The Celtic names of hillforts


Portfield Camp


Location:  southeast of Whalley, Lancashire

OS map reference:  SD 746 355

Celtic name:  Vresmedenaci

Source:  Ravenna  (124) -  Bresnetenaci

             Antonine Itinerary (Iter X) Bremetonnaci

             Notitia Dignitatum -  Bremetenraco


This is a multivallate hillfort at the top of a steep slope, hence the denac element of Vresmedenaci (denac means ‘summit of hill steep’), but the land at the top of that slope is not level, even if the ground inside the hillfort itself has been artificially levelled (see the Pastscape website of Historic England for a reference to this levelling). The site appears from the OS maps to rise from the SE to NW. It may also rise from the SW to the NE in the direction of the higher ground to the northeast of the hillfort. The Vr element of Vresmedenaci  thus appears entirely appropriate (vr means ‘side of hill, slope’), more especially before any levelling work had been carried out.

The name was transferred by the Romans to the fort which they built at Ribchester. By the date of preparation of the 1st century map used by Ravenna Vresmedenaci had changed to Bresmetenaci  (the first n in Ravenna’s Bresnetenaci is probably just the result of n/m confusion at some stage of copying), by the date of preparation of Iter X this had changed to Bremetonnaci, and by the date of preparation of the Notitia Dignitatum this in turn had changed to Bremetenraco.


The river Calder, which flows close by the hillfort, will have had the Celtic name Berisama, which corresponds to the place-name Vresmedenaci, and since Ptolemy refers to the Belisama estuary it is clear that the name Berisama was also applied to that part of the modern river Ribble downstream of the confluence of the two rivers. The Roman fort at Ribchester thus stood on the river Berisama and it is suggested elsewhere on this website that Gaulish troops stationed at Ribchester probably changed the river-name to Belisama, Belisama being the name of a goddess worshipped in Gaul.