Sunday, 1 January 2017

The Names of Places

I take great pleasure in looking at maps - particularly low-level highly-detailed local maps like Ordinance Survey ones and road atlases. I can get lost in an AA road map for hours. One of the things that keeps me going is the richness of the names. Earlier, sitting around bored with nothing much to do on a family visit, I picked up a road map and flicked through. I was struck, like I often am, at how much more imaginative the real world can be in comparison to the supposedly highly creative fantasy author.

For instance, lying before me is the page covering the SW corner of Dumfries & Galloway. Just scanning the page I see the following utterly fantastic names:

Gatehouse of Fleet
St John's Town of Dairy
Townhead of Greenlaw

This is not to mention the odd habit of giving things two names, so you get stuff like "Kippford or Scaur" and "Rhonehouse or Kelton Hill", suggesting possibly that the locals call their village one thing and outsiders call it something else (or, better, that the village is divided like the Sharks and the Jets, fighting a constant bloody civil war over whether their home should be known as Crocketford or Ninemile Bar).

For some reason Southern Scotland has a particular genius for this sort of thing. I suspect it might be something to do with Anglo-Saxon speakers transliterating Gaelic or Cumbric phonetically, plus of course the influence of Norse. So you get names like:

Town Yetholm
Coaltown of Wemyss
Burntisland (actually pronounced like "Burnt Island")

You also get some great ones in Lincolnshire and the Fens, often featuring saints' names in a quite specific and peculiar style. Viz:

Wainfleet All Saints
Leake Common Side
Leake Hurn's End
Bennington Sea End
Little Sleeping
Old Bolingbroke
Scrane End
Terrington St Clement
Walpole St Andrew
Walpole St Peter
Castle Rising
Burton Pedwardine
Kirkby Underwood
Covenham St Bartholomew

I'm going to publish a module set in a village called Burton Pedwardine next to a megadungeon called Lilliesleaf.


  1. I always enjoyed navigating on holidays to Devon for exactly this reason.
    You get a lot of pleasantly iambic names like Frithelstock Stone, Sydenham Damerel, Rattlebrook Hill or Harrowbarrow, some with no easily-discernible etymology such as Hoo Meavy or Botus Fleming and the occasional mysterious but succinct example like Bloody Pool or Black Dog.

    And then the more Celtic Tre-, Pol- and Pen-s as you get into Cornwall.

    There's something to be said for the randomising effect of a thousand years of history.

  2. Thanks for this. I just zoomed into a spot on google maps. Some rural town I believe, found two amazing roads. Titwood and Assloss. Usually I do not get a laugh out of that kind of thing, but for some reason I couldn't help it.

    All those years of players coming up with crazy hometown names. And bam those names are legit.

    1. There's also a Bell End Farm somewhere. Not sure if that joke translates across the Atlantic...

  3. Here in Northern Ireland we have the strangely poetic Augher, Clougher and Fivemiletown (imagine the bus station announcement, they are all next to each other), the ominous Darkley, Blackskull and Dark Hedges (of Game of Thrones fame), and the Latin-sounding Stranocum.

    1. According to wikipedia "The village [of Blackskull] is named after an old inn called the Black Skull, which had a picture of a black man's head on its sign. A grisly local tale tells how a black man was beheaded and his skull mounted above the door of the inn."

  4. I once ordered a package that came from The Scallows, East Hoathly.


    Tell me that isn't a desolate scabrous heath blighted by a necromancer's curse.

    1. I've been through East Hoathly. Despite the name it's actually a lovely spot.

  5. Sometimes I like to enter name elements into an excel spreadsheet and randomly generate lists of imaginary places. You're right though, it's never as rich a tapestry as real life.