GILSLAND Bits & Pieces

Some Local Place Names

These discussions of local place-names were published in the Gilsland Magazine as an occasional column, beginning in 2004. Most of the information is taken from Ekwall, 1960, "The Concise Dictionary of English Place-Names".


Documents from 1230 and 1291 call it Ascpatric, which means “Patric’s Ash” (tree). The name is of interest for several reasons.

The first part of the name, “asc” is Old Norse, spoken in the past by Norwegians and Icelanders, and is a reminder that although most of northern and eastern England were under Danish rule in the early middle ages, the west coast was settled by Norwegians, who have left their distinctive words in some of our place names.

The word order is typically Celtic. Celtic languages and place-names survived long enough to be recorded in western areas such as Cumberland and, of course, Wales. Another example of Celtic words and word order is seen in the names of mountain valleys; in Wales or Cumberland they are called Cum/Cwm(something), whereas in Yorkshire they would be called (something)Dale.

Last but not least, St Patrick is rumoured to have come from this area. There is absolutely no evidence to link the man and the village, but it meks yer think.


Even a thousand years after they became derelict, Roman forts were part of the landscape and were called ceaster, from which place names such as Doncaster and Lancaster were derived. Bewcastle is mentioned in a document written in 1272, where it is called Bothecaster. The second part of the name refers to the Roman fort, and anyone familiar with the Borders will recognise the first part as “bothy”.

The word bothy comes from an Old Norse word pronounced “booth”, from which we also get another English word meaning “temporary building”. The original pronunciation may help to explain why "bothy" became transformed into "bew", but not why local historians continue to link Bewcastle with the mythical Saxon Bueth. Presumably they are copying uncritically from antiquarians who were pathetically anxious to link their research to the local aristocracy, or their presumed ancestors, and did not have the benefit of access to well-researched and catalogued historical documents, as we have. If Bewcastle had been the stronghold of a local chieftain, it would probably be called something like Bewburgh or Buborough, as in Scarborough (Scarthi’s Burgh). The well-respected Place-names of Cumberland (Armstrong et al, 1950) states that it is impossible that Bewcastle could be named after Bueth.

Bewcastle meant something like "the Roman fort where there were bothies or shielings".

Added December 07:
It is becoming alarmingly common to see the castle at Bewcastle referred to as "Bew Castle", as if "Bew" was the name of the mediaeval castle. Presumably people are assuming that if it was Bueth's castle, then the Bew part of the name must be his name, altered by the passage of time, just as the Norman castle in Newcastle is named "The New Castle". As the name Bewcastle refers only to the Roman fort, and the word "Bew" has no meaning as a word or a name, the mediaeval castle, being built later, should be called "Bewcastle Castle".


Carlisle seems to have been called Luguvalium by the Romans, and Bede uses this name in 730. Interestingly, two wooden Roman writing tablets bearing this name as part of the handwritten addresses have recently been excavated in Carlisle, and they are now on display in Tullie House. The name may be Latin for “wall of the god Lugus” who is assumed to have been a local deity adopted by the Romans.

In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, however, we find documents where Carlisle is called Luel, Caerleoil or even Caer Liwelyd. These are Celtic (Welsh) names, and some scholars suggest that their reappearance indicates that Carlisle always had a British name, even before the Romans adopted and latinised it. Luguvalium may therefore be entirely derived from an ancient British personal name Luguvalos. The Caer part is Welsh for “castle” or “city”, as in Caerleon and Caernarvon.

Until further evidence comes to light, yer pays yer money and yer teks yer choice !

Thanks to Tim Padley at Tullie House for advice about Roman epigraphy.

Harrows Scar Milecastle

William Howard's 1603 map of the Barony of Gilsland shows a tenement or farmstead called Harrowes in a field near Harrows Beck on Kiln Hill farm. Traces of this building can still be detected at NY61976658. The bank of the Irthing opposite the roman bridge abutment at Willowford is being eroded by the river, forming a cliff called Harrows Scar, this name having been transferred to the nearby milecastle 49.

milecastle 48 aerial view
Harrows, Morrows and Kiln Hill in 1603. The Roman
Wall is indicated by a red line at the bottom.
The addition of an s to a place name is quite common in this area: for example Hollows, just across the river, or Torties a few miles to the north.

