Thursday 9 October 2014

Some Interesting Northumberland Place Names

Here are the covers of two books about the origins of the place names of Northumberland. The first one, with the title that you might be wary of searching for online these days, was published in 1970 by Oriel press, a Newcastle based publisher who produced a number of very good books on local history. The second is by Stan Beckensall, a Northumberland scholar and writer best known for his work on the prehistoric rock carvings of the area (possible subject of a future blog post). It has been revised and reprinted since, but I like having the 1975 original, no. 63 in the series of Northern History booklets produced by the Frank Graham press.  Here are a few examples of the contents.

 GOODWIFE HOT  Of course you now want to know the origin of this remarkable name. Watson relates that it is one of a group of Celtic camps or hill forts in an area of Redesdale, another being called Garret Hot, and says the modern name is likely to be a corruption of an original Celtic name, now lost. He also speculates though that it may be an anglicised reference to a fertility goddess, of whom he also reckons to have found traces in the folkloric figure of the Old Wife.  Beckensall does not include this name at all. Any readers who know if this matter has been cleared up since 1970, please get in touch.

BERWICK  The home territory of this blog. Every book I have ever looked at gives the derivation of the name as bere-wich, a barley farm. An especially scholarly one I looked at in the reference room of the National Library of Scotland offered the additional fact that wick or wich often referred to a smaller farm outlying from a large farm. That sounds likely in our case, and is more satisfactory than the often seen shorthand version that tells us a wick was any kind of settlement.  A local amateur historian once bent my ear at length with his theory that in the case of Berwick the wick comes from the Scandinavian for ‘bay’. It is true that the Icelandic vik means ‘bay’ (the name Reykavik apparently means ‘smoky bay’, thus incidentally explaining why the Scots say that a chimney ‘reeks’), but this cannot be the derivation of any of the inland –wicks in this area, and in any case, the most striking geographical fact about Berwick is that it stands on an estuary, not a bay. I also possess a Directory of Northumberland from 1855, and that offers the theory that the name was originally Aberwick, from the Celtic aber meaning the mouth of  a river. When I toured the local Masonic Hall last month as part of the Heritage Open Doors weekend, I noticed that they use the name Aberwicke on one of their mysterious commemorative boards. (‘I’m not allowed to explain everything to you, but we like old versions of names’.) This derivation seems to have entirely gone out of favour, but it does have some plausibility.

CAMBOIS  A village in the south-east corner of the county, best known for the amusement afforded to Northumbrians when visitors pronounce its name as if it were French.  It is actually pronounced as if the b were not there, which originally it wasn’t. Both of these books say it is derived from the Old Celtic kambo, meaning crooked, cf. Irish camus and Welsh cemmaes, and that the most likely feature in the vicinity to be described as crooked is the bay on which it stands. The name is seen in the form Cammes in the year 1050, according to Beckensall. Watson says that the modern spelling is probably due to the French speaking clerks who arrived after the Norman conquest, and comments that the name is a fine illustration of the importance of taking local pronunciation as the primary source for place names, since they have been handed down entirely by oral transmission.

CRASTER  A fishing village in the northern part of the county, where we often went for the day when I was little.  Beckensall says the name is derived from the Old English crawe-ceastre, a fort inhabited by crows. It is found in the form Craucestre in the year 1242. There is a seabird called the chough which is a member of the crow family. There was a long established cafe in the village called The Choughs, but as far as I know they never exploited this fascinating piece of etymology for the benefit of their business.

HEBRON   In the days when I regularly took the bus between Alnwick and Newcastle I used to pass a signpost to this hamlet, and wearing my other hat as someone who has studied the Middle East, it always intrigued me. It seems that the name has no connection to the West Bank town called Hebron by the Israelis. Beckensall says that it comes from hea-byrgen, a high barrow or burial mound, and is the same name as Hepburn and Hebburn.  This last is an area of Tyneside, and during the period in the 1980s when Belinda Carlisle had a record in the charts called ‘Heaven is a place on earth’, Geordies liked to sing, ‘Hebburn is a place on earth’. Can’t really argue with that.

I hope you have found the above interesting. Perhaps in the future I will publish a few more examples.

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