ‘Pr. W’ change -ǭ- > -au-, that “English place-names never show -au- …but AS -o- in monosyllables”,[38] which explains Don and would explain Lon.

The confusion of vowels in the Lancashire forms and the late survival of Lan- might possibly be explicable by reference to later pockets of Brythonic speakers in North Lancashire[39]; on the other hand in the town- and shire-name there could be a virtually direct written linkage in records now lost to us, while the past and present pronunciation of the river with an evidently longer vowel may indicate oral persistence of a MW *laun.[40]

Have we at last resolved this tenuous ghost of a name, or at least brought it into full focus through a dim lens blurred by time? Could the Roman fort-name have been *LANUM by the *Lana? There remains of course the possibility that we have merely deduced the first syllable of the Romano-British name. However we view it, the continuance and survival of such an ancient place-name in decapitated if not directly transmitted form is very likely here.

LUGUDUNUM = Londesborough?

Though the matter is little known in its native heath and generally under-appreciated by Scottish toponymists, it has long been mooted by Welsh scholars that the three Scottish shires now named and subsumed in Lothian (Loonia c.970, Loðene 1091, Laudonia 1126, Leudonia c.1164, Louthion c.1200;[41] MW Lleuddin) owe their name to an unrecorded B *Lugudunon ‘fortress of the god Lugus’, a Welsh by-form Lleuddiniawn hailing from B *Lugu-duniana ‘the Country of Lugu-dunon’ or the like.[42] Also known as The (Three) Lothians, they were in recent Scots poetic vernacular The Loudons Three: their inhabitants were still known as *Loudoners in the west Fife Scots of half a century ago.[43]

Though Kenneth Jackson asserted that ‘the etymology and history of the name Lothian is full of difficulties…’,[44] there is now a reasonable consensus.[45] Perhaps surprisingly, this derivation was obliquely suggested and substantiated more than three-quarters of a century ago in the Historical Monuments (Scotland) Commission’s 1924 Inventory of East Lothian, which contains a brief Note on “Lothian” by an uncredited scholarly contributor of evident philological flair and expertise who had a commanding knowledge of old texts.[46]

To sway the as yet unconvinced, a comparative glance across the Channel at a few early forms of Laon (Aisne) makes the correspondence between *Lugudunon and their counterparts of Lothian plain: ecclesiae Lugdunensis 549, urbis Lugdune… 6th. cent., Leudunum 632, Laodunum 680, …montis Lauduni pre-966, Loon, Montloon 12th. cent.; cf. Loudon (Sarthe), de Lucduno 692, Lodun 13th. cent.[47]

Lugus is the pan-Celtic ancestral deity equated circumstantially with Roman Mercurius and later known as Lleu (incorrectly Llew), ultimately, it is thought, < Clt *louc- < *leuc-[48] ‘light’, ‘bright, shining’, as in W lleu, MW goleu Mod W golau ‘light’,[49] and relatively common, usually in compound form, in continental Celtic place-names as in those of Roman Britain.[50]

As befits the god of many masks, several other derivations of Lugus (pl. Lugoues) > Lleu have been proposed. Discussing the Lugi, a kindred of modern Sutherland (often taken as a different naming) Rivet and Smith leave a choice between the divine name and a ‘word meaning ‘black’ (Clt *lŭgos > Ir loch “black”), hence perhaps “raven” in Gaulish (Gaulish lougos recorded as lougoV by Clitophon of Rhodes)’: they comment that a sense “raven-people” may well be preferable’.[51] Antonio Tovar likewise runs through the options, plumping too for ‘raven’.[52]

Corvids were indeed an attribute of the god in both his Celtic and Germanic manifestations. But the Lugi have the option on another beast: ‘in Old Irish poetry lug “lynx” is frequently used for warriors… Old Welsh lleu could be cognate with Irish lug, in which case some examples of llew could conceal the meaning “lynx”.’[53]

Heinrich Wagner saw Lug, like his Germanic Mercurial counterpart Woden (especially in his predilection for assembly heights[54]), as a representative of the ‘All-knowing god’, the ravens’ and lynx’s acuity of vision an attribute of the sun god’s eye.[55] Offering another strain of crop to an already crammed wordfield, he felt though

that Lugu- may be cognate with Ir[ish] luge, the verbal noun of tongid “swears”, but also meaning “oath” (from *lugio-). It is of interest that “match-making”, “marriage” and “courtship” are outstanding features among the traditions connected with the Lug-festival, […] for Ir luge “oath, swear” is not only connected with German lügen, Eng lie, Gothic liugan “lie” (strong verb), but also with Gothic liuga “marriage” liugan “to marry” (week [sic] verb).’[56]

The repeated Gaulish luge of the Chamalières inscription,[57] characterised as ‘the script of a magico-religious ritual for obtaining the help of Arvernian Maponos in a military revolt’, has in fact been translated as ‘oath’: ‘By an oath I make them ready’, ‘where the echo of the god’s name in the expression luge could hardly have failed to impress itself on a Celtic-speaker’s ear, and would have underlined his relation to the… institution of oath-taking.’[58]

While the thought is anathema to the modern name-scholar—though not the folklorist (‘It may well be that the philological uncertainty which haunts the interpretation of so many names in Celtic and other early literatures is partly due to their being puns the clues to which have long been forgotten’,[59] and cf. ‘the habit of Anglo-Saxons and all medieval writers was… to exploit the multiple interpretations of names rather than to elect one and exclude others.’[60]), nor yet the perverse Sufi (‘Sufi has no etymology’[61])—could it have been that all these derivations were ‘correct’: resonant, that is, to bardic sensibilities?

Whatever its perceived meaning, a LUGUNDUNO (var. LUGUNDINO), restored as LUGUDUNUM ‘fortress of the god Lugus’, appears in a typically unpredictable section of the grandly-named Ravenna Cosmography. After known forts on Hadrian’s Wall the Cosmographer’s attention veers southward down Dere Street to further forts secured by the modern toponymist: from VINDOLANDE (*Vindolanda Chesterholm) to LINEOIUGLA (*Longovicio Lanchester), VINOVIA (*Vinovia Binchester), LAVARIS (*Lavatris Bowes), CACTABACTONION (*Cataractonium Catterick), EBURACUM (*Eburacum York), and DECUARIA (*Petuaria Brough-on-Humber). Now he appears to waver: DEVOVICIA (*Delgovicia ?Wetwang) and DIXIO (*Dicto ?Wearmouth) are followed by LUGUNDUNO (*Luguduno —), COGANGES (*Concangis Chester-le-Street) and CORIE LOPOCARIUM (*Coriosopitum? Corbridge) which end the section; our name is left by Rivet and Smith as ‘[u]nknown, but apparently in northern England.’[62]

Nikolai Tolstoy, maybe the only Arthurian scholar so far to have used the divine derivation to any effect, identifies Ravenna’s entry with Lothian.[63] In view of the Roman connection, though, this is more likely to be Loudoun Hill AYR (sic c.1140)[64], if it is to be sought in Scotland. Yet this seems too far north and west, even allowing for the Cosmographer’s magpie approach: the neighbouring names are all east of the Pennines.

