It is quite surprising to find the number of subjects which have contributed to our modern place names. I recently penned an article examining those places named as they were where certain culinary supplies could be found. Believe it or not there is a village in England named for being where a certain kind of tree was renowned as a source of skewers, of all things!
One of the more interesting sources is, as the title of the post indicates, the mythologies of our islands. A little thought and I recalled some interesting names and the stories behind them. I have taken examples from around Britain. Included are stories from the Cotswolds, the Pennines, the Lake District, Cornwall, the principality of Wales, and north of the border to Scotland.
The Devil’s Churchyard, Minchinhampton, Gloucestershire
Hyde Farm gets its name from that Saxon measurement of land, the hide. Most often said to equal 120 acres, this is simply an average because the ‘measurement’ refers to productivity and not area. It is extremely difficult to quantify a hide, the reason can be seen in the accepted definition of “the amount of land required to feed one family for one year” where there are so many variables – the size of the family, quality of the soil, skills of the farmer, choice of crops, all have to be taken into consideration.
During the twentieth century Hyde Farm had been associated with flight. Today it is owned by the local gliding club but was once a base of operations for the Royal Air Force. This military presence had the effect of isolating the farmworkers as much as it did the official personal who had made it their temporary home. Even after the end of the Second World War rationing remained in force for a number of years, making life hard for all and particularly so for those who were just starting on married life.
It was a warm day when one farmworker broke for lunch. Recently married, both he and his wife worked long hours and would have looked forward to the few hours each day they spent together. Perhaps that was where the young man’s mind went when he entered a small copse away from the heat of the sun and cab of the tractor to open his lunch box. Having just taken a second bite his thoughts were interrupted by a most awful noise from the depths of the copse. Looking up he saw a mist and, as he watched, it began to gather into a most unnatural form. This was enough for the poor man who fled, leaping into his tractor and driving off as fast as the lumbering farm machine would allow.
Not being a local man he was unaware of the reputation of the copse as a place of evil. An area where no bird was heard to sing, of inexplicable darkness, where chills were felt on the warmest of days. Many years before the community, tired of trecking to neighbouring villages for Sunday worship, had asked for their own church to be built and this field had been selected. Agreement was reached and eventually work started.
Foundations were laid down and walls rose reaching half their eventual height. During the night something happened and the sight which greeted the workers when they returned next morning astonished them. Before them were no walls but a collection of stone blocks strewn around the site but not seemingly having fallen. They built them back up again but, once more, they returned next day to find the walls dismantled. Four more times this happened and the workers abandoned the site.
No reason was ever found for this act of superhuman vandalism, yet the community soon offered their own explanation. Ever since this field has been known as the Devil’s Churchyard. N
ear here is Hanging Hill Field where Edge Farm takes its name from the hamlet, itself referring to its position on the edge of the Cotswold Hills. The field name comes as no surprise, there are many ‘hanging’ names coming from Old English hangra describing it as ‘overhanging’ or looming over the land below.
Many of these names have attracted ominous and macabre definitions, examples where creative etymologies have survived as they are much more interesting than the true definition. Yet in the case of Hanging Hill Field, which seems so obviously to be situated in an area where the less glamorous definition fits perfectly, the reverse is the case.
During a discussion one evening a labourer was bragging of his prowess with the scythe. He boasted long and loud of how this particular field posed no problems and could be mown by him on his own in but a single day. Remember he had no modern equipment, merely a scythe which he wielded by hand. Likely much of his purported ability came from the bottle and his companions at the local inn had soon wagered heavily against him accomplishing such a formidable task. It will come as no surprise to learn he failed.
The next time he was seen he was dead, hanging from a tree at the end of a noose. Whether his suicide was due to embarrassment or because he could not afford to settle his losses, we shall never know. No mention of the name of Hanging Hill Field is found before the story. To this day reports continue of the ghostly sound of the labourer, an eerie swishing of his blade as he continues to cut the stems as midnight approaches.
Devil’s Mustard Hill, Stenkrith in the Pennines
Place names can be transferred from one feature to another. Hills can be named from rivers and vice versa and in the Eden Valley is just such an example.
Nearby Kirkby Stephen is Stenkrith Park and Devil’s Mustard Hill. Here we find a hill named from a feature in the valley below. Here the River Eden tumbles over rocks and boulders on its way to the sea at the Solway Firth. Even during the summer months when the river level is at its lowest this is still a turbulent river. When in spate the current is a frightening sight to behold. For those who know where to look among the tree-lined banks it is possible to see a feature either in or out of the stream bed, depending upon the water level, which is the origin of the name of the hill above. The crystal-clear water enables us to see strange circular holes in rocks here. This is the result of untold centuries of erosion by pebbles swirling around in the current.
Although the origin of these holes is clear, it has not stopped the idea of these being a result of the Devil milling his mustard being perpetuated down the centuries.
Dunmail Raise in the Lake District
Dunmail was the last king of Cumberland. Whilst he may or may not have existed little of what is known seems to have any basis in fact, making him as legendary as King Arthur. What is fact is the historical record from the year 945AD. The Saxon King Edmund I led an army which conquered Strathclyde and enabled him to cede the Dunmail’s kingdom to Malcolm I of Scotland, Edmund’s ally in the campaign.
