Review: Place-Names of Carmarthenshire by Richard Morgan
It is difficult to compute how many long hours were involved in compiling this collection of place names but they have all been very worthwhile.
For not only has the former archivist Richard Morgan traced the history of a wealth of names but he has, in passing, also underlined how valuable they are, amassing a veritable treasure trove of history, culture and language.
When hardly a week goes by without hearing about acts of cultural vandalism whereby Welsh names are replaced by English ones ‘Place-Names of Carmarthenshire’ remind us of their value in not only finding or representing locations but also as repositories of information and meaning.
As the late Professor Melville Richards, quoted in the introduction says, ‘Tracing the history of place-names sheds a ray of light on the ways in which our ancestors lived and how they thought about the visible world around them.’
In this book the majority of the names are in Welsh, with a very few instances of Irish and a tiny scattering of English names, memorably Halfpenny Furze and Honeycorse, the latter being a ‘sweet and sticky marsh.’
Unlike some Welsh counties such as Glamorgan and Pembrokeshire there is scant evidence of Old Scandinavian, showing that the main activities of the Vikings happened elsewhere other than in Carmarthenshire.
Such names are, of course often beautiful in themselves. Just peruse one letter of the alphabet’s worth of the book and you’ll find what amounts to a found poem: Glynyrhenllan, Gwempa, Gwastade, Gwyddyl and Gwydre and the unexplainable, marvellous Gwidigada.Then there is Llidiart Nenog, Afon Fanagoed and Maenor Ddwylan Isaf, almost little poems in themselves.
Then there is the flowing beauty of the many rivers, streams and brooks that dissect and cut through this rained-on county.
There are the great water courses and salmon haunts such as the Tywi and the cockle-rich Llwchwr along with smaller rivers such as the Sylgen, Cloidach, Gwenlais, Regwm and Pysgotwr, a river so ‘notable for its fish’ that they wriggle through its very name.
There is even a Carmarthenshire Thames, though this is far from being a mighty river, but is rather a small insignificant stream, taking its place alongside others such as Nant Melyn, the Yellow Stream and a personal favourite, Nant y Dresglen, which means ‘stream of the thrush (or mistle thrush) which presumably warbles a little when it’s in full spate.
Indeed you can spend an enjoyable time birdwatching in the pages of Richard Morgan’s name-compendium.
You might expect to see a few crows – the Welsh for ‘crow’ being brân’ and there they are, present in Aberbranddu, Clog-y-frân and Cwmdwyfran, two headwaters whose name probably alludes to ‘their darkness or their rapid, swooping flight.’
There is a swallow in Nant Gwennol and magpies in a place simply called Piodau near Llandybie.
There are plenty of other nature references too, with native trees such as oak, holly, elder, yew and ash represented in places such as Clunderwen, Maenor Tregelyn, Bronysgawen, Capel yr Ywen and Clynennos respectively as well as one non-native species being the Box tree, associated with an area of Llanelli.
Then there is the presence of the elusive, secretive pine marten, ‘y bele’ in the name of Afon Bele, a river near Cynwyl Elfed ‘in an area notable for pine martens’ although it might also allude to the nature of the river ‘leaping and darting’ like one of these slinky mammals.
Other animals include hares and deer, foxes, boars and hares and a solitary wolf, or ‘blaidd’ in Cefn-blaidd. There is even a donkey in the name Afon Asen, a river that might have been perceived as being as slow and strong as one.
Considering the religious history of Wales there are naturally plenty of chapel names – almost ten pages’ worth from an area in Llanelli called quite simply Capel through Capel Crist and Capel Coker to Capel Teilo and Capel Troed y Rhiw – and a plenitude of places with names beginning with “Llan” such as Llanddowror, Llanarthne and Llanegwad.
There’s a lovely explanation for the name Miawst near Llanarthne, ‘miawst’ ‘marking the end of the hay-harvest when animals were released on the land to graze on the aftermath’ a countryside event which was presumbly marked by some festivities which might have happened here.
Many other places in the book are associated with people such as Pont Abram (with its road services) Llan-non, Saint Cadog in Llangadog, Henri in Cwrt Henri, Ffynnonhenri and Pont-henri not forgetting Treherbert and Cwm-Miles.
There are also a fair few places which are prefaced with the word ‘gwestfa’ which was a customary payment made in place of food rents, so that we have Gwestfa Cilfargen, Gwestfa Bleddyn, Gwestfa Rhingylliaid and many, many more, showing how names commemorate historical traditions as well as, say physical features.
Some of the names herein are simply delightful, such as Nant Hust, which ‘hushes or sounds like hushing,’ a stream which seems to urge silence as it rushes along.
Place-Names of Carmarthenshire is a reference work into which you can happily dip for a few minutes, or equally get absorbedly lost for hours.
Complete with a glossary of 1000 place-name elements this is a work that allows us to read our way into a county, to understand the names on the map and why they came into being in the first place.
Long may they remain there.
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