A far more suitable candidate is Londesborough YOE, whose earliest form (Lodenesburg DB) virtually matches a contemporary one of Lothian (with the addition of perhaps tautological OE burg ‘fort’[65]) and whose geographical position better suits: it sits beside the continuation of Ermine Street north of Brough-on-Humber and is only a few hours’ march from Wetwang.[66] It is also found as Landenesburgh c. 1110 and Lonesburgh 1136 x 1139. Ekwall, though, proclaims it a Norse name: “‘Lothen’s BURG’; Lothen (Loðen 1046 ASC) is O[ld] N[orse] Loðinn O[ld] Dan[ish] Lothaen, a nickname meaning ‘hairy’.”[67]

A hirsute Northman, however powerful, can hardly be eponym of the district-name of Lothian, and (even without Occam’s razor) it is to be wondered if we have the same two Celtic elements in the Yorkshire name, miscalculated by Ekwall, who is in turn more recently followed by Mills and Watts.[68]

Could Londesborough really be Ravenna’s LUGUNDUNO, an ex-fortress of the god Lugus and yet another Celtic casualty of the latter-day Germanic Eponymic Conquest, spoil of an invading army of imagined wraiths (unkempt in this instance), much like mad Tom o’ Bedlam’s ‘host of furious fancies’?

* Published in Nomina (Journal of the Society for Name Studies in Britain and Ireland) Vol. 27 (2004), pp. 71-89.

[1] Poets of the English Language (5 vols.) edited by W. H. Auden and N. H. Pearson (London, c. 1970), Vol II, pp. 53–5.

[2] A Latin translation of the English name, coined by John Leland, as Camden tells (Britannia, 1586, 280): A. L. F. Rivet and Colin Smith, The Place-names of Roman Britain (Cambridge, 1979), p. 514.

[3] Rivet and Smith, The Place-names of Roman Britain, pp. 512–4. Bertha is a spurious 14th cent. invention of John Fordoun ‘to supply a plausible antecedent for the city of Perth’ [ibid.]. A cherished Scottish onymoid, it persisted on Ordnance Survey maps into the 1970s and (rather disconcertingly) is still used in apparent innocence by some archaeologists and historians, eg A. P. Smyth, Warlords & Holy Men: Scotland AD 80–1000 (London, 1984), p. 40; D. Breeze, The Romans in Scotland, Historic Scotland (London 1996), passim; S. M. Foster, Picts, Gaels and Scots, Historic Scotland (London, 1996), p. 46; S. T. Driscoll, ‘Political Discourse and the Growth of Christian Ceremonialism in Pictland: the Place of the St Andrews Sarcophagus’ in The St Andrews Sarcophagus: A Pictish Masterpiece and its International Connections, edited by S. M. Foster (Dublin, 1998), pp. 168–78.

[4] A locally known etymology of unclear origin; Currie (sic c. 1230) is in reality an unpretentious and common name type from the dative of Gaelic (G) currach ‘a wet plain, marsh’: W. J. Watson, History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1926, repr. 1993), p. 144; J. B. Johnston, Place-Names of Scotland 3rd edn (London, 1934), p. 150; for British (B) *coria ‘hosting-place’ and Latin curia ‘court; ward; assembly, etc.’, see Rivet and Smith, The Place-names of Roman Britain, pp. 316–24. County abbreviations (pre-reorganisation) follow Scottish toponymists’ usage and are as outlined in W. F. H. Nicolaisen, Scottish Place-Names. Their Study and Significance, new edn (Edinburgh, 2001), pp. xxi–xxii.

[5] More likely a British loch than a Latin locus with ‘no analogues anywhere’: Rivet and Smith, The Place-names of Roman Britain, pp. 395–6; cf. Welsh (W) llwch ‘lake, pool, …bog, swamp, marsh…’ (9th c. Est ibi stagnum quod vocatur Luchlein in Nennius [Historia Brittonum]): Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru/ A Dictionary of the Welsh Language (henceforth GPC) edited by R. Thomas et al. (Cardiff, 1950–2003), s.v.; this unaspiring derivation too has slipped by many classically-oriented scholars unnoticed.

[6] C. C. Smith, ‘The Survival of Romano-British Toponymy’, Nomina 4 (1980), 27-40 (p. 31).

[7] See, for instance, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, edited and translated by B. Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors (Oxford, 1969), passim, where this assumed viewpoint is adopted, where the Anglii are disingenuously referred to as ‘English’ (implying both a precedent and monolithic missionary continuity), where Bede’s anti-British invective is firmly supported, and on occasion amplified.

[8] E. Ekwall, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-names, 4th edn (Oxford, 1960), p. 308.

[9] In 1936; M. Wheeler, Report on the Excavation… in Lydney Park, Gloucestershire, Reports of the Research Committee of the Society of Antiquaries, no. 9 (London, 1932).

[10] E. Birley, ‘The Deities of Roman Britain’, Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt II, 18, 1, edited by H. Temporini and W. Haase (Berlin, 1986), pp. 3–112.

[11] M. J. Green, ‘The Iconography and Archaeology of Romano-British Religion’, ibid., pp. 113–62.

[12] For Nodons as Lludd ‘under the influence of Llaw’, see Trioedd Ynys Prydein ‘The Welsh Triads’, edited by R. Bromwich (Cardiff, 1961, 2nd edn 1978, repr.1991), pp. 424–29 (p. 428): the identity of Lludd and Nuadu was shown by J. Rhŷs, Celtic Folklore, Welsh and Manx (Oxford, 1891), pp. 447–8; for the fourth-century shrine see A. Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography and Tradition (London, 1967, rev. edn 1992), pp. 230–3, 246–7 (etc.); see both for the much-disputed etymology of Nodons, and also J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘The name “Nodens [sic]”’, Appendix 1 to Reports on the Excavation, Society of Antiquaries, pp. 132–7.

