Popular History Abhors a Vacuum, but Accurate Historians Can’t

Celtic head from Netherby, at Tullie House. Copyright D McIlmoyl

This is how I feel about this subject.

One of the things you have to deal with if you’re interested in early history, especially of a small part of Britain, is that Aristotle’s line about abhoring a vacuum applies. We find that in the absence of easily proven facts, stories flood in to fill said vacuum  – often in the Victorian period, but sometimes earlier  – and as a result an awful lot of people have had many years to write books, speculate on the internet and generally promulgate stuff which has remarkably little evidence to back it up.

There are some subjects where lack of hard facts remains so troublesome that academic historians will not address them for fear of being seen as populist lightweights by their peers, but there are other subjects that have been clarified enormously by the work of etymologists (specialists in old languages and how they change) throughout the later 20th century and right up to the present day (and continuing, hopefully).

For example, if you look at the village name, Ousby, you might well think it’s an easy one – the first bit looks like ‘ouse’, the name of many rivers throughout England, which simply means ‘water’ (*udso-), and the ‘-by’ part is Danish viking for ‘farmstead, hamlet or village’. Easy, eh? But no. The earliest spellings of the village name are ‘Uluesbi’ (1195) and ‘Ulvesby’ (1214) from which we can be certain that it was, in fact, a village established or owned by a viking named Ulf.

We get into similar hot water with Cumbria’s two Rosthwaites. People love investigating ‘ros-‘ names, because they are often linked to the Norse viking word for ‘horse’ and from which some people like to extrapolate horse cults (presumably pre-dating the vikings). However, whilst the Rosthwaite in Broughton is confidently identified as ‘the clearing (‘thwaite’) where horses (‘hrossa’) are kept’ based on medieval spellings – ‘Rosthwaite’ in the 13th century and ‘Rossethwayt’ in the 16th century –, the Rosthwaite in Borrowdale is entirely unhorsey. Spellings of the 16th century – ‘Rasthuate’ and ‘Rasthwhat’ – show us that the original meaning was ‘clearing (‘thwaite’) with a cairn (‘hreysi’)’.

Altar to Cocidius, a native god, at Tullie House Copyright D McIlmoyle

Altar to Cocidius, a native god, at Tullie House Copyright D McIlmoyle

These two examples may be inconsequential to non-locals and non-horse lovers, but you start to see how such misinterpretations create entire mythologies when we consider Bega, a local saint after whom the village of St Bees is named. At some point in the 19th century, someone who knew that the monastery at St Bees had a sacred relic somewhat like a ring, or armband, decided that the word, ‘bega’ was actually the Old English word, ‘beāg’, meaning ring, and ergo the whole Bega story is based on a sacred relic, not a human being. Unfortunately the ‘beāg-‘ theory falls down entirely under scrutiny. Despite the similarities to modern eyes, the Old English word, ‘beāg-‘ is unlikely, following the rules of language evolution, to have ended up as ‘bega’. Secondly, the earliest spellings of the village (12th century) are ‘becóc’, which is a known personal name in the gaelic/celtic church. By these simple strokes an entire theory suggesting that the christian church appropriated a pagan symbol is knocked down.

I’m not immune to this phenomenon. Since Esmeralda kicked off three years ago (yay!), I’ve only taken down one post because my commenters convinced me that I’d got it totally wrong. That was the tale of Cumbria’s references to the celtic goddess Brigid, extropolated from the place-names beginning with ‘brig-‘ and links to the not-uncommon St. Bridget churches at old settlements. Unfortunately, though, prosaic wins because Cumbria has a lot of rivers with settlements at crossing-places where a ‘brycg-‘ (Old English for bridge) was useful, giving the early spelling of  ‘Bricgaham’ (Brigham, 12thcentury), for example. Other places alleged to be ‘Brigid’s hill’, such as Briscoe, turn out to have originally been ‘Brethesco’ (1203, ‘wood of the Britons’) and similar. The exceptions are Bridekirk and Kirkbride, which refer to the churches (kirk) of St Bridget found there; these are easily accounted for by recorded 9th and 10th century influence from Norse-Gael (vikings who settled in Dublin but were finally expelled in the early 10th century) church men from Strathclyde.

One of my remaining geographical goddess stories for investigation was that of the River Ellen, to the west of the county. Some would have you believe that this is a direct lift from the Welsh figure, Elen, a semi-mythical woman much confused with St. Helen, who was, in legend, responsible for a network of straight roads still existing in Wales. However, it turns out that Cumbria’s Ellen is derived from the word ‘alauna’, which, according to the Romans, was the name the Britons gave to Maryport: ‘Alauna Carvetiorum’, or the Alauna of the Carvetii, the local pre-Roman native tribe.

‘Alauna’ is not a rare name. There’s another place anciently called Alauna in Northumberland (Learchild, or ‘Alauna Votadinum’ – the last element being a tribal name), and yet another example at Watercrook near Kendal. Alcester in Warwickshire, and its river, the Alne (and indeed other english Alnes), also derive from the same root. The River Allen and Allan Water in Scotland are the same, too. If your French is up to it, Google will soon reveal that some sources reckon that the Picardy city of Laon is another former Alauna.

Popular 19th century theory, Ekwall’s 1928 English River Names and indeed the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica would have you believe that these Alaunas (Alaunæ?) were named after Alaunus, a ‘gaulish god of healing and prophecy’ with inscriptions found at sites in southern France and western Germany. This requires Alaunus to have changed sex when he became a British settlement/river (‘-us’ being masculine, and ‘–a’ being the feminine form), which is a little odd and unaccounted for. The city of Laon, once thought to have been anciently (A)LAUDUNUM (a settlement of followers of Alaunus) turns out on further examination to have been LUGDUNUM, a city name including the god, Lugus, used by several pre-Roman ‘celtic’ settlements, including Carlisle. And when Ekwall later published his still seminal English Place Names, he didn’t repeat the god/dess theory that he used in his early book.