From this point legend takes over and speaks of the beaten Dunmail retreating into the Lake District with the combined Saxon and Scots forces in hot pursuit. Heavily outnumbered, Dunmail decided to face his opponents in most defensible spot he could reach, a pass linking Grasmere and Thirlmere. However his position was hopeless and he was killed, some stories say at the hands of Edmund himself. His sons were blinded and his supporters ordered to pile the rocks on top of the dead king’s remains. Those rocks can still be seen today as the cairn known as Dunmail Raise. The second element is from Old Norse hreysi or ‘cairn’.
Not all Dunmail’s men were captured or killed. Some made good their escape with the crown of the king of Cumberland. They made for the 3,117 feet high Helvellyn or, more precisely, Grisedale Tarn which is found on its slopes 1,400 feet below the summit. Here the crown was flung far out to sink into the depths of this mountainside lake.
It is said the souls of the long-dead warriors return once each year to Grisdale. Having retrieved the crown from the lake they march to Dunmail Raise, rap on the stones with their spears and hear the reply from their king: “Not yet, not yet; wait awhile my warriors.”
The Merry Maidens, Cornwall
Near St Buryan is this ring of stones also known as Dawn’s Men, itself from the Cornish Dans Maen or ‘stone dance’. This circle is comprised of nineteen granite megaliths, each approximately four feet in height and approximately ten to twelve feet apart. These form a circle a little over eighty feet in diameter. This is not a perfect circle. A larger gap to the east gives the impression of a missing stone but archaeological evidence does not support this, indeed it suggests there were probably only eighteen stones originally, perhaps the extra megalith coming from a second circle to the south just 250 yards away but this was destroyed before the end of the nineteenth century.
Legend has it this was the result of nineteen maidens punished by being turned to stone. Their only crime was dancing on the Sabbath. To the northeast are two standing stones, each ten feet high and known as the Pipers. Again turning them to stone was their punishment by being turned to stone for playing for the dancers on a Sunday. Of course the three hundred yards between the two would make hearing the pipers rather difficult for the dancers, yet folklore has the answer there, too. It is said the pipers heard the church clock in St Buryan strike midnight, thus making it Sunday. The pipers turned and ran up the hill, away from the dancers, who continued their dance without music.
Bryn Saith Marchog can only be in the principality of Wales
A place name meaning ‘the hill of the seven horsemen or knights’ and named from a local legend. It recalls the seven men left here by Bran the Blessed to guard his lands while he was away in Ireland.
Earlier Bran had given the hand of his sister Branwen to the Irish king Matholwch. Much feasting ensues to celebrate the betrothal but the arrival of their half-brother Efnisien puts an end to the festivities for he is greatly displeased he was not consulted. He takes his anger out on Matholwch’s horses who are mutilated. Bran ensures peace is restored by offering a magical cauldron to his Iish counterpart, it having the power of restoring life to the dead, although the individual is left mute for the rest of his or her days.
When Branwen travels to Ireland with her husband she is treated badly, despite bearing him a son named Gwern. She summons help by taming a starling and sending a message across the Irish Sea to her homeland. When the British king and his forces are spotted, the Irish retreat, destroying every bridge to prevent pursuit. Yet the giant form of Bran lays himself down for his men to use him as a living bridge. Matholwch tries to appease the invaders but eventually terrible bloody war is waged.
Eventually just six individuals remain alive, Branwen and five of her brother’s men returning home with the severed head of Bran the Blessed. Not an Irishman remained and the race would have been extinct had it not been for five pregnant women found residing in Wales, who returned to repopulate their homeland. Branwen dies of grief that two lands have been decimated solely because of her.
Meanwhile the head of Bran the Blessed was given the burial he had instructed. First his men feasted for seven years in Harlech, accompanied by three singing birds and their former king’s cranium. Travelling to Gwales in Penfro they make camp for four score (eighty) years, then finally head to London where the head is buried in the White Mount ensuring it it faced France. Legend maintains that as long as the head is undisturbed no invaders could cross the sea to Britain.
Novar is north of the border to Scotland.
A place name from Scottish Gaelic taigh an fhuamhair and describing ‘the house of the giant’. Local legends point to just one individual associated with this place, the fabled giant Fingal otherwise known as Finn MacCool.
This legendary hunter of Irish mythology was named Deimne as a child but acquired the nickname Finn when his hair turned white prematurely. The Scottish name Fingal does not appear before the eighteenth century and the writings of the poet James Macpherson, this probably indicates the poet chose the name to fit the legends.
Finn MacCool’s best known exploit sees him up against the giant Cuhullin. While sucking his thumb, this enabled him to see anything he chose no matter where, he saw his rival intended to confront him. Knowing he was sure to lose in direct competition, he turned to his wife Oona for assistance. First she dressed Finn as a baby and hides him away, then turned her hand to make griddle cakes. When Cuhullin arrived he tried to intimidate the giant’s wife by breaking rocks with just his middle finger. However she has the last laugh when Cuhullin bites into one of her griddle cakes and chips his tooth. Oona accused Cuhullin of being boastful and weak, saying her husband eats the cakes every day without trouble.
When Finn apparently returns, he eats a griddle cake without any problem. Cuhullin suspects foul play and Oona did indeed hide griddle irons inside the cake she offered him but not that of her husband. When Cuhullin put his finger into the mouth of Finn to see for himself how sharp these teeth really were, the latter bit off the tip of the middle finger, the source of his rival’s great strength and size. Cuhullin shrank down to the size of a mere man and fled lest he be beaten by the giant Finn.
I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.