[13] The older form of Lludd would have been *Lud (pron. Lüd on its way to Lüð). After advancing this etymology I found it supported in anticipation by J. T. Koch, ‘A Welsh Window on the Iron Age: Manawydan, Mandubracios’, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 14 (Winter 1987), 17–52 (p. 41). Ekwall is followed by A. D. Mills, A Dictionary of English Place-Names, 2nd edn (Oxford, 1998), p. 229, and by the late Victor Watts, The Cambridge Dictionary of English Place-names (Cambridge, 2004), p. 389, where Ekwall’s sense of ‘island’ is extended to ‘hill-spur’.

[14] See D. R. Howlett, Cambro-Latin Compositions: Their Competence and Cratfsmanship (Dublin, 1998), for example. The Welsh adage, in The Book of Taliesin, 36, 18, edited by J. G. Evans (Llanbedrog, 1910), holds that nyt vy dyweit geu llyfreu beda ‘The books of Bede tell no lies’ (Trioedd Ynys Prydein, edited by Bromwich, p. 279).

[15] Smith, ‘The survival of Romano-British toponymy’, 29.

[16] For the evidence of great British to Anglian continuity and a ‘vigorous hybrid culture’ in, e.g. Bernicia-Northumbria, long considered the cradle of ‘English’ civilisation, see the consequential but little appreciated book by the excavator of Yeavering: B. Hope-Taylor, Yeavering: An Anglo-British Centre of Early Northumbria (London, 1977). A British substratum of sorts will be found hiding under English, hardly studied due to a peculiar (and kindred) perceptual phenomenon: we would not dream of calling those Gauls and Iberians who moulded culturally dominant Latin into the Romance tongues ‘Romans’, yet we persist in branding our erstwhile Celtic-speaking ancestors who early learned and shaped English (and whose insular forebears had in their turn picked up and modified Celtic) ‘Anglo-Saxons’. ‘Anglo-Britons’ would be a useful temporary label. See J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘English and Welsh’, in Angles and Britons: O’Donnell Lectures (Cardiff, 1963), pp. 1–41. G. Price, The Languages of Britain (London, 1984), p. 14, offers a summary of the meagre previous study undertaken on our insular linguistic substrata. ‘…[T]o explain the Modern English continuous tense system at all we have to assume some degree of Celtic influence’: B. Braaten, ‘Notes on continuous tenses in English’, Norsk Tidsskrift for Sprogvidenskap 21 (Oslo, 1967), 167-80. See now The Celtic Roots of English, edited by M. Filppula, J. Klemola and H. Pitkänen, Studies in Language 37 (Joensuu, 2002). Hildegard Tristram suggested at 12-ICCS (Aberystwyth 2003) in her paper Why don’t the English speak Welsh? that the continuous tenses used in the lower register (in English as in Welsh) were only picked up in the higher register literary language after the Normans, by which time the English one had a good half-millennium or more behind it. There are of course contrary views. For the heavy inclination towards periphrasis (a feature also of Basque) in the modern Celtic tongues, see H. Wagner, ‘Near Eastern and African Connections with the Celtic World’, in The Celtic Consciousness, edited by R. O’Driscoll (Edinburgh, 1982), pp. 51-68. See too P. Poussa, ‘A contact-universals origin for periphrastic do, with special consideration of Old English-Celtic contact’, Papers from the 5th International Conference on English Historical Linguistics (Cambridge, 1987), edited by V. Law, S. Wright et al. (Amsterdam, 1990), pp. 407–434, and her ‘Origins of the non-standard relativizers WHAT and AS in English’, in Language Contact in the British Isles: Proceedings of the Eighth International Symposium on Language Contact in Europe, Douglas, Isle of Man, 1988, edited by P. S. Ureland and G. Broderick (Tubingen, 1991), pp. 295–315; and T. M. Charles-Edwards, ‘Language and society among the Insular Celts 400-1000’, in The Celtic World, edited by M. J. Green (London, 1996), pp. 703–36, cited also in J. Davies, The Celts (London, 2000), p. 117. For potential earlier input, see Orin Gensler’s paper ‘Typology and pre-Celtic substrata: A new approach to the problem of Insular Celtic and Hamito-Semitic’ at the 10-ICCS conference (with an unpopular conclusion which genetics is helping to substantiate), with its brief summary in Celtic Connections: Proceedings of the 10th International Congress of Celtic Studies (Edinburgh, 1995), Vol. 1: Language, Literature, History, Culture edited by R. Black, W. Gillies and R. Ó Maolalaigh (East Linton, 1999), pp. 509–10. 12-ICCS (Aberystwyth, 2003) showed that many people (mostly academics working outwith the British Isles) are investigating this fascinating matter even as we read; Steve Hewitt’s comprehensive The Hamito-Semitic connection: fact or fiction? emphasised the philological interest, but left the jury out. Genetics teaches us that what were seen as invasive waves from the east were in fact local eddies in an antique pond continually broached by a slow trickle of newcomers: we NW Europeans are mostly descendants of Upper Palaeolithic hunters (B. Sykes, The Seven Daughters of Eve (London, 2001)).

[17] See, for example, M. Gelling and A. Cole, The Landscape of Place-Names (Stamford, 2000); R. Coates, A. Breeze and D. Horovitz, Celtic Voices English Places: Studies of the Celtic Impact on Place-Names in England (Stamford, 2000).

[18] Rivet and Smith, The Place-names of Roman Britain, p. 382. Note that a ?LANUM or IANO (vars. LANO, LIRIO) is attested in Ravenna, < B *lano- ‘plain, level ground’: ‘[u]nknown, but apparently in Scotland north of the Antonine Wall.’ (Rivet and Smith, The Place-names of Roman Britain, p. 383–4).

[19] See fn 16. What has often been said of Ireland is also true of Great Britain: all our invaders have ‘gone native’.

[20] Smith, ‘The survival of Romano-British toponymy’, 32–4.

[21] M. Gelling, Signposts to the Past 2nd edn (Chichester, 1988), p. 244.

[22] I use Brythonic in the sense Jackson used Brittonic: ‘the language brought to Britain by the bearers of that variety of primitive Celtic speech known as P-Celtic, spoken there all through the Roman period, and subsequently divided into the Welsh, Cornish, and Breton of mediaeval and modern times’ (K. H. Jackson, Language and History in Early Britain (Edinburgh, 1953, repr. Dublin 1994), p. 3. Within his designation ‘Welsh’ I include the politically correct term Cumbric ‘the language of the Britons of Strathclyde and north Britain in general in the Dark Ages’: idem., ‘The sources for the Life of St. Kentigern’, in Studies in the Early British Church, edited by N. K. Chadwick (Cambridge, 1958), pp. 273-357 (p. 282, fn. 1). (He adds: ‘What little is known of it suggests that it was very similar indeed to contemporary Welsh.’) At some future date it may be permissible to add the still alienised P-Celtic Pictish to this insular linguistic continuum.

