Sian Gwenllian MS, Plaid Cymru Shadow Minister for Culture and the Welsh Language
Are Ynys Lawd, Llyn Bochlwyd or Clogwyn y Geifr names you’re familiar with? If not, you’re unlikely to learn of them from modern maps, guide books or websites, in which they’re being replaced with anglicised names such as ‘South Stack’, ‘Lake Australia’, and ‘Devil’s Appendix’.
These are not isolated cases, nor are place names and places of natural beauty the only victims of the loss of their Welsh names, with a petition calling for legislation to prevent people from changing Welsh house names gathering almost 18,000 signatures, signifying the magnitude and significance of the issue.
Comedian Tudur Owen recently spoke out about the issue, highlighting the prevalence of the loss of Welsh names, and describing how “history is lost when place names are changed”.
This is a notion that I fear is true.
As is the case for Llyn Bochlwyd, which Tudur Owen described as a name originating from an ancient story of a grey stag escaping a group of hunters, Welsh names are rich in history going back hundreds of years.
Australia Lake, the name now displayed on various maps instead of Llyn Bochlwyd, merely unimaginatively describes the extremely vague resemblance the lake has from above to the outline of Australia.
Another prime example is that of Plas Glynllifon, a historic hall near Caernarfon whose name has been associated with the estate for more than 500 years. In 2015, prospective buyers dropped the Welsh name during online marketing, opting instead for a more English sounding name – Wynnborn mansion.
Following backlash, including by myself, the owners reverted to using Plas Glynllifon. This example, however, illustrates how easily historic Welsh names can be dropped and changed simply with a change of ownership.
Do we really want to erase our history like this? Do we want to erase our individuality, the presence of our language, and the connection these names create between us and the people who called Wales home for hundreds of years before us?
It is difficult to sympathise with reasons for changing Welsh names, whether it’s because they’re ‘too hard to pronounce’, aren’t ‘marketable’, or perhaps just don’t ‘sound nice’.
Our history is so much more than an inconvenience, is worth the effort of asking how Welsh names are pronounced, and is not something you can put a price on.
Whilst the loss of Welsh place-names is common, it is difficult to imagine English place names such as Woolfardisworthy, Oswaldtwistle, Godmanchester or Bicester having their names changed on the basis that they are difficult to pronounce and spell.
These English place names too are rich in history, with the latter two describing roman architecture. But for some reason, the same logic that is applied to the protection of these place names don’t apply in the same way in Wales.
Questions must be asked around why this is. Why once again is the Welsh language and Welsh names not being given equal status to their counterparts on the other side of the border? Why are Welsh place names seen as lesser, not deserving the same level of respect and appreciation?
The undermining of the Welsh language as a whole is not new, with apparent resentment from over the border over the use of Welsh within Welsh communities.
In a now edited article by the Financial Times this week discussing tensions between locals and holidaymakers, we saw the age old belittling of Welsh rearing its ugly head. In the original article, an apparent anonymous case study describes Welsh as “impenetrable to the English”, with the article noting how “tensions have led the Welsh to weaponise their ancient Celtic language against tourists”.
Apart from being largely subjective and flawed, particularly in the way it seems to imply English people are innately unable to learn Welsh (I think my Westminster colleague Liz Saville-Roberts would very much object to such an implication), the article gives an insight to the repeated and long-standing antipathy that is rife towards the Welsh language.
Perhaps this attitude is an insight into what creates the huge battle that is protecting Welsh names – there is a very real lack of respect and appreciation for the language, and it is this which threatens our history.
Our history is a part of our heritage, something which has shaped the Wales we see today, and something which mustn’t be destroyed or forgotten.
I believe we must work towards protecting Welsh place names in the same way we protect historic places – listing buildings and protecting land is commonplace in the interest of preserving history, why shouldn’t we do so for our place names?
There are various interventions that would achieve this, including simply that the Senedd legislates the protection of historic place names. Other interventions worth considering include ensuring the use of original Welsh place names on maps, and providing local authorities with up to date and complete data on local Welsh place names.
Preserving Welsh place-names is dependent on political will. Sadly when Plaid Cymru proposed a Bill in 2017 that would give historical place names in Wales legal protection, it was voted down by Labour. With the issue under sharp focus once more as the holiday season gets underway, we must redouble efforts to push this matter up the political agenda.
I want future generations from Wales and from all over the world to come to enjoy the beauty of Llyn Bochlwyd and Ynys Lawd – not Lake Australia and South Stack – and with that, to learn that these precious names are more than just words, and more than worthy of a struggle to protect them.
Plaid Cymru is holding a Welsh-medium Facebook Live session tonight, Tuesday 4 August, on Welsh place names. The panel will include Sian Gwenllian MS, The Welsh Language Commissioner Aled Roberts, Angharad Fychan of the Welsh Place Names Society, and television broadcaster and producer, and presenter of S4C series Arfordir, Bedwyr Rees.