Personally, the main reason I can’t believe that Maryport and the River Ellen are named after a goddess is the simple, incontrovertible fact that of the dozens of altars naming pre-Roman British gods and goddesses found at that site, there isn’t a single mention of Alauna/Alaunus.

Other guesstimates at the meaning of Alauna are as follows:

‘elegant, splendid, beautiful’, based on the ‘gaelic’ word,  alainn(e) (roman-britain.org). One of the few benefits of examining a small geographical area over a long period of history, as opposed to a large geographical area over a short period of history, is that you soon realise that very few of Cumbria’s names are Irish. This is linguistic coincidence.

‘altar’ based on allor ‘Welsh’ for altar (roman-britain.org). I’m not entirely sure what they mean by Welsh – Cumbrians spoke brythonic/cumbric, the ancestors of modern Welsh, right up to the 10th century, but this was not modern Welsh. This interpretation is based on the fact that many altars were found at Maryport. But many alaunas are rivers, not places.

‘to flow, to stream’ – WF Nicolaisen, Scottish Place-Names (1976). But many alaunas are places, not rivers.

‘to shine’ based on the Proto-Indo-European root *el Isaac (2005) with a ‘river’ suffix –auna, attested in other river names such as Colne (Calauna) (Ekwall, English River Names (1928)). But many alaunas are places, not rivers.

‘wanderer’ based on Proto-Indo-European *elh (Delamarre, Noms de lieux celtiques de l’Europe ancienne, 2012).

‘speckled’, a shorthand term for ‘speckled trout’, hence ‘trout river’ (Hamp, Alauno, Linguistic Change and Proper Names, 1975).

You’ll note that none of these interpretations are likely to include a place, a river, and an inscription (trout god, anyone? Or Mr Trout, your neighbour? Or Troutsville, your home?)

Conclusion? ‘Obscure’ (Whalley, Lake-District Place-Names, 2006). ‘Controversial’ (Sims-Williams, Ancient Celtic Place-Names, Philological Society, 2006).


It would be so much easier to just decide that Alauna was named after Alaunus, a god, wouldn’t it? But the evidence doesn’t stack up, and whilst nature and popular history might abhor a vacuum, occasionally historians just have to admit that we Just. Don’t. Know.

© Diane McIlmoyle 18.11.13

Further reading

A Dictionary of Lake District Place-Names, Diana Whalley, 2006

The Concise English Dictionary of English Place-Names, Eilert Ekwall, 1960

English River Names, Eilert Ekwall, 1928

Scottish Place-Names, WF Nicolaisen, 1976

For the Welsh Elen, read this post by Wellhopper.

For the Bridget in Cumbria theory, see People Called Cumbri, FJ Carruthers, 1979 (but be aware that historical stories require corroboration)

Also, see the Celtic Surnames and Place Names page on Facebook, which is administered by academic linguists specialising in Celtic languages.

My post on Luguwalos, Carlisle’s ancient roots

My post on Bega

10 thoughts on “Popular History Abhors a Vacuum, but Accurate Historians Can’t

    • Thank you, Richard! It’s been bothering me for a while that a lot of popular Cumbrian history is based on Victorian speculation that was trounced yonks ago. And I feel sad when people cleave to an Elen and Brigid that barely – if at all – exist here, when just in that post above there’s the picture of a Celtic head from Netherby – who knows what that was – , an altar to the pre-roman god, Cocidius, found on Hadrian’s Wall, and a mention of Lugus, the god after whom Carlisle was named. The magic is there, but you have to want the true and provable stuff, rather than that which relies almost wholly on desire.

    • Me, too, Carol! Glad you liked it. It’s always a bit sad when you can’t go, ta-dah! Here’s the answer… but being able to say what *isn’t* the answer is something. Thanks for coming over 🙂

  1. I’d suggest you may actually be showing more restraint and common sense than many professional historians here – they rarely like to publish anything that indicates not knowing (although that’s half the fun).

    • Lol 😀 Of course it is! But this does mean that some subjects get abandoned to the non-academics. I do have a little bit of training and a bah-humbug brain so I can sift through some of the codswallop, but I often wish some academics would be brave enough to plunge in and make the less whimsical interpretations ‘official’. Although Ronald Hutton gets a bit of a punching for this, doesn’t he? – but also TV programmes and a schedule of speaking events, going by the couple of times I’ve seen him holding court at interesting sites, entirely by coincidence!

  2. I’d nearly completed a long rambling reply but then lost the post. So I’ll just limit myself to adding my imprimatur to everything you’ve said.

    Your Well Hopper link to Ffynnon Elen reminded me of a long-running dig I was involved in at Llanelen in the Gower. Here we too had long discussions about the -elen element of the place-name, with little in the way of real conclusions. The Graham Jones cited in Well Hopper’s post — he’s now archaeologist Dr Jones but sadly not really called Indy — dug with us for a couple of seasons in the late 70s or early 80s, mainly on the basis of an obsession with the cult of Elen/Helen which I see is still in the grips of.

    • No, it doesn’t seem to get anyone anywhere, does it? And neither indeed does Alauna/Alaunus. ’tis a mystery. We have to leave some of them for future archaeologists and historians 😉

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s