top of page


What's in a Name?

What's in a Name?

    As nearly all readers of this piece will know, Wales is rich in place and personal names. For many towns, villages, and other places, these have quite different meanings in Welsh and English, and are not simple translations. There is much to be learned about history from maps, other documents, and even town and other signs.

    Pembrokeshire is even luckier than most of Wales, because the names used also bear the imprint of Irish, Flemish, and even Viking settlers and raiders.

    The Vikings were frequent visitors to the shores of Pembrokeshire, particularly in the tenth and eleventh centuries. They weren't always pirates, either. Sometimes they followed the more peaceful occupation of traders. Yet they have left few concrete traces of their presence, save for a dragon-embossed shield discovered on Freshwater Beach. Place names, however, are a different matter, particularly when it comes to areas around the coast.

    Carew, Stackpole, Angle, Dale and Nash all bear traces of names of Scandinavian origin. Fishguard meant a 'fish yard', a place for catching fish, originally from the Scandinavian 'fiskr' and 'garthr'. It was recorded as 'Fissigart' as early as 1200. The Welsh name for the town, Abergwaun, has an equally long ancestry. The meaning of this is not the same at all the same as the English one and comes from 'Aber', estuary or river-mouth, and 'Gwaun', the river's name. The river in turn is named for 'marsh' or 'moor'.

     Probably the most interesting name of Viking origin in Pembrokeshire is Milford Haven. This is derived from 'melr' - 'sand hill or sand bank' and 'fjord', 'fiord or inlet'. This settlement was known as 'Melferth' as early as 1207. The 'Haven' part of the name was not added until later, probably in the late fourteenth century. The town also has a Welsh name, Aberdaugleddau. This is the estuary, or coming together, of two rivers. These are of course the Western Cleddau (the Cleddau Ddu, actually the Black Cleddau) and Eastern Cleddau (the Cleddau Wen, or White Cleddau). Cleddau is probably from 'Cleddyf' or 'sword'. This may be a reference to the shining surface of the river or to the way it cuts through the land.

    Many will know that the reason for the comparative paucity of Welsh surnames is that these did not become fixed until about the eighteenth century. Before that, patronymics, or the taking of the father's name, as for example in 'ap Rhys' and 'ab Evan' was used. The 'ap' or 'ab' came from 'mab', meaning son or male descendant. So, as surnames became fixed, 'ap Rhys' became 'Price', 'ab Evan' became 'Bevan' and so on. This was the general, though not the sole, pattern followed. Icelanders still follow a similar naming convention. Indeed, theirs goes a stage further because daughters separately take their father's name and do not change it on marriage. So Ärni Úlfsson and Gudrun Magnúsdottir could be a married couple, but there would be no clues given by their names.

    Fewer will know that there could now have been many more people living in Pembrokeshire with the prefix 'Mac' to their surnames, if these had become fixed earlier than they did. Late in the fourth century, when Roman Imperial hold was weakening (it was never as strong in Pembrokeshire as it was in other parts of Britain) an Irish tribe, the Deisi from County Meath, migrated to Pembrokeshire under their leader Eochaid Allmuir. The settlers were to establish a Royal Dynasty that was to last for five centuries in south-west Wales. The convention of the Irish people was to use 'maqi', or later on 'mac', in just the way the Welsh used 'mab' or its later versions to indicate descent. So we could now have been seeing 'MacRice' and 'McEvan' in common use.

    There is an interesting set of place names within a few miles of Stackpole. Hodgeston is from the continental personal name Roger; Jameston is one of the many names derived from settlers in 'the Englishry', and Cheriton was formerly known as 'Stackpole Elidor' - the earliest-recorded landowner of Stackpole had the Welsh name of Elidr.

    Even the most casual observer cannot fail to notice the distinctions between both the personal and place names as between North and South Pembrokeshire. This, as most readers will know, is because of the colonies of English and Flemish to the south of the Landsker line (see Divided Loyalties in a previous issue). In 1603, George Owen, Pembrokeshire's celebrated chronicler wrote '... for that most of the anciente gentlemen came thither out of England ... might verye fittlye procure it the name of Little England beyond Wales'.

    A glance at any map will show the truth of George Owen's words. There is a preponderance of town names made up of a personal name and 'ton' - a town - to the south of the Landsker. Some of them indeed are nothing more than names now - the settlements of Flimton, Jordanston, and Granston have long since gone.

The isolated nature of South Pembrokeshire has meant that more than the usual share of local dialect words have survived. For example 'a catamouse' (carrying echoes of Der Fleidermaus) is a bat; 'a popple' is a pebble; 'caffled' means entangled; and 'a catchypawl' is a tadpole.

    What about the names for the wider area? The Ancient British name for the province of south-west Wales was Dyfed, which obtained a brief resurgence as a modern administrative area between 1974 and 1996. This was probably an abbreviation of the name for the whole of South Wales, Deheubarth, 'the southern country'.

    The genesis of the name of Pembroke, which gave its name to the present County, is less certain. 'Pembrock' was originally the name of the southern Castlemartin peninsula. This in turn gave its name to the Norman castle, and the dominance of the new military and later administrative centre resulted in the name being adopted for the shire area. Many will tell you that the word comes from the Brythonic and later Welsh 'Pen' and 'Bro', or the land of the promontory. This fits the bill topographically. What we don't know for sure is just how far this area extended. Perhaps others will have ideas?

Pembrokeshire Names
bottom of page