Rothbury, History Society

View of Rothbury'Picture by Jane Coltman
View of Rothbury'Picture by Jane Coltman

What’s in a name?

Dr Jonathan West is a retired historical linguist living in Redesdale whose research has been centred on the history of the Germanic languages.

His talk to Rothbury and Coquetdale History Society focused on Coquetdale, but he tried to put the place names of the valley in the wider context of England, showing them to be essentially English, with an underlying Brittonic element.

This reflected the language of the Anglian settlers, but also the persistence of the language of the ancient Britons, which survives as Welsh, Cornish, and in Northumberland, as the odd place name.

What surprised us all, brought up in tales of the Viking invasions, was that Northumberland place names do not have a significant Scandinavian element.

There are a few possible candidates, but they do not point to a settlement pattern, unlike in Yorkshire or Lincolnshire. The same was largely true of southern Scotland.

Dr West pointed out that it was important to go to the oldest records to make sense of a name. This was the case with Hepple, meaning not ‘dog-rose hill’ as one might expect with names ending in ‘le’, but ‘dog-rose dale or haugh’.

He also stressed the importance of the motivation or underlying reason for a place name.

Time was too short to deal with every name in Coquetdale, but a few elements were explained, such as ‘l(e)y, lee’ meaning a clearing, (as in Callaley ‘clearing for calves’), ‘law’ a hill (as in Blakelaw), ‘ham’ a homestead, ‘bottle’ dwelling (as in Harbottle ‘dwelling of the army/magpies’), ‘ho(e)’ height, and ‘tun’ an enclosure (as in Flotterton ‘float-way-enclosure’).

Dr West dealt with the name of the Coquet in the context of other pre-English river names and came out in favour of an etymology based on an old spelling Coccuveda, possibly linked to the northern British war god Coccidius, perhaps depicted in the Yardhope Man relief. However, he also said that popular etymology, a common feature of place name development, might have resulted in the name being interpreted as meaning ‘wild bird wood’.

Other possible survivals of the language of the ancient Britons are The Raw, meaning slope, and the ‘don’ of Burradon, which seems to have been motivated by the Iron Age fort on Castle Hill. Archaeologists were also encouraged to investigate Wreighhill, ‘hill of felons’ – the first element is related to the German word for ‘to strangle’.

Other features of name development were also important.

Crigdon Hill, for example, meant hill-hill-hill, and was a so-called pleonastic formation, where more familiar elements were added to explain ones which had become obscure.

Dr West finished with a discussion of the interpretation of the name Rothbury and suggested that it was a pleonastic formation as well, the first element being the British word for ‘fort’, which is found in Rothmaise ‘fort on the plain’ in Aberdeenshire and is widely attested in Britain and on the continent. The second is the Old English word for ‘fort’, so the name Rothbury means ‘fort-fort’.

The next meeting will be on Friday, September 16, at 7pm for 7.30pm, in the Jubilee Hall, Rothbury.