Collecting Welsh place names

Throwing light on this interesting topic on 21st September in the Girls’ Parlour was Dr James January-McCann, Welsh Place Names Officer at the Royal Commission in Aberystwyth. He explained that there has been a trend in Wales over the last 50 years for some historic Welsh place names, especially of houses and farms, to become anglicised or to be lost altogether. This can be mostly attributed to the reduction by 80% of spoken Welsh over the years 1961-2001 (evidenced by UK Census returns), and the growth in the idea that Welsh place names are not saleable to English speakers who might not be able to pronounce the Welsh name. A recent move by Dai Lloyd AM to bring in legislation through the Assembly to protect historic names was not successful.

Under the ‘Environment (Wales) Act 2016’ a list of ‘sacred’ historic place names is being created, and local authorities are being encouraged to contribute to this using information already available to them. Gwynedd and Ceredigion are already providing this, and it is hoped that others will follow. A preliminary list was published earlier this year, and it is already being used by local authorities to assist in planning, for example, new street names which can be based on historic names in the area. The RC has this list on line, and omissions and mistakes can be logged with them through their website at . Also on their website is a glossary of names and English translations, and in due course a sound file will be added to provide authoritative pronunciations. Individual place names are located on the O.S. 6inch/miles 1900 edition map, while groups of names can be shown on maps according to various criteria, for example, showing regional variations or similarities. Since the list was launched in May 2017 there has been a vey high level of interest, with over 60,000 individual page views.

Contributing to the list is the work of Cynefin, the National Library of Wales’ tithe map digitisation project which ran from 2013-17 and is now complete. Every tithe map name (fields, farms, houses, streams, woodland etc), over 200,000 in all, were applied to O.S. maps (ancient and modern) and can be overlaid with satellite images. A further 100,000 collected names are expected to be added by the end of this year. Other less widely known sources of information include the Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion (1900-2004) which is a good source of house and street names, and the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, Aberystwyth. The CAWCS has contributed Latin sources as well as tracked name changes over time. The RC’s own resources include inventories of the ancient monuments of individual counties in Wales, and the first 5 of this series include place name data. A very early attempt at place name listing in Wales occurred in about 1566-70. Dr William Llewellyn from Brecknock transcribed the name of every parish in Wales at that time. However, some of the spelling is questionable as it is likely that the Doctor didn’t speak English, so wrote it as he heard it.

Data still to come is that of the late Professor Melville Richards of the University of Bangor who recorded 330,000 place names backed up by historical evidence from manuscripts and legal records across England and Wales. The professor died in 1973, but the fruits of his private research were archived, and these have now been digitised.

The List of Historic Place Names is a wonderful resource and the website is well worth a visit.