[23] Smith, ‘The survival of Romano-British toponymy’, 33. Sixteen years later he wrote: ‘The gist of that 1980 piece as a whole was that many Celtic (and possibly Latin) names do underlie place-names of seeming Saxon form. Since nearly all specialists in the pns of what is now England have been Germanists, they tend to reject this possibility, and will readily invent otherwise unrecorded Saxon personal names rather than accept the possibility of Celtic survival. Also, I stand firmly by the notion of “garbling”, reinterpretation of elements that happen to resemble elements in the speech of the incomers, and even my “too much of a mouthful” principle on which Gelling pours scorn…’ (he further cites numerous examples of this process) (personal communication, 17 June 1996). Would it be wise here to posit the hardly-envisaged probability that much of this nature occurred in previous linguistic strata impervious to our probing, but traversed by ostensibly ‘Celtic’ or ‘Old European’ rivers? Obviously, the further apart the two languages are, the more serious will this garbling be; as we are seeing, it happens too to generations-later speakers of the same tongue.

[24] Ekwall, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names, p. 386.

[25] Ibid., p. 304.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., p. 307.

[28] Ibid., p. 285.

[29] Ibid.; E. Ekwall, English River Names (Oxford, 1928, repr. 1968), p. 271, and cited in Rivet and Smith, The Place-Names of Roman Britain, p. 382.

[30] GPC, s.v..

[31] Ibid. See now Watts, The Cambridge Dictionary of English Place-names, p. 387, where the ‘full’ derivation < B *lan- is also offered.

[32] E. Dwelly, Illustrated Gaelic to English Dictionary (1911, repr. Edinburgh, 1993), s.v..

[33] K. H. Jackson, Britannia, I (1970), p. 72.

[34] Rivet and Smith, The Place-Names of Roman Britain, p. 329.

[35] Jackson, Language and History, pp. 292–4.

[36] Ekwall, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names, p. 147; Ekwall restores the river-name as Dana, from which the town Dano- came.

[37] GPC, s.v..

[38] Jackson, Language and History, p. 294.

[39] Cf. ibid., p. 217: King Ecgfrith (670–85) granted land at Cartmel LNC to St Cuthbert, ‘giving him omnes Britannos cum eo.’ Yet there could have been later survival of Brythonic in north Lancashire, as in the Lake District. Discussing the type of counting known as the ‘Cumbric score’, the Opies (scholars of children’s lore) state ‘remembering that Froissart in his journey south from Scotland, about 1364, noted that the common people in Westmorland still spoke the ancient British tongue…’ (I. and P. Opie, Children’s Games in Street and Playground (Oxford 1969, 1984), p. 48; I have been unable as yet to confirm this at source; in Geoffrey Brereton’s translation (J. Froissart, Chronicles (Harmondsworth, 1985), p. 10), the passage in question is omitted from Book I.

[40] Note a not irrelevant tendency in Lancashire dialect for both the shire-name and its county-town to be pronounced as ‘Lon- (-kisherr, -caster)’. The county’s Welsh name, Sir Gaerhirfryn, literally ‘Long-Hill-Caster-Shire’, seems to be another case of scholarly false-etymology.

[41] Watson, The History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland, pp. 101–05; N. Dixon, The Place-Names of Midlothian (unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Edinburgh, 1947 [now published as The Place-Names of Midlothian by The Scottish Place-Name Society, unlocalised, 2011), p. 97 [now pp. 73-4]; Johnston, Place-Names of Scotland, p. 243.

[42] J. T. Koch, The Gododdin of Aneirin: Text and Context from Dark Age North Britain (Cardiff, 1997), p. 131. I have pursued this further in J. G. Wilkinson, Cairnpapple: The Middle Sanctuary? (forthcoming).

[43] J. Lumsden, Doun i’ Th’ Loudons [Down in the Lothians] and other poems (Edinburgh, 1908); G. F. Black, The Surnames of Scotland (New York, 1946, repr. Edinburgh, 1993), p. 439, notes R. L. Stevenson’s ‘Lowden [Lothian] Sabbath Morn’. For *Loudoners (or *Lowdeners), thanks to Dr. Simon Taylor’s family archives: a term made to bear a good deal of pejorative force, like the converse Fifers, it may still be current. The shires were formerly known as Haddingtonshire (East Lothian), Edinburghshire (Midlothian) and Linlithgowshire (West Lothian), recorded as Linlidcuskir 1153 x 65, West, Wost Lothian from c.1540: A. Macdonald, The Place-Names of West Lothian (Edinburgh, 1941), p. 1.

[44] ‘…and need not be discussed here,’ he adds: (Jackson, ‘The sources for the Life of St. Kentigern’, p. 282). He seems in fact never to have addressed the name again, not even in his edition of The Gododdin, where it is only mentioned incidentally.

[45] W. J. Gruffydd, Math fab Mathonwy (Cardiff, 1928), p. 62; I. Williams, Canu Llywarch Hen (Cardiff, 1935), p. xxvi; idem, Canu Aneirin (Cardiff, 1938, 1978), p. xxxviii; J. G. Wilkinson, West Lothian Place Names (Torphin, 1992), p. 16; Koch, The Gododdin of Aneirin, p. 131. It is most bewildering and unfortunate that Jackson should have chosen completely to ignore Williams’s ideas on Lothian (in his own edition of The Gododdin), thus overlooking important evidence, and planting a Welsh hedge round Lug’s lost citadel, one of impenetrable thorn and briars as far as most Scottish toponymists (and interested scholars) are concerned. For a host of contrary opinions (often fanciful and mostly unaware of the derivation), cf. eg Sir R. Sibbald, (The first Book containing the) History Ancient and Modern, of the Sheriffdome of Linlithgow; In which… (etc., etc.) (Edinburgh, 1710), p. 5; G. Waldie, A History of the Town and Palace of Linlithgow (Linlithgow, 1879; repr. as George Waldie’s Linlithgow, Bathgate, 1982), p. 24; J. Milne, Place Names of Edinburgh and The Lothians (Edinburgh, 1912, repr. Newtongrange, c.1980), unpaginated: Lothian Bridge; Lothian Edge, s.vv.; Watson, The History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland, pp. 101–05; Johnston, Place-Names of Scotland, p. 243; Lothian, edited by D. Colledge (Edinburgh, undated, c.1976), p. 7; S. Harris, The Place Names of Edinburgh: Their Origins and History (Edinburgh, 1996), pp. 408–9.

