Moricambe estuary

Identification: the estuary of the river Lune


From its position in Ptolemy’s list the Moricambe estuary was somewhere between the mouth of the river Wyre and the Solway Firth. The choice is limited – it cannot be the estuary of the river Kent or that of the river Leven since these are acceptable Celtic river-names quite distinct from Moricambe, so it must have been the estuary of the river Lune, that of the Duddon, that of the rivers Esk, Mite and Irt, or that of the rivers Waver and Wampool. On the assumption that only rivers and estuaries of interest to the Romans are listed for this area, for example because there was a Roman fort on the banks of the river, the Duddon can be excluded since so far as the present writer is aware there was no Roman fort on that river. And given that the Romans had a fort at Ravenglass on the Esk, one might expect the estuary of the Esk, Mite and Irt to have a name such as Esk or Alavna, the latter being the earlier name of the Esk, so it seems safe to exclude this estuary as well. The compound element mor of Moricambe could be a river-name element comprising the river-letters m and r, as in Bindomora (Vindomora) at Ebchester, or a place-name element in the hill-letters m and r, as in Moriduno at Hembury Hill. But cambe seems quite clearly a land-name. The cam element means ‘steep hill’ and there was probably another hill-letter after the b, giving an element of the form bl meaning ‘high hill’. The complete compound element cambl thus refers to a steep, high hill and there would appear to be no really suitable location on the banks of the Waver or Wampool for such a name. That leaves only the Lune estuary to be Ptolemy’s Moricambe estuary. The Lune was certainly of interest to the Romans since they had no fewer than four forts on or close to it. The place-name with an element of the form cambl cannot have been that of any of the forts at Lancaster, Burrow-in-Lonsdale or Casterton (assuming there was a fort at Casterton) since these were respectively Galava, Alone and Galluvio (for an explanation of these identifications see Chapter 15 (Navione to Alavna (187)). But the fourth fort, further upriver at Low Borrowbridge, was indeed located adjacent a steep, high hill and so may well have had a name including the element cambl. Note that Lune will not have been the Celtic name of the river. This name is based on the final element of Galluvio with the common change of v to n, so is a name which will have been applied by the Romans. The Celtic river-name may well thus have had a form such as Moricambl, in which case Mori probably is a compound in the river letters m and r, and cambl a land-name element of the place-name of the fort at Low Borrowbridge. Note that since the r of Moricambe is probably a river-letter, the missing hill-letter after the b may have been an r, so that the land-name element may have been cambr rather than cambl.


There is, however, another possibility. Moricambe may have been Moricamve originally, where camv is an old-style element of the banva-type, but using the hill-letter m rather than n and the adjectival c meaning ‘steep’ rather than b meaning ‘high’. The element camv would indicate that the fort was on the side, the slope, of a steep hill, a description which is entirely appropriate for the fort at Low Borrowbridge. Moricamve would then simply mean ‘river Camve’.

It should be noted that in the above discussion it has been assumed that the place with a name including the element cambr, cambl or camv was actually at Low Borrowbridge, but this need not have been so. The river-name is simply formed by adding the prefix mori to the land-name. The place concerned may have been adjacent any steep, high hill close to the river Lune in the case of Moricambre or Moricamble, or on the side, the slope, of a steep hill close to the river in the case of Moricamve. Low Borrowbridge is just one eminently suitable location – but there are many other suitable locations upstream from Casterton, and since the river-name was coined by the Celts rather than by the Romans, the place-name with a cambr, cambl or camv element will have been that of a native stronghold or settlement on the banks of the river and not that of the Roman fort at Low Borrowbridge.


[NB. Detailed information as to the different river-letters and as to how they were combined to form compound river-names, together with information as to the four categories of Celtic river-names, is given in Chapter 19: the rivers of Roman Britain. Detailed information as to the different hill-letters is given in Chapter 1 and information as to how the hill-letters were combined to form compound place-names is given in Chapter 2]


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[This page was last modified on 08 March 2021]