Monday, 16 April 2012

Names - Celtic, Anglo-Saxon and Norse

Starting another week with the A-Z blogging challenge, and now we're onto the second half of the alphabet.

The names of many Lake District places, mountains, valleys and lakes come from ancient languages.

The oldest probably come from the pre-Roman Celtic language, which is related to Welsh and Cornish, mixed with influences from southern Scotland. This led to words such as stickle (meaning steep place, from the Celtic skikill), and crag (meaning rock, from the Welsh ‘craic’). These words are very common in the Langdale area, with Harrison Stickle, Pike O’Stickle, Gimmer Crag and Loft Crag.

From the Anglo-Saxon times (about 700 – 900 AD) come words like ‘tun’ meaning farmstead or village, and ‘mere’, the word for lake. So we have Coniston (meaning King’s town – not sure who the king was!), and Windermere (Winander’s Lake). Incidentally, although many people refer to Windermere as ‘Lake Windermere’ and Grasmere as 'Lake Grasmere', this is technically wrong, since the ‘mere’ suffix indicates a lake, but this seems to be done to distinguish the lakes from the small towns which have the same name.

A lot of Lake District names are derived from Old Norse. The Norsemen arrived around 925AD, and gradually settled in the area. Maybe it reminded them of their Scandinavian homeland, with its mountains, valleys and lakes.

There are many names which still retain the Norse influence e.g:
Beck – steam  - from bekkr Dale – valley - from dalr
Force – waterfall - from fors
Fell – a large mountain - from fjallr
Ghyll – ravine - from gill
Howe – hill - from haugr
Holme – isalnd - from holmr
Pike – peak - from pic
Side or Seat – shieling/dwelling or mountain pasture - from saetr
Tarn – small lake - from tjorn
Thwaite – forest clearing - from thveit

These words were often linked with the Norse chieftain who established a settlement in the area. For example, the name Hawkshead derives from the Norseman 'Haukr' who had a dwelling or 'saetr' in this place. Its medieval name  was Howksete, which was sometimes spelt as Haaksid - hence the modern name.

I’ve tried to explain some of these names when I’ve used them in earlier posts, but hope this list clarifies any I might not have explained! I must admit the origin of modern place names fascinates me!  


  1. Names and their origins are always fascinating, Paula - we use some of them here in Scotland too.

  2. Can I add that the word, 'Cumbria' is of the same derivation as the welsh word for Wales, Cymru (and ironically, 'Wales' is derived from the anglo-saxon word for foreigner). The likelihood is that most of this island spoke the ancestor language of Welsh (brythonic) once upon a time. The Cumbrian version only died out in the 10th century.

    Tim Clarkson, who is an historian of the dark age north and an all-round star, was kind enough to guest post on this on my blog a little while back.

    I can bore for Britain on the subject (sorry!) :)

  3. Thanks, Rosemary and Claudia.

    And thanks to 'Esmeralda' for the link to the very interesting article by Tim Clarkson about early medieval Cumbria (plus a lot more about Cumbria's history on her blog). Highly recommended to anyone interested in British history!

  4. Alwasy drawn to water and these lakes are no different. They are just beautiful!

  5. This is really fascinating. I love learning about word origins. Great job Paula!!

    Cheers, Jenn

  6. Isn't it fantastic that these names continue and are in our everyday language? What a delightful place the Lake District is (and Kendall Mint Cake ahem), so inspiring. Thanks for the informative posts.

  7. Yes, I agree, names and their origins fascinate me as well.

  8. This is a post to which real estate developers should refer so that they will have the tools to get more creative with naming their entities.


  9. Love the insight into ancient names of places. I would have (wrongly) guessed that some feature of Hawkshead at some point reminded somebody of an actual hawk's head.

  10. I would love to remember them all (the words that is) this was a great read.Stickle will be one that stays with me for a long while. Thank you for sharing your world with us Paula.

  11. Jenn - origins of place names are fascinating, aren't they?

    Susan - so many of the Lake District place names (and indeed names of other places in the UK) go back to Roman and Medieval times.

    Thanks, Susan and Karen

    Lucy - this often happens in the Lake District (and other places)

    Writing Goddess - good idea about Hawkshead, but in this case it goes back to Viking times.

    November - they're so common in the Lake District that we don't think twice about them!

  12. I think the coolest thing about the place you live is that there are so many things that have been around for centuries!! Even though we have some beautiful places and some historical settings here in the states I don't feel they can compare to the things you have been sharing.


  13. That's interesting. All the places around here are named after Indian tribes.

    Catch My Words

  14. Very interesting post! I've always like reading about how things and places got their names.

  15. I love words and names with Celtic and Norse origins. I think most places around here were named with Native American tribes in mind, but now you have me wondering what I've overlooked in my local area's history.

  16. thanks for sharing, paula. it's quite fascinating learning about other places than my own... :)

  17. Kathy - we have so much history here, we often take it for granted.

    Joyce and Rae - in a way, your Indian names are equivalent to our Anglo-Saxon and Norse names, I think.

    Thanks, Tracy and Daphne.

  18. I just love to hang out in Lake District. At Lonsdale House, Bowness-on-Windermere we offer superb bed and breakfast accommodation in one of the best locations in the Lake District.

    Windermere hotel bed and breakfast