[46] His concise argument is worth quoting in full: ‘The forms Loðene, Laudian, Lodoneis should be taken with the XII–XIII century forms for Mount Lothian, Muntlaudewen, Mountlothyen, Montlounes in the Reg, de Neubotle, the last linking up with Loenois, the kingdom of Loth in Le Roman de Brut, both being Anglo-French forms developed by the normal extrusion of “th” between vowels and the application of the Romance suffix derived from the Latin ensis (cf. Lodonensem and Lodonesium in Mat[thew]. Par[is]. II. pp. 214, 289). Thus we arrive at the Arthurian Lyonesse. [Here he footnotes ‘Cf. “County of Loweneys” (1335) in Cal. Docts. iii, p. 216.’] In certain old Welsh texts Dinas Eidyn i.e. Edinburgh is mentioned as the abode of Lleuddun Llwyddog, who is Leudonus grandfather of Kentigern in the Vita, and from whom, it is claimed, the district got the name Lleudduniawn (the suffix anus becoming Welsh awn), which was Gaelicised and shortened into Lothian. (Y Cymmrodor, vol. XI p. 51; cf. Skene’s Celtic Scotland II. p. 186; cf. Haddington and ‘Hathingtoun,’ Hedderwick and ‘Hatherwyk’). But both Lyons in France and Leyden in Holland were originally Lugudunum or Lleudin i.e. Din Lleu, where Lug or Lleu is the Celtic deity. Moreover Loudoun Hill in Ayrshire was known in the seventeenth century also as Lothian Hill (Proc. Soc. Ant. Scot. XLV, p. 236), and the common origin can scarcely have been the name of a local king at Edinburgh.’ (Historical Monuments (Scotland) Commission’s 1924 Inventory of East Lothian: Note on “Lothian”, p. xviii. This reasoning seems strangely to have been unknown to W. J. Watson two years later (The History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland, pp. 101-3). Macdonald, The Place-names of West Lothian, p. 1, refers us to both sources, without offering any opinion beyond admitting that ‘the meaning of the name Lothian is disputed’; Dixon, The Place-names of Midlothian, p. 97 [now pp. 73-4] likewise. With Loweneys compare (le) Lyonnais, the region around Lyons (another *Lugudunon), French -ais < -ois being the equivalent of W -wys < -uis, both < L -ens-, a good example of similar substrata (Gaulish and British) acting on a superstratum tongue (Latin).

[47] A. Vincent, Toponomie de la France (c.1937, re-issued Paris, 2000), pp. 90–91. My gratitude to Bill Patterson for these forms (personal communication, March 2003). Whichever language we study, vocalisation of the -g- of LUGUDUNUM is implicit: in North Britain, as in Wales, *Lugus went to Lou, the older form of L(l)eu, ou being the regular OW form of Medieval eu’: I. Williams, The Poems of Taliesin, trans. J. C. Williams (Dublin, 1975), p. 106.

[48] See Watson, The History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland, pp. 33–4; also Jackson, Language and History, §18, p. 307; but note §75, p. 441.

[49] GPC traces golau (s.v.) < B *uo-lugu < *leug-, parallel to *leuk-.

[50] For British names in Lug-, see Rivet and Smith, The Place-Names of Roman Britain, pp. 401–2; on ‘well attested’ Gaulish lugu- (and a heavily subsidised dependence on MW lleu ‘light’), see D. E. Evans, Gaulish Personal Names: a Study of some Continental Celtic Formations (Oxford, 1967), pp. 219–21.

[51] Rivet and Smith, The Place-Names of Roman Britain, p. 401; A. Ahlqvist, ‘Two ethnic names in Ptolemy’, Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies, 26 (1974-76), 143-6. Thanks to Dr Carole Hough for pointing out the pivotal nature of Ahlqvist’s ‘admirable discussion’.

[52] A. Tovar, ‘The God Lugus in Spain’, Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies, 29 (1981), 591–99 (p. 593).

[53] D. Edel, ‘Geoffrey’s so-called animal symbolism and insular Celtic tradition’, Studia Celtica 18–19 (1983–4), 96–109 (p. 103). Could this help to explain the Cats of Caithness (Old Norse Katanes) and Sutherland (G Cataibh)? See Watson, The History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland, p. 30.

[54] See M. MacNeill’s classic The Festival of Lughnasa: A Study of the Survival of the Celtic Festival of the Beginning of Harvest (Oxford, 1962); for the eighteenth century ‘Lammas Towers’ of Lothian, see pp. 369–73, after J. Anderson, ‘On Lammas Towers’, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1792); see too J. M. Mackinlay, Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs (Glasgow, 1893, repr. Lampeter, 1993), p. 307. South Queensferry’s Burry Man (who parades the former West Lothian burgh on the second Friday of every August with his two acolytes) is the only obvious Lammas relict left in twenty-first century Lothian.

[55] H. Wagner, ‘Studies in the origins of early Celtic civilisation’, Zeitschrift für Celtische Philologie, 31 (1970), 1–58, (pp. 21–5).

[56] Ibid.

[57] Luge. dessu -mmi iis / Luge. dessumi. is. / Luge dessu-mi-is. Luxe or the like: the letters are sure, the layout not; perhaps ‘By Lugus I prepare them, / By Lugus I prepare them, / By Lugus I prepare them, for Lugus.’ See J. F. Eska, ‘Syntactic ways to etymology: the case of Gaulish etic and eqqic’, Studia Celtica 26–27 (1991-2), 21-33, (p. 26), where the whole text is presented.

[58] A. Kondratiev, ‘Lugus: The Many-Gifted Lord’, An Tríbhís Mhór: The IMBAS Journal of Celtic Reconstruction, 1 (Lúnasa 1997), 1–12 (p. 4).

[59] A. Rees and B. Rees, Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales (London, 1961), p. 348.

[60] F. C. Robinson ‘The significance of names in Old English Literature’, Anglia, 86 (1968), 14–58, (p. 27).

[61] I. Shah, The Way of the Sufi (London, 1968), pp. 14–15. The Sufic perspective is curiously developed by name-scholar Diarmuid Ó Murchadha in this journal (‘The formation of Gaelic surnames in Ireland: choosing the eponyms’, Nomina 22 (1999), 25-44 (p. 36): ‘A name has no meaning’. Thus he nullifies his own calling, quoting (and ‘entirely agree’ing with) Michael O’Brien’s ‘dogma’ in ‘Old Irish personal names: M. A. O’Brien’s Rhŷs lecture notes, 1957’, edited by R. Baumgartner, Celtica 10 (1972), 217.

