[NB. Detailed information as to the different river-letters and 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].



Ratostabius to Toesobis


1   The rivers in this group are the Ratostabius, the Tobius, the Tuerobis, the Stuccia and the Toesobis. It seems sensible to deal with these names as a group. Four of these names have an ending in the form bis or bius, which is just the river-letter b with a grammatical ending. This river-letter was used by those people who used the hill-letter s, so those four rivers flowed through an area occupied by people who used the hill-letter s. The only known coastal place-name including the hill-letter s in Wales is Seguntio at Caernarfon. Isca at Caerleon can be left out of this discussion since the river-names in that area are known. In addition the topographical name Isca was probably artificially applied to the fortress at Caerleon by the Legio II Augusta, which had previously been stationed at Isca at Exeter (i.e. they merely applied the name of their old base at Exeter to their new fortress at Caerleon). It thus seems sensible to identify the above four river-names as rivers in northwest Wales. And Ptolemy tells us that the Ratostabius and the Tobius were on one side of the Octapitarum promontory, the Tuerobis, the Stuccia and the Toesobis on the other side. When one has got this far, the names fall into place. The Octapitarum promontory can be identified as the Lleyn peninsula (or a headland on it).

2   Before discussing the individual river-names we need to consider a few preliminary points. Firstly, the tribal name Deceangli is based on a topographical place-name of the form Descecanglion (explained in Chapter 27) comprising the hill-letters n1, l1 and s in that chronological order, where the hill-letter s was applied later than 120 BC, the element Desc being inversion-type and meaning ‘summit of hill steep’. Secondly, the tribal name Ordovices is based on a river-name of the form Ortobicsena (explained in Chapter 27), this being a river-name of the kind comprising a river-prefix, here Ort, attached to a place-name, here bics, meaning ‘high steep hill’. Normally in river-names of this kind the chronologically latest river-letter in the river-prefix is the river-letter used by the tribe concerned. The latest river-letter in Ort is t, so we can conclude that the Ordovices used the hill-letter l1 and river-letter t. But their predecessors in that region used the river-letter r (also in Ort) and corresponding hill-letter m. We see the two river-letters r and t in the river-prefix Ort and the two corresponding hill-letters m and l1 in Mediolano at Whitchurch, which Ptolemy assigns to the Ordovices. Ravenna lists a place-name Mediomano. Roman Mediomano was the Roman fort at Tomen-y-Mur, so Iron Age Nediomano or possibly Mediolano (not to be confused with Mediolano at Whitchurch) will have been a settlement, most probably a hillfort, somewhere in the vicinity of Tomen-y-Mur. But this name, whatever its form, indicates that the territory of the people who used the hill-letter m, the predecessors of the Ordovices in that region, extended right over from Whitchurch to the west coast.

