Chapter 1


Building-blocks of Romano-British place-names and river-names


1     The analysis carried out as described in the Introduction revealed that the Celts had used no fewer than five different letters of the alphabet to signify ‘hill’ or ‘raised ground’. Since two or more of those letters exist in compound names, and evidently used of the same hill, it follows logically that there must have been at least five different waves of Celtic settlers. The hill-letters are r, m, s, l and n. When those letters are used in place-names they are of course associated with vowels, but the vowels appear to be of little or no significance – the topographical information is in the consonants.


2     The reader should not worry at this stage about the identifications indicated below – they are all explained on other pages of this website, more particularly in Chapters 10-16, which discuss the Romano-British place-names in different regions of Britain.


2.1     When the Celts wished to indicate that a hill is high they employed the letter b or t in association with one of the hill-letters. For example one finds br in names such as Brannogenium (Leintwardine), Brinavis (Bicester) and Bremia (Pen-y-Gaer). And one sees lut in Lutudaron (Wall) and nt in Lagentium (Castleford).


2.2     And when the Celts wished to convey the information that a hill was steep, they used the letter c or g in association with a hill-letter. One thus finds lic in Alicuna (Castleshaw), lag in Lagubalium (Carlisle), lug in Lugunduno (Dinsdale Park), cam in Camulodono (Skipton), cel in Celovion/Celunno (Chesters on the North Tyne), cal in Pampocalia (Ilkley), sc in Isca (Exeter) and cs in Uxela (Chesterfield) and Uxelludamo (Castlesteads) – in the last two names x = cs.


2.3     Names or name-elements referring to a high, steep hill include the letter b or t in combination with a c or g, and also one of the hill-letters. Examples include the cant of Canza (for Cantia)(Henton in Somerset), the cunet of Cunetio (Mildenhall), the lect of Lectoceto (Towcester), both elements gabr and cent of Gabrocentio (Hard Knott), the bagl of Cambaglanda (Birdoswald), the bogr of Bograndium (Ardoch), the cibr of Cibra (Bearsden) and the macat of Macatonion (Dymock).


2.4     The letter d was used by the Celts to signify the summit of a hill, the top of raised ground. This letter d was used as a noun which was qualified by one of the hill-letters. This is the significance of the element nd of Londinium (London), Lindum (Lincoln) and Lindinis (Dundon Hill), of the dol of Dolocindo (Westbury Camp), the dar of Lutudaron (Wall), the don of Itucodon (Thockrington), the dan of Leviodanum (Doune) and the dun of Moriduno (Hembury hill-fort).


2.5     And where the d meaning ‘summit’ is qualified by a hill-letter that hill-letter itself may be qualified by a b or t meaning ‘high’, this being seen in the name Bereda (Plumpton Wall) and in the bind element of Bindogladia (Weatherby Castle).


2.6     Alternatively, the hill-letter qualifying the letter d meaning ‘summit’ may itself be qualified by a c or g meaning ‘steep’, this being seen in the cind of Dolocindo (Westbury Camp) and Cindocellum (Dumbarton/Dumbuck), in the cond of Condecor (Benwell) and in the cred of Credigone (Duntocher).


2.7     The Celts used the letter v to signify the side of a hill, the slope. Here, as in the case of the letter d, the v was used as a noun and was qualified by one of the hill-letters. One sees this in the vir of Virolanium (St. Albans), for example, and in the vel of Velurcion (Housesteads). And the hill-letter might itself be qualified by the letter b or t signifying ‘high’, this being seen in the vent of Venta (Winchester), in the vert of Vertis (Worcester) and possibly in the bolv of Bolvelaunio (Wiveliscombe).


3      The text above sets out the basic building-blocks used by the Celts when coining topographical place-names. How the building-blocks were assembled to form compound names is discussed in Chapter 2. 


4    There is, however, a slight complication concerning the hill-letters n and l. Each of these hill-letters was used by two different groups of Celts who came to Britain at different times. The normal chronological order of the hill-letters appears to be n1, s, m, r, l1, n2, l2. The hill-letter l2 may have been used by Celts who came to Britain sometime after about 150BC. The hill-letters n1 to n2  were used by Celts who appear to have come to Britain at different times prior to 150BC. In most pages of this website the writer will refer only to the hill-letters n, s, m, r and l. He will distinguish between n1 and n2 or between l1 and l2 only where it seems necessary to do so in order to explain a particular name.


5     But the five distinct groups who used the five different hill-letters also used different letters to signify ‘river’, this information also being extracted from the analysis performed as described in the Introduction. The people who coined place-names in the hill-letter r used the letter s to signify ‘river’, for example Eburacum (York) on the Ouse. Those who used the hill-letter m used the river-letter r, for example Camulodono (Skipton) on the Eller Beck. Those who used the hill-letter s used the river-letter b, for example Smetriadum (Bainbridge) on the Bain, though the b often changed to v, the latter sometimes being anglicised later to w. Those who used the hill-letter l used the river-letter t, for example Lectoceto (Towcester) on the Tove, though this  t was sometimes replaced by th or d, for example Lindum (Lincoln) on the Witham, Londinium (London) on the Thames and Lagubalium (Carlisle) on the Eden. Finally, those who used the hill-letter n used the river-letter m for major rivers, for example Lindum on the Witham and Londinium on the Thames, and the river-letter l for minor rivers, including tributaries of major rivers, for example the Till joining the Witham at Lindum, and the Lee and the Walbrook joining the Thames at Londinium.


The different river-letters are introduced here because in several of the following chapters a river-name is sometimes used as confirmation of the identification of a place-name.  The river-names themselves are discussed in detail in Chapter 19: The rivers of Roman Britain. It is merely emphasised here that a river-letter just means ‘river’. Thus the river-letter b is seen in Ptolemy’s river Abi (the Witham). It is also seen in Bdora/Boderia (the Forth) and in Vedra (the Wear), the b being changed to a v in this river-name. And, while speaking of the Wear, the river-letter b is also seen in the place-name Abisson (explained in Chapter 4), the name of an as yet undiscovered Roman fort at Durham, on the river Wear.




[This page was last modified on 23 March 2021]