[62] 107,12–18: Rivet and Smith, The Place-Names of Roman Britain, pp. 206–9 and 401–2. See ibid., pp. 185–215 for the Chaos Theory that is the Cosmography’s canon, long accepted as trustworthy by earlier scholars. Note that *CORIOSOPITUM?, restored to replace the usual, impossible CORSTOPITUM of the Antonine Itinerary (ibid., pp. 322–4), is probably equally as wrong. It represents a *coria name (above) applied to Corbridge (with Corchester its fort) NTB, likely confirmed in the Vindolanda tablets (CORIS ‘at Coria’: E. Birley, R. Birley and A. Birley, ‘The Early Wooden Forts: Reports on the Auxiliaries, the Writing Tablets, Inscriptions, Brands and Graffiti’, Vindolanda Research Reports, New Series, Vol. II (Hexham, 1993), pp. 19 and 42–3). CORSTOPITUM will be a garbling of something like *CORIO(?SO)RITUM ‘hosting-ford’ (B *ritu- W rhyd ‘ford’), where the bridge (of Corbridge) has replaced the ancient ford across the Tyne. See A. H. Mawer, The place-names of Northumberland and Durham (Cambridge, 1920), pp. 52–4, for this possibility, not picked up by Rivet and Smith, who prefer to see the second element as an ‘ethnic name’.

[63] N. Tolstoy, Quest for Merlin (London, 1985), pp. 299–300, fn. 15 to pp. 197–8.

[64] Site of a fort [NS(26)6037]: Ordnance Survey Map of Roman Britain, 3rd edn (Chessington, 1956), p. 40; Watson, The History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland, p. 199 (Loudun [sic]); note that Watson’s ‘Lothiangill south-west of Carlisle’ (ibid., p. 101) is actually Lowthian Gill CMB by Barrock Fell SE of Carlisle [NY 465485].

Louden Knowe PEB [NT 137363], an outlier of Trahenna Hill, sits at the head of a long ridge above the magnificently situated hillfort known nowadays as Dreva Craig (where Dreva is a farm and Drev- will reflect W tref ‘steading’ in a hilly and isolated area which shelters many extant Cumbric place-names) and long famous for its chevaux de frise (R. Feachem, Guide to Prehistoric Scotland (London, 1963, 2nd edn 1977), p. 143); across from Drumelzier on the middle reaches of the Tweed (where a legend of Merlin/Myrddin as Lailoken is localised), it may preserve another *Lugudunon. Thanks to Bill Patterson for finding the name (not on the OS 1:50,000 Landranger).

[65] Ekwall, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names, pp. 74–5. For the care needed in distinguishing between OE beorg Anglian berg ‘rounded hill, tumulus’ and burh, byrig ‘fort’, see now Gelling and Cole, The Landscape of Place-Names, pp. 145–52. Bill Patterson suggests (personal communication, April 2004) that the name might have been familiar to German auxiliaries stationed at York and their descendants, who could have added the suffix.

[66] The present village replaces the pre-19th century one moved to provide a better view from the ‘big house’, Londesborough Park. The place is one of the claimants to the title of Delgovitia (read Delgovicia), but it must be left to the archaeologist of the future to substantiate the claim made here. If it fell to us to suggest the site of a lost *Lugudunon, note that to its north Londesborough Field sits below a steep escarpment rising to 165m. On Londesborough Wold takes place England’s oldest horse race, the March ‘Kiplingcote Derby’, recorded since 1519, perhaps suggestive in the light of the god’s additional association with this beast. Thanks again to Bill Patterson for providing me with these details from the Internet (Londesborough).

[67] Ekwall, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names, p. 303. Johnston, Place-Names of Scotland, p. 243, compares Lothian with Londesborough’s DB form.

[68] Mills, A Dictionary of English Place-Names, p. 225; Watts, The Cambridge Dictionary of English Place-names, p. 379.

Belated thanks to the late Professor Colin Smith, supportive of my reasoning on *LANUM almost a decade ago, for his unfailingly generous encouragement and willingness to listen to an unfledged amateur. I should also like to thank Bill Patterson again here for reading a final draft of this article, and for his mainly positive comments. Remaining irregularities are of course my own.

Who Do You Think You Are?

Can history help us define British identity today, or is it part of the problem?

Five-sevenths of history is story. In the Romance languages the equation is exact. History and story are the same word: Spanish historia, French histoire, Italian storia, and so on, all from the Latin historia, ‘a narrative of past events’. The word itself, though, is older, rubbed down by many tongues: not even the Romans invented history, or its name, though on this island they are often credited with many beginnings.

But who is to be its narrator? The victor, as is usually claimed? Is history then a fiction, a story squabbled over? In a war of words? Words themselves are as ancient as human discourse, linguifactual heirlooms from antiquity, not so solid but perhaps as valid as the archaeologist’s found artefact. Their history is often overlooked.

Linlithgow is a small West Lothian burgh, former haunt of Scottish kings and birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots, less than twenty miles west of Edinburgh. The reverse of its burgh seal (on its obverse patron St Michael everslays a writhing dragon) shows a greyhound bitch tethered to a tree on an island in its loch, from a local tale. It also demonstrates a common phenomenon: folk-etymology, which explains and makes sense of what seems incoherent.

Locally Lithgow (whence the surname), pronounced Lithca or Lithgae, in the Middle Ages the burgh-name was deemed by someone of influence to have a Gaelic origin, from liath cù ‘grey dog’, a notion which was taken up folklorically. But the name is older than that. Another Celtic language was spoken here earlier, for centuries before Gaelic arrived, as it was in most of what we now term ‘England’: Welsh. Much of the best early Welsh poetry (including the Lothian-crafted Gododdin) stem from central Scotland. The tongue persisted in many parts into the last millennium, at least to the 12th century, particularly in the kingdom of Strathclyde and the remote Borders uplands.

Few Scots know this. Scottish dictionaries largely ignore it. Not generally taught in schools, Scottish history before the land was polarised between Gael and Angle is the chained skeleton in the national cupboard. If realised, it is often played down. The Welsh once spoken besouth the Forth is termed ‘Cumbric’, and benorth it ‘Pictish’, for no reason other than political correctness: what true Scot, named already from a kindred of Irish immigrants, wants to know his ancestors spoke Welsh?

Welsh (Old English wealh) actually means ‘(Celtic- or Romance-speaking) foreigner’: Britons dubbed strangers in their own land. But place-names whisper the historical truth. As with Aberdeen, Glasgow, Lanark, Perth and Stirling (and Kent, London and many another), Welsh gave the name Lithgow: something like *laith-cau ‘damp hollow’. The full modern name *linn-laith-cau draws in the loch, modern Welsh llyn, to mean ‘lake-in-damp-hollow’, rather than the more intriguing ‘grey-dog loch’. But the story has evolved: today’s Linlithgovians (or should that be Linlithwegians?) are known as ‘Black Bitches’.