3   Now we can turn to the river-names. There is a river-letter missing between the u and the e of Tuerobis and another between the o and e of Toesobis. In the case of the Tuerobis the missing river-letter is most probably an l or m, corresponding to the hill-letter n1 in the can element of Descecanglion. The river-letter r in Tuerobis corresponds to the hill-letter m used by the predecessors of the Ordovices. In the case of Toesobis the missing river-letter is most probably an r, the r  we see in Ortobicsena and corresponding to the hill-letter m in Mediolano at Whitchurch. The river-letter s in Toesobis corresponds to the hill-letter r, the hill-letter used by the Cornovi tribe (see ‘Ptolemy’s Celtic tribes in Britain: Part 2’, 11, accessible from the main menu above). Indeed Ptolemy assigns Deva at Chester to the Cornovi, so it may be that the Chester area did at one time belong to the Cornovi, was taken from them by the Deceangli and was later restored to them by the Romans. The river-letters t and b were both applied to the river names Tumerobis/Tulerobis and Toresobis sometime after 120BC, i.e. in the period when inversion-type place-names were being coined, the river-letter t by the Ordovices, the b by the Deceangli. Note that the Deceangli added their river-letter b to the end of an existing river-name. This was not normal practice, but the l2-people acted in the same way with their river-letter t. The place- and river-names in that region give the impression that the Ordovices at one time controlled the whole of north and northwest Wales but that at some point the Deceangli took over a coastal strip stretching from the Chester area along to Caernarfon and from there down to the river Ystwyth. Indeed the very name Stuccla (given as a river-name Stuccia by Ptolemy but clearly the place-name Stuccla transferred to the river Clwyd with a minor copying error, li) indicates that the Deceangli, who used the hill-letter s, took over a settlement which had been founded by the Ordovices, who used the hill-letter l1 (inversion-type element stuc qualified by old-style element cla). The two river-letters t and b are also present in the river-name Tobius and in the stabius river-suffix of Ratostabius. Then, with loss or omission of intervocalic m/l Tumerobis/Tulerobis became Ptolemy’s river Tuerobis (the Conwy) and with loss or omission of intervocalic r Toresobis became Ptolemy’s Toesobis (the Dee). This last name developed further later, the t changing to d, the s being omitted and the b changing to v, Doeovis then evolving to become Deva. In the case of the Tobius the t changed to d and the b to v to yield the modern river-name Dovey. In the case of the Ratostabius the region around Aberystwyth was apparently taken over from the Deceangli by a people who used the hill-letter r in the inversion-type manner. It is not clear where these r- people had come from but they coined the name Rat(ion) (Rat means ‘hill high’) of a place somewhere on the river Ystwyth and they put their river-letter s at the front of the river-suffix, this now becoming stabius. The river Ystwyth was now called the Ratostabius.

4   There is one final change to note. The modern river-name Ystwyth has the river-letter t changed to th at the end and the river-name Clwyd has the river-letter t changed to d at the end. The name Clwyd was probably earlier Stucclait (though the a might have been some other vowel in the original Celtic name), only the second part of this name surviving and changing to Clwyd. These two names, Ystwyth and Clwyd, appear to bear out an old Welsh poem which apparently speaks of a tribe called the Gododdin being transferred from the area south of the Firth of Forth to north and west Wales, apparently to protect north Wales from the attacks of pirates from Ireland. The point is simply that the people who lived along the south side of the Firth of Forth used the hill-letter l2 (see ‘Ptolemy’s Celtic tribes in Britain’, 6, accessible from the main menu above) and people who used this hill-letter normally placed their river-letter t at the end of an existing river-name, this being seen in the old river-names Trisantonis and Derbentione and also in the modern river-names Darent and Dart. It could thus well be that these Gododdin applied their river-letter t  to the end of the stabi  part of stabius, stabit later changing to Ystwyth, and the t, later changed to d, at the end of Clwyd. But the tribal names Gododdin and Votadini will have nothing to do with one another, as suggested by various writers in the past. The Votadini were a quite separate tribe, living in the Tweed basin and in that part of Northumberland north of the river Coquet. They used the hill-letter l1 and would not have placed their river-letter t at the end of an existing river-name but at the front, as seen in Tinea (the Eden Water, a tributary of the Tweed) and, changed to d, in Adron (the Whiteadder, another tributary of the Tweed), as well as in the modern river-name Till (yet another tributary of the Tweed) and in the name Tweed itself (formerly the Duabs).

5   One very last point. The river Conwy evidently had an alternative name (numerous rivers had two alternative names) somewhat of the form Descecanglubena (place-name Descecanglion + river-suffix bena, the ubena part of the name comprising the river-letter b and being very similar to the uba ending of Anderelionuba, a river-name transferred to a Roman fort, apparently at Pevensey in East Sussex). The river-name Descecanglubena (though the ending need not have been ena) was then drastically shortened by the Romans to Canubio (the form in Ravenna, though transferred from the river to the Roman fort at Caerhun). It is most probable that Descecanglion, the tribal centre of the Deceangli, was the hill-fort called Castell Caer Seion (SH 760 779) at the top of very steep slopes and overlooking the mouth of the Conwy, but it may alternatively have been the hillfort at Pen y Gaer (SH 750 693) close to the Roman fort at Caerhun.



[This page was last modified on 04 March 2021]




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