Celtic Braithwaite, Celtic Cumbria
There has been a great deal of interest recently in the Celtic roots of the Northern Lake District. The Upland Discovery Centre in Penrith (well worth a visit, and only 20 minutes by car from Braithwaite) is called Rheged, the name of the Celtic kingdom before being annexed by Northumbria around 730 AD, and part of its remit is to promote Cumbria’s Celtic past.
Toponymy – names given to landscape features – is often useful for suggesting settlement before recorded history. The first such evidence comes from the Celts, who occupied Cumbria from around 800 BC: the vast Brigantes tribe, who were not fully defeated by the Romans until around 140AD. In fact, the name Cumberland, now Cumbria, derives from the name of the original Cumbrian Celtic tribe assimilated into the Brigantes, the Cymry. This word is related to the Welsh word for Wales, Cymru, which may have meant “friends” or “companions” in Celtic as it did in Old Welsh. Interestingly, the Anglo Saxon word Wealas from which we gain “Wales” means “foreigners” or “slaves”, whilst the Welsh word for the English, Saes, means “Saxon”. Cumberland’s erstwhile Lake District neighbour, Westmorland, derives from the Old English west mor inga land, “land of the people on the Western borders” or “west of the moors”, perhaps showing a division between the Celts and the Anglo-Saxons – or the Norsemen and the Anglo-Saxons.
The river Derwent and Derwent Water may derive from the Celtic dur gwin – “clear water”, although other claims have been made for a derivation from the Celtic word for oak tree – dar or derwen. Mannix and Whellan, (History, Gazetteer and Directory of Cumberland, 1847) derive the name from the (projected) Roman fort in Papcastle, Derventio. Blencathra, only a few miles away, is a Celtic name, maybe deriving from blaen, bare hill top, and cathrech, chair: interestingly, credence for the cathrech element may be given from its other name, despised by Alfred Wainwright, “Saddleback”.
Furthermore, the shepherd’s counting system that survived in Borrowdale and elsewhere certainly within living memory (according to David Heap, late Headmaster of King Edward VII School, Lytham) and possibly still in use today, “yan, tyan, tethera, methera, pimp…”, may well have its roots in Celtic. (The modern Welsh word for five is “pump”) There is still scope for more research into Cumberland dialect, particularly in the more isolated areas in the North Lakes which might inform speculation further.