Other examples abound. As with all inheritances, words may be used by us their inheritors according to our own lights, bright or dim as the wattage may be. But as soon as words, in themselves objective, are processed by us, whether actively or passively, they become subjective, and this is the bind we cannot escape.

Though etymologically false, such explanations are passed on as memes (units of memory), often by teachers or other local worthies, and become part of our collective heritage. They are as willingly relinquished as a terrier’s stick. Each may be termed an irreality, an individual or vaguely consensual imaginary construct having little relation to any historical or physical actuality but more than the purely notional in that we use it to build our realities, our worldview, around.

As further easy examples, take the boundaries we’ve imposed on our small island. The twin tide-marks of the Romans, the weaker northern one of turf, the more southerly of stone, signal a mindscape still divided to historians of this day at Solway and Forth. Offa’s Dyke marks a later march thrown up like the Thames Barrier against an enemy perceived as urgently threatening as today’s sea-surges. Each of our island nations’ sovereignties is most in peril where the firm but irreal map-line shows her strongest, opposed by different ethnicities defined mostly by tongue or accent: the Same faced up to by the Other. And how many have died for the notion of nation?

It’s good philological practice (as in the derivations of Linlithgow above) to denote with an asterisk a hypothesised early form of a word deduced by analogy with later or even earlier ones: a philologist’s good guess in other words. This has been called ‘asterisk-reality’ and considered a major factor in the fantasy don lit works of J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis, professors and philologists both, who devised parallel British dimensions of myth.

How close is it to our take on history? As TV, film and book make clear, what the majority wants is imaginative fantasy, taking us out of time (history’s domain) for its duration. What the greater mass of humanity knows of history, if it knows anything at all, is the potted Hollywood version, an Americanised irreality.

William Wallace, the late 13th century ‘freedom-fighter’, though probably not a native Welsh speaker, was of that cultural lineage, as his surname makes clear. Potentially at least quadrilingual (Latin, Norman French, Northern Middle English and Gaelic), in Braveheart he became pan-epochal, daubed in Iron Age woad beneath a quasi-fantasy-movie mullet, sporting pseudo-medieval Scottish garb and speaking modern Antipodean Morningside Glaswegian. Was its star director laughed back over the south-eastern horizon? Far from it: he was lauded over the western one, winning an Oscar, and the film, however briefly, rekindled the fires of Scottish independence.

In a climate of creative history, conspiracy theories thrive. What is justifiably termed a historical novel, Dan Brown’s best-selling The Da Vinci Code is based on a series of errors, either innocently ingenious or deviously disingenuous, not least of which are his acceptance of the existence of the Prieuré de Sion (a 20th century hoax rather than an ancient order synchronous with the Knights Templar) and his derivation of Roslin (also Rosslyn).

Written Roskelyn around 1240, whatever this place-name does mean (‘holly-moor’ or ‘promontory by the pool or waterfall’?), it is Welsh or Gaelic, not English, and has nothing to do with roses, lines or spuriously derived compass rose-lines, with which it doesn’t in any case tally. Much like Linlithgow’s Black Bitch, the device is pivotal to the whole irreality. It has influenced millions of world-views, spawned a tourist trail and a predictably blockbusting film: what author could ask for more? What those of us who think we know think or say doesn’t matter: here folk- (or in this case pseudo-scholarly) etymology has made quantum evolutionary leaps, forging myth in the process.

The history of our small divided islands is little better. All history was story before historians were called up into being. What mattered was the meaning behind the event rather than the chronicler’s or diarist’s minutiae, the statistician’s number-juggling or the easily-nettled pedant’s vested actualities. The British poet David Jones, whose quirky output taps into our insular mythology, knew that collective myth, like the individual psyche, ‘cares nothing for discrepancies of time or circumstance.’

Partly because of this, what we call history is usually our notion of history, constantly reshaped. ‘One damn thing after another’, history is not in itself ordered, except retrospectively. We stagger on from one contingent crisis to the next, ending up far from where we would have wished.

Hindsight is the world’s most efficient editor. Like folk-etymology it orders the inchoate into a semblance of design from which we may learn. Or not.

We ride an ungraspable present into an unforeseeable future. Objectively verifiable facts and dates are our historians’ blind-man’s-kerb through the dimness of the past, which shifts as we look. Once we step away from it, our path is less sure, and we teeter into subjectivity, slip into myth. Is our accepted mainstream history nothing but the academic historian’s irreality, his causeway through a bog, his best guess?

Think for a moment on King Arthur, claimed as their own by Cornwall, Wales and Scotland, fostered by England. Some historians believe in him, some don’t. He may never have existed, certainly not as a medieval chivalric paragon. We have crowned him once and future king, both real and imaginary, by our own imaginations. The inscrutably wise William Blake, another who plumbed his vaticinations into our British meme-pool, saw him as the star Arcturus, and modern Welsh etymology hints he may not have been far out. It may be that all our story-telling grew from ourselves as projections onto, or dialogues with, earth and stars, a dialogue preserved by some place-names, and much myth. The blanker the screen the better. Historically we know next to nothing about the ‘real’ King Arthur, and all his entourage, doughty English knights once Celtic gods. But the next-to-nothing has filled countless books.

Our present monarch, the full weight of church, government and entire age-old establishment solidly behind her, traces her ancestry back to the Anglian Woden, a duplicitous mercurial one-eyed god with shamanic antecedents. Friend to wolf and raven, lord of the meadfeast, of the hanged and otherwise strangled, of warriors slain in battle, father of dynasties, psychopomp, masked and many-faced, his Wednesday name has been construed as ‘raving mad’ or ‘poetically inspired’… How real is that?

As real as all story. At least it roots into an aspect of our national past. Yet to say she is ‘Anglian’ (or even German) is to ignore Welsh (Tudor) and Scottish (Stuart) input, and – who knows? – Irish. She is in fact, as are we all, a walking microcosm of our insular history.

Yet still the Celt is seen as strange and Other, and has been for more than a millennium and a half. Early insular history of any worth is hardly taught in schools. What is is piecemeal and falsely-based. Stereotypically, but not too far from archetypally, our mindscapes are fundamentally polarised between Celts and Anglo-Saxons.