Unfortunately, at some time in the 19th century, a grocer's apostrophe was introduced into the name for no discernable reason, giving us the currently used "Harrow's Scar". This completely alters the meaning of the name, suggesting that it is named after a Mr (or even Mrs) Harrow. English Heritage and the Ordnance Survey have uncritically repeated this error, but given their propensity to change long-used place names on a whim, perhaps they can be persuaded to correct this one?


The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in 681, called Hexham "hagustaldes ea". Hagustealds were a class of younger sons with no inheritance, who tended to seek land outside the main community. Ea is Old English for stream or river, but this was replaced by ham (hamlet) as the settlement grew, and by 1188 the Pipe Rolls refer to the place as Hextoldesham, from which its only a short step to Hexham.

The King's Stables

Just across the Poltross Burn, Gilsland is fortunate to have one of the largest and best-preserved milecastles on Hadrian’s Wall. It is one of the few sites where the original height of the Wall can be estimated, by projecting the existing stairs.

The milecastle was fully excavated in 1909-10 by Gibson & Simpson, and their 71-page description was published in the Transactions of the Cumberland & Westmoreland Archaeological & Antiquarian Society in 1911. In the introduction they state: “The existence of this milecastle has been known since the days of Horsley (1830s), but, even in his time, the surface indications were not very evident, and its chief distinction was its name “The King’s Stables” which it seems to have got in mediaeval times.”

1925 OS Map of Gilsland
1925 OS Map with Milecastle 48 named King's Stables

In the early 1900s, the milecastles and other parts of Hadrian’s Wall were still being discovered, often in out-of-the-way places which needed to be located for the benefit of interested people. Gibson & Simpson therefore called their monograph The Milecastle on the Wall of Hadrian at the Poltross Burn. This form of title is obviously to locate the site, and isn’t a renaming, as the authors specifically state in their introduction, quoted above.

The layout of the buildings within the milecastle is reminiscent of stables, and the name reflects the fact that local people were the first excavators. Although they were ‘mining’ it for building stone, the name shows that they observed & interpreted what they saw.

William Bird, vicar of Gilsland 1904-25, wrote Gilsland and Neighbourhood, still the best guide book to Gilsland. In it he states:

“At the Cumberland side of the Poltross Burn, on the south side of the railway, almost opposite to Gilsland Vicarage, are the remains of a Roman mile castle – locally known as “The King’s Stables,” so called from an old Arthurian legend – which served to guard the passage of the Poltross.”
milecastle 48 aerial view
The Kings Stables, 2006; photo S Ledingham

The local, and only, name for this site has always been, and still is, The King’s Stables , so why is it now referred to as Poltross Burn Milecastle on signposts and in modern guidebooks ?

English Heritage’s main justification for using the new name is that the document placing the site in the guardianship of the state uses the imposed name. This is precisely what I object to – a bored committee of heavy-ended gentlemen in London scrapping a piece of local tradition because they think they know better.

We also have to consider the embarrassment factor. Eminent archaeologists and civil servants are unwilling to use rustic names such as The King’s Stables in their official writings. Our milecastle’s name is also unfortunately linked to Arthurian legend, along with Arthur’s Well and the King’s Crag or Seat near Sewingshields. For a professional archaeologist any taint of Camelot amounts to professional suicide. Such people prefer to compile lists of “official” names for, not only archaeological sites, but birds, flowers, you name it. Indeed, when I first phoned EH about this subject, the lady said “But we have to use the official names” ! Wenn ich Kultur höre; entsichere ich meinen Browning . .

The preservation of fragile reputations need not be the guiding principle for preservation of our heritage. The milecastles of Hadrian’s Wall have been numbered, and the numbers are widely published, for instance on OS maps. For formal or academic writings, “milecastle 48” can be used.

