Cumberland: Land of the Cumbri, or Britons

If you live on this island at the moment, there’s no avoiding a certain debate about the land that lies at its northernmost end. It’s a particularly odd moment for Cumbria, as we share a border with Scotland and indeed for large chunks of its history, large chunks of Cumbria actually were in Scotland. I could wade through a list but perhaps this is best exemplified by Carlisle Castle; the ‘mighty keep’ (tower) was built by King David of Scotland and he died right here in 1153.

Carlisle Castle copyright Neil Boothman

Carlisle Castle copyright Neil Boothman

It’s made a lot of us think about how we define ourselves. Like many people around these parts I’m a real northwestern mongrel, with a mixture of Cumbrian, Irish and Scottish blood, names, appearance, and history. I’ve drawn the conclusion that I should side-step recent history – by recent I mean several hundred years’ worth – and decide that I’m British.

‘Britain’, of course, is as Tim Clarkson says in this excellent post, not a political entity but an historical one, describing an island off mainland Europe. That’s the whole island, north to south, east to west, and it includes a whole bag of ethnic micro-identifiers, ancient and modern.

I can even claim Camden, the 16th century historian, in evidence. In the wonderfully lyrical first English translation by Philemon Holland of 1610 – perhaps, appropriately, Camden’s 1586 original was not written in English or Welsh or Gaelic but Latin – Cumberland remembered it was peopled by Britons long after everyone else had adopted other labels.

Eden Valley from the Long Meg signpost

Eden Valley from the Long Meg signpost

‘Westward, Northward from Westmoreland lieth Cumberland, the utmost region this way of the Realme of England, as that which on the North side boundeth upon Scotland. On the Southside and the West the Irish sea beateth upon it, and Eastward above Westmorland it butteth upon Northumberland. It tooke the name of the inhabitants, who were the true and naturall Britans and called themselves in their owne language Kumbri and Kambri. For the Histories testifie that the Britans remained heere a long time, maugree [despite] the English Saxons, howsoever they fretted and stormed thereat: yea and Marianus himself recordeth as much, who tearmed this Country Cumbrorum terram, that is, The land of the Cumbri, or Britans, to say nothing of the places that everywhere here beare British names, as Caer-Luel, Caer-dronock, Pen-rith, Pen-rudocc, &c., which declare the same and as cleerely proove mine assertion.’ (William Camden’s Britannia, 1610 Philemon Holland translation, opening part of entry for Cumberland.)

(North-west of Westmorland is Cumberland, the furthest part of England, which borders Scotland. In the south-west it meets the Irish Sea, and to the north-east, Northumberland. It is named after its inhabitants, who were the original Britons, who called themselves cumbri. History says that the Britons were here long after the anglo-saxons arrived. Marianus [an 11thcentury writer] said this, calling it land of the Cumbrians, or Britons, and also there are British place-names everywhere, such as Carlisle, ***, Penrith and Penruddock, which proves my point.)

The word, ‘Cumbria’, as we all know (after three years of Esmeralda’s!), is from the same brythonic language root as the Welsh cymru and cymry, the Welsh words for Wales and Welsh. It’s usually translated as ‘fellow countrymen’ or, as I like to think of it, ‘people like us’. Everyone on this island spoke a dialect of that language when the Romans arrived, and it was gradually pushed back by successive language invasions from variants of anglo-saxons and to a lesser extent, gaelic speakers. Now the remnants of the language of the Britons are to be found in Wales and Brittany and a scattering of enthusiasts in Cornwall. Cumbria retains it in the oft-quoted sheep-counting dialect (‘yan, tan, tethera’), but we spoke it to some extent until the 10th century, well after the pesky anglians started putting their oar in.

Catbells over Derwentwater

Catbells over Derwentwater copyright D McIlmoyle

I’d like to think that Camden was particularly keen to include these facts because despite being born and bred in London, he knew that, ‘Wirkington, a place famous for the taking of Salmons, and now the seat of the ancient family of the Curwens… heere have they a stately house built Castlelike, and from whom (without offence of vanity be it spoken) my selfe am descended on my mothers side’. I’m also descended from Workington on my mother’s side (albeit not via the Curwens) and it seems we feel the same, 400 years apart.

Whatever whoever wants to call whichever part of the island of Britain after The Vote, I know one thing. Cumberland will hold as true to its Camden/Holland description as it ever has.

…although it be somewhat the coldest, lying farre North, and seemeth as rough by reason of hilles, yet for the variety thereof it smileth on the beholders, and give contentment to as many as travaile it. For after the rockes bunching out, the mountaines standing thicke togither, rich of mettal mines, and betweene them great meeres stored with all kinds of wilde-foule, you come to prety hills good for pasturage and well plenished with flocks of sheepe, beneath which againe you meet with goodly plaines spreading out a good way, yeelding corne sufficiently. Besides all this, the Ocean, driving and dashing upon the shore…

Roll on Cumbria, land of the Britons.

Castlerigg, view south

Castlerigg, view south

©Diane McIlmoyle

Notes

1. This is not part of the political argument, and I have no view on whether Scotland’s political future should lie within or outwith the UK. People bringing politics to Esmeralda’s will be subject to the usual punishment of defenestration.