The first are imaged as primitive dark- or red-headed whisky-swilling noble savages, the second hard-headed rational blonds, prone to beery hangovers yet leaders by Aryan birthright. They dominated the ‘Dark Age’ land, sweeping any survivors north and west, then got down to longterm plan the British Empire to a blueprint inherited from the Romans, whose empire had in its time enlightened the Iron Age Celts: if not naked woad-besmeared fen-skulkers to a man (read Gibbon), then grimy shack-dwellers on windswept heights.

Our national names proclaim us peculiar in England and Scotland. We see ourselves as heirs to invaders of an appropriated land of gone British tribes, victims of natural selection. The tongue we speak is also viewed as invasive, equated with the ‘race’ of the invader: because we speak English we are Anglo-Saxons, whose ancestors all crossed the North Sea. But what truth is there in all this?

Not much. For a start, that bio-mysticism we call genetics insists we are all one. The only race we are entitled to refer to is the human one. Even so, distinctions blur at the edges: we have much DNA in common with corgis, midges and shamrock.

Secondly, most scholars agree that the only viable definition of ‘Celt’ is someone who at a certain point in time speaks a language classed as Celtic. This broadens our perspective considerably. Two millennia ago, Celtic was spoken throughout Britain and from Ireland to Galatia (modern Turkey) and almost from the Baltic to Iberia. Many hundreds of millions of Europeans can claim Celtic ancestry, even identity, if they wish. This includes a majority of English folk.

Thirdly, language is a cultural commodity, as an instant’s thought on the pandemic global spread of English and its accompanying meme-mish-mash confirms. Like it or not, the language perceived as most prestigious, for whatever reason, always predominates.

There is growing evidence that Anglicisation was a centuries-long process, not an event. It continues, not only in Scotland and Ireland, where you can still hear ‘I’m after (doing something)’, meaning ‘I have just (done something).’ This is an aspectual construction shared by both Welsh and Gaelic and is in fact a direct translation, a relict of what we term ‘language shift’.

The Irish will always be Irish, despite speaking English. When they shifted to English, the first generation used the brogue, with much lexis, phonology, and syntax transferred from Gaelic. In the next generation, far fewer words were swapped. The third was monoglot English, despite the State’s attempts to reanimate Irish. Now the main characteristic is the accent.

Britons in what we now call England found it beneficial to learn Anglo-Saxon. Initially they would have been bilingual, learning it in their own way, shaping what was to become English. Their eventual monoglot offspring, flaunting themselves as Anglo-Saxons as eagerly as our own children boast baseball caps, would have looked down on their old fogey monoglot great-grandparents as Welsh. In some quarters it’s muttered that the venerable Bede, who despised Brits, was of recent British stock. A fanatical convert: belief is involved. The ‘Anglo-Saxon’ poet Cædmon, with his Welsh name (Cadfan), definitely was. But this is just to say that his ‘Britishness’ was more overt.

English dictionaries perform gymnastic contortions to explain away mam, dad, nan(a) ‘grandma’ and babe/baby, all familial words from British antiquity. Much of our vernacular verbal system, using gerund or verbal noun, may be inherited from Celtic. Use of the continuous present is as common in the Celtic tongues as in colloquial English, which, like many English placenames and more vocabulary than we think, wears Cymric underclothes beneath garb made in England.

In other words, linguistic studies tell us Anglo-Saxon was laid down over a substratum of British Celtic now called Welsh (Cornish in the south-west). English, long considered a Germanic language, is anomalous within that group because of it. It says a lot that most research into these topics takes place outside England, where they meet most opposition because of an ongoing ideological struggle between maverick ‘Celt’ and establishment ‘Saxon’, each suspecting a hidden political subtext or agenda in the other.

Genetics has revealed that the greater bulk of North-West Europeans descends from Upper Palaeolithic hunters in the same area. With such finds as the Cheddar Man and his modern descendants, we can envisage a stable British population for around 10,000 years, an insular DNA pool breached by a steady trickle of incomers. Archaeology tells us there were no major prehistoric movements of folk into Britain. Insular Celtic, long judged an Iron Age import from the continent, is now in many quarters considered a home-grown tongue, developed in Britain and Ireland, perhaps in the Bronze Age. It too would have spread on the wings of a culture, a meme-wave almost like a virus, learned by speakers of an earlier language who left their prints on it.

Insular Celtic differs from its late continental cousins, is as deviant within Indo-European as English is within Germanic. For over a century there has been a small minority of scholars striving way beyond the mainstream fringe to show that Insular Celtic exhibits linguistic descent (or at least prehistoric influence) from some Mediterranean Hamito-Semitic tongue, a theory championed now by the American linguist Dr Orin Gensler. Today usually called ‘Afro-Asiatic’, this large family of languages includes Ancient Egyptian, Coptic, and Berber on the one hand, Phoenician, Hebrew and Arabic on the other. Who could have brought such a tongue here? Seafaring Phoenician tin-prospectors, even if they were on our shores by 1000BC, came too late.

It is unusual to find different disciplines in any sort of accord over our prehistory. More recent genetic research is suggesting that the stable and antique population in Ireland and Britain has some affinity along the Atlantic seaboard with Brittany, Iberia and North Africa (where Berber is spoken), a relationship predicted by a synthesis of archaeology and geography. Amongst our insular genetic stock is a clan who comprise almost one-fifth of European genetic identity. Their source? The Middle East. They may have been the first farmers.

While genetic synthesis is still remote (and only genetics can really be the arbiter), if these hypotheses are true then long before the ancient Egyptians built their pyramids or the Hebrew scriptures were written down, folk we could claim as our island ancestors were speaking a language akin to theirs.

So how do we define British identity? Who do we see as Same, who Other? Whose gang do we join, whose taunt? Which designer ancestry do we choose? We are luckier than many in that the sea defines us. Should we not celebrate our archipelagian diversity?

But how do we circumvent those twin frustrating irrealities, politics and religion, which both, despite protesting the contrary, interpret myth as history and dichotomise in the same way? Ireland, always linguiculturally closer to us than the continent, knows more about this than the rest of us.

If our notion of history spins the facts, politics bowls googlies with the fiction. Politics is the spin put on the past to define the present and predict the future, or at least set it on the desired course. The Myth of the Promised Golden Land Just Around The Corner? But the future isn’t what it was. Nor will the past be. If religion is the opium of the people, politics is their caffeine. Yet few people trust politicians or believe religion, because of this same spin. But what else is there, for imaginative and creative humans?

Our answer has to be an obvious and resounding ‘yes’: history can help us define British identity today, but what we perceive as history always gets in the way. Both British history and British identity are nourished by myth. They are irrealities, stories. It is a matter of which story we choose.