Is it worth making a fuss about ? I think names are important, giving a sense of ownership of and meaning to the familiar landscape. Such ownership is now under constant assault by officious professional administrators and popularisers who claim to be recording or publicising local history for the benefit of tourists and locals alike. In fact, because of their skimpy research and arrogant terms of reference (and nowadays their employment of unsupervised interns in important admin tasks ("We're too busy . .)), they tend to corrupt it. Apart from the obvious cultural imperialism, disregard for the very source material of the area's character also suggests a cynical attitude among those entrusted with promotion of local heritage.

Update, March 07


“Now laverocks wake the merry morn, Aloft on dewy wing” (Burns)

Until I looked it up, I assumed that Laversdale must be named for the skylark, which Scots call “laverock”. However, the Wetheral Priory Register, dating from the 1200s, spells the name “Lefredal” which suggests that in fact it is much more likely to be derived from the Old English name “Leofhere”. The name probably meant “Leofhere’s Valley”. (Caerlaverock doesn’t seem to named after skylarks either ! )

Linstock & Brunstock

Seeing these two similar place-names on the road sign as you approach Carlisle, and knowing that the villages are close, you might think that the names were closely related. In fact, because Linstock is Old English and Brunstock is an Old Norse name, each part, even the “stock”, has a different origin. The meanings of Old Norse words are well understood, because Icelanders still speak a form of it, and we also know that the west coast of England was settled by Norwegian Old Norse speakers rather than Danish Vikings, who stuck to the east coast.

The lin of Linstock means flax, as in linen; stock in Old English is more difficult to pin down precisely, but generally means “place”, so we have “the place where flax was grown”.

Brunstock appears as Brunskaith in documents dating back to the 1200s. Skaith means “race course”, probably for horses. Brun is a little less certain, it could be derived from bruni “an area cleared by burning” or brunnr “a well or spring” – but you get the general idea - it was a racecourse distinguished by a well or burned clearing. How skaith turned into stock is an interesting question, perhaps the close proximity of the two places may have hastened the loss of the more archaic form.

Mumps' Ha'

Having discovered that almost every time anyone introduces one or more apostrophes into Mumps Hall, they produce a new variety, I decided that the world needed a pedantic analysis of the problem:

Scott, in Guy Mannering, uses the form “Mump’s Ha’, and in the note on the building at the back of the book explains that it could be interpreted “Beggar’s Hall” (from Lowland Scots). Here arise two grammatical points, the one easier to resolve than t’other.

Firstly, David Dorward, in his book “Scotland’s Place-names”, says: “Hall: when these four letters occur in a Scottish place-name they very seldom represent the English word for a large house.” Hall is pronounced ha’ by the Scots and the apostrophe is required to indicate shortening of the word.

Secondly, how many (or what quality of) mumps ? Placing the apostrophe before the “s” as Scott does suggests that there was only one (unless “mump” is the plural form), and it seems unlikely that the alehouse should be named after him or her, unless they were particularly famous in themselves, in which case their own name might have been used. If beggars were frequent patrons, then, although I hesitate to correct the Wizard of the North, modern usage would suggest Mumps’. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage reminds us that placing the apostrophe after the s for plural possessives only became standard practice towards the end of the eighteenth century, just when Scott was writing, so there may be something to be said for retaining Scott’s original form of the name just because he was the original recorder and no doubt carefully considered the placing of the apostrophes at the time.

Finally, it could be argued that the name was intended to introduce a general air of mumpishness, rather than assigning the hall to one particular cohort (an adjectival noun) and perhaps the apostrophe could be abandoned altogether. Scott’s etymology rules this out, but unfortunately complicates the remaining question as to the positioning of the apostrophe. “Mumps Hall”, however, will not do.

I now know that "mump" is actually an English word, and have realised that the rules for correct use of apostrophes lie at the end of the rainbow, and from now on will use the form Mumps Hall, as most people now do. It should also be remembered that the hamlet on the Cumbrian side of Gilsland was known until recently as "Mumpshall" - for instance when searching for old documents on the area.

Trepenner (Torpenhow)

An urban myth is growing (recently promoted by "QI") that Torpenhow is an example of a quadruple pleonasm. Far be it from me to detract from the pride of the west Cumbrians, but unfortunately it is only triple. See Darryl Francis' excellent debunking of this myth at