2. The Camden quotes are all from the first English version, translated by Philemon Holland in 1610. Isn’t his language marvellous? The spelling and punctuation, with all its idiosyncracies and inconsistencies, is Holland’s original.

3. If you’re seeing a really weird page layout, that’s WordPress’s idiosyncracies. Grrrrrr.

Happy Lammas/Lughnasadh!

I’ve spent so much time trying to wade through the bituminous treacle that is Penrith today (there’s a big music festival here and it’s absolutely hair-raisingly bonkers on the roads) that I’ve got to 4pm before realising it’s August 1st.

August 1st is associated with the ‘celtic’ mythological figure of Lugus (British), or Lugh (Irish), or Lleu (Welsh). And I hope all Cumbrians and lovers of Cumbria know that Carlisle was named after Lugus/Lugh/Lleu. Oh yes, really.

Read my original post on Carlisle’s ancient name here: http://esmeraldamac.wordpress.com/2011/04/15/carlisles-ancient-british-heritage-luguwalos/

I hope today’s torrential downpour in Lugus’s Cumbrian city is not an indication of how he feels about his citizens today…

Happy Lammas/Lughnasadh!

Forks

Pair of neolithic wooden tridents, Tullie House Museum

Pair of neolithic wooden tridents, Tullie House Museum


Cumbria has a lot of pretty unusual stuff, and has precisely 66.67%(1) of these fork-like items. The other 33.3% are in Ireland, and there’s every chance that even they were made here.

The second thing to note about these forks is that they’re giant – over six feet Continue reading

What would you like to see on Esmeralda’s? Survey Time!

Esmeralda’s Cumbrian History & Folklore has been running since October 2010, since when I’ve written over a hundred posts. I write about whatever pops into my mind on the day I sit in front of the computer, so it’s been a wild and varied list of subjects taking in everything from serious, little-known Cumbrian history to boggles and faeries to fabulous Cumbrian objects buried in the vaults of The British Museum.

There have been times when posts haven’t quite worked. There’s been just one instance when I took Continue reading

Cats, bells and old oak trees

I honestly don’t think anyone knows who’s going to read their blog until they get writing it. This one is mostly read by folks with a storytelling bent, whether it’s a local with a romantic soul, a teacher or volunteer guide looking for history’s interesting bits, a journalist, a whole load of spammers telling tales about loans and boots and yachts, a writer of novels, a politician, an historian, a neighbour, or a lover of the discipline of local history, wherever it is found.

Copse, Derwentwater, Keswick

Copse, Derwentwater, Keswick

If you love stories, I can’t recommend a better source of inspiration than Continue reading

Our history gets a look-in on BBC Radio Cumbria

Yesterday, Dr Tim Clarkson, who has been kind enough to dig me out of many a comprehension hole without making me feel stupid, got a slot on the Mike Zeller show on BBC Radio Cumbria.

Tim Clarkson is an expert – possibly the expert – on the kingdom of Strathclyde, that is to say, the Brythonic (early Welsh)-speaking, ‘dark age’ kingdom that stretched from Glasgow to northern Cumbria, including the sub-kingdom of Rheged, between roughly the 5th and 10th centuries.

You can hear Tim’s bit on the radio show for another 6 days on the BBC i-player on the internet. (Slide the slidey thing along to 48mins 10 seconds to reach this bit).

He talks about:

The meaning of the word, Cumbria and its predecessor, Cumberland, and its ancient links to Wales (home of the ‘cymry’).

The language of Cumbria up until the Norman invasion, which was Cumbric, a dialect of Brythonic, itself a version of early Welsh.

Rheged – here is a guest blog piece on early medieval Cumbria  (he’s not that keen on the locating of Rheged in Cumbria, or at least, not all of it) that Tim Clarkson was kind enough to let me filch from him for this blog.

Urien – the 6th century Cumbria ‘hero’ who led an alliance of northern, Brythonic-speaking kingdoms against the invading Angles, but lost in the end when he was betrayed by an ally.

The Battle of Arthuret – which is the story of Gwenddoleu, and his bard, Lailoken.

Merlin – or, at least, one of the historical bards known as Merlin – who was, in fact, Lailoken.

You can buy Tims’ books here. Support our supporters!

01.04.2014

The Vikings are here…

Silver thistle brooch from Flusco Pike, Penrith. British Museum.

Silver thistle brooch from Penrith. COPYRIGHT British Museum.

Just a quick post today, mostly because I’m a bit freaked out by the slew of material on the ‘net yesterday and today claiming that this-that-or-the-other group is x% Viking, or that Penrith is 5% Viking (if you’re a man), or Yorkshire something more. The fact is that if you ask a scientific expert  – for which I recommend Sense About Science for a quickie – they say that it’s not that straightforward. The DNA testing companies that offer you and me the chance to decide we’re Celtic or Viking or Egyptian or whatever are being massively simplistic. We’re all probably related to the Vikings somewhere along the line, never mind the million that the headlines were talking yesterday.

Having depressed you all nicely, I remind you of these rather wonderful, actual Viking things that were found in a field, traditionally known as Silver Field (hah!), near Newbiggin, Penrith. One brooch was Continue reading