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


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.

19 thoughts on “Cumberland: Land of the Cumbri, or Britons

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Richard! Yan, tan, tethera does get everywhere in books and brand marketing but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a farmer actually use it these days (or at least, not whilst there wasn’t a camera on him…)!

  1. Very interesting post. I grew up in West Cumbria but wasn’t aware until much later of the Brythonic legacy of the area. Now through learning Welsh, the nearest existing tongue we have to Cumbric, I appreciate the connections between Cumbria and Wales even more. I think it goes beyond just placenames but is there in some of the folklore and the continuing outlook of the people. There is that sense of apartness from the dominant powers and cultures over the centuries – not Roman, not English, not Scottish – invaded by many armies but never really conquered. I think it’s hinted at in the Camden passage you quote and true still more than 400 years later.

    • Jon, that’s fabulously well phrased and I concur completely. My Cumbrian mum and grandparents had plenty to say about the industrial heritage of the west coast, but they seemingly knew nothing of older history or local folklore. I think they saw themselves as modernisers and pragamatists – as Cumbrians often have, and still do – and had little time for the past.
      The Wales thing is extraordinary, isn’t it? So many people – usually non-natives – say to me that Cumbria must have been heavily influenced by Ireland, but there’s so very little evidence of this. Somehow, people don’t say the same about Scotland (I suspect that’s because the people who lived over the border were still of the same ‘cumbri’ culture when we were especially closely linked). But I often bump into whispers of folklore and superstition that are reminiscent of the Welsh. And that’s before we get onto Taliesin.
      Our independence is fantastic, really. As you imply, no invasion or influence seems to have overridden the inherent Cumbrian-ness of the place. I think it’s yeoman farmer syndrome. Independent and bloody-minded… in a good way 😉

  2. These extracts from Camden are truly fascinating, Diane. I think Holland’s translation makes them sound even more quaint and quirky, and his comment on the Cumbrian landscape is spot-on (‘it smileth on the beholders’).

  3. I love the Holland translation – my literary nut husband says that this was a period when now-familiar idiom and even some words appeared for the first time. They sparkle because these new choices were made with full meaning of the phrase, whereas now they are so well-used that we don’t really think through the actual meaning. Of course, this translation is the year before the King James Bible. Thanks for coming over, and when’s that new book out?

    • The book is now due in early October. Had another look at the photo section today – nearly half the images show Cumbrian scenes. Almost felt I was back here at Esmeralda’s 😉

      Btw, your interpretation of Cumbri as ‘people like us’ is pretty neat. Rolls off the tongue far better than ‘fellow countrymen’, ‘compatriots’, etc.

  4. Seem to have missed this when it was first published, sorry, and I agree with all the sentiments aired by you and your commenters (as opposed to ‘commentators’, which are pundits, really).
    Interesting how Modern Welsh Cymru (pronounced ‘Cumree’) naturally merges into Cumbria while the antiquarian version of Wales became Cambria, with an ‘a’.

    The ‘br-‘ element derives from bro, loosely translated as ‘land’, and — via Penfro, with its ‘b’ mutated to the ‘v’ sound of ‘f’ (are you with me so far?) — is found in the anglicised placename Pembroke. Which, like Finistère in France and Finisterre in Galicia, merely means Land’s End…

    But of course you knew that! Merely to point out that cymbrogi could be neatly translated as “fellow countrymen”. Now where have I heard that phrase before?

  5. I remember when I was a lad in the 1980s going to Aberystwyth by train from Carlisle (to study Welsh) I boarded outside the Cumbrian Hotel and got off outside the Cambrian Hotel.

  6. One of the delights of the internet is coming upon pages like yours. I was born in Cumberland ( pre-Cumbria) and my mother’s side were much as you describe- Irish and Scotch connections. There’s a building in Dublin with the family name ‘Nuzum’ still standing. In the forties and fifties I grew up in isolated, rural Keswick. Once we got a car, an occasional trip to grandparents in Workington was a major if rare event, usually involving a break in Cockermouth! We then moved away, to Cambridge, for my teens, and then to Taunton in Somerset. I married a Welsh girl so have picked up a lot of the language and etymology- and the Brythonic connection.
    I’ll enjoy reading more of your pages.

  7. PS the family traded coal and cattle to Ireland. Captain Bragg retired to Bassenthwaite and his house still stands, partly built with old ship’s timbers. Grandfather worked at the steel works..

Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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