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What’s in a Name? Celtic Place Names around Tynemouth — Part 1 — Penbal Crag

There was a time when Welsh was spoken all across this country, and some of it remains in the very oldest features of the land. Take for example:

This name for the rounded outcrop on which the Priory sits was attested by John Leland in the 1530s:

Note the phrase ‘headland of Penbal Crag’ is actually a tautology as Penbal essentially means headland.

John Leland (1503-1552) was really the first English local historian and was a trusted historian and librarian for Henry VIII. His original text reads:

“Locus, ubi nunc cænobium Tinemuthenſe eſt, antiquitus à Saxonibus dicebatur Benebalcrag. Leland. Penbalcrage rectius, i.e. caput valli in rupe. Nam circa hunc locum finis erat valli Severiani.”

“The place where Tynemouth is, in antiquity, the Saxons called Benebalcrag. Leland. Penbalcrag, that is, head of the vallum cliff. This place is near the end of the vallum of Severus.” [Until the 19th century historians believed Hadrian’s Wall was built by Severus.]

From Joannis Lelandi Antiquarii de Rebus Brittanicis Collectanea, Vol IV, p43 (‘Collectanea of John Leland the Antiquary: Things in Britain’)—assorted writings of Leland, published by the scholar Thomas Hearne in the 1774.

The antiquaries of subsequent centuries from Camden to Brand to Gibson, accepted Leland’s translation (or Hearne’s edit?) of ‘Penbalcrag’ but settled on switching the word ‘vallum’ to ‘rampart’ to make: ‘head of the rampart on the rock’. This is fine in of itself, but it is not the exact meaning of the word ‘Penbalcrag’.

Firstly, the name Penbal Crag is older than Roman occupation and thus older than any militarised vallum or rampart leading to the headland.

Secondly, to understand the word we need to look at the morphology:

Pen/Ben:  head or hill. As in, Ben Nevis or any number of hills in Britain with this prefix, e.g. Penshaw, visible to the south of Penbal Crag. ‘Pen’ is also where we get: ‘peninsula’, ‘the Pennines’, ‘Penzance’ and ‘Pendragon’.

Bal:  place, see Old Irish ‘bal’ and ‘’baail’, which means not just any place but a well situated place of strength, such as the fort Vindobala (Rudchester) on Hadrian’s Wall, meaning literally, ‘fair strong-place’. Compare the words ‘bold’ and ‘bulwark’.

Bal is where we get ‘bale’, ‘bailey’, ‘bailiff’ and ‘bailiwick’. The word ‘bailiff’, a person in charge of a castle, comes directly from Old French via Latin, but with the same root, Proto Indo-European *bhel: ’to blow or swell’. This root gives us the ‘bole’ of a tree, ‘ball’, ‘bag’, ‘bowl’, ‘belly’, ‘bulge’, ‘bolster’, ‘bloat’, ‘bloom’, ‘bull’, ‘full’, ‘flow’, ‘flourish’ and the Greek, ‘phallus’, among many others.

Crag:  is one of a handful Celtic words we use in English, simply meaning ‘rock’ or ‘cliff’. Its cognate in Scots Gaelic is ‘creag’, while in Welsh ‘carreg’ is rock.

So Penbalcrag, simply put, means ‘strong rock headland’. This is the most elegantly I can state it, in a way that’s more concise and more historically and linguistically accurate than the antiquaries’ translation. There is another interpretation which is probably too vulgar to go into here, so I will leave that to your imagination.

What this descriptive and masculine name shows us is that the Iron-Age people who occupied this strategically unmatched marine settlement on the southernmost tip of the Tyne-Forth Province, with links all the way along the Tyne and all the way up and down the coasts, valued its natural strength above all else.

Were it not for the somewhat fortuitous preservation of Leland’s sprawling collection of notes, the name Penbal Crag would be lost to us forever, and so we too should value it just as much as the ancients did.

More local linguistics to come…

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