Peanfahel and Catraeth

Still reading Fraser’s From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795…. today I read through part of his discussion on the Pictish language and I really enjoyed it. He noted that linguists are now secure in their belief that the Pictish language is a dialect of British, in fact Fraser refers to it as ‘Pictish British’. He also noted that the difference between Pict and Brit is the degree of Romanization. (more on this in another post) Therefore it would follow that the Pictish language is a non-Latinized form of British.

I read elsewhere (don’t remember where) that the Welsh language is as Latinized as any Celtic language could be. It may not appear very latinized to those who read Latin or other Romance languages, but the Celtic language is, apparently, only capable of incoroporating so much Latin. Fraser notes that that the very name Britain and Britto (Briton) are Latin, not from Old Welsh. Odd isn’t it that the names Britain, Wales, Briton, and Welsh are all imposed by outsiders.

Fraser also makes a suggestion that I’ve never heard before but makes a lot of sense. That is that the Pictish language incorporated Gaelic elements (not unlike modern Scots that blends Gaelic and English). Most historians now accept that Gaelic speakers had been living in western Scotland through the Roman period and quite possibly earlier. By Bede’s time Gaelic speakers and Picts would have been living side by side for probably at least 500 years. There are no Pictish texts to test this hypothesis. There are only a few inscriptions, a few personal names, and a few placenames. Bede gives us one placename that he specifically says is in the Pictish language.

“It [Antonine wall] starts almost two miles west of the monastery of Aebbercurnig [Abercorn] in the place which the Picts call Peanfahel, while in English it is called Penneltun [Kinneil]. It stretches westward as far as Alcluith [Dumbarton].”

Note how close this Pictish placename is to Abercorn. This suggests that this region around Abercorn between Dun Eidyn (Edinburgh) and Dumbarton was Pictish. But getting back on track, Fraser notes that the name Peanfahel “appears to mix what linguists identify as British and Gaelic terminology” (p. 53). Of course, it makes a lot of sense. Word elements get picked up by neighboring peoples all the time. As Fraser notes what Bede calls the Pictish language is probably the form of the language spoken by the dominant kingdom at the time. That language may have incorporated a blend of  unLatinized British and Gaelic elements. To the English this blend woudl have almost certainly seemed like a new language, as  it was at least on its way to becoming a new Scottish language.

This has brought me to my long-standing feeling that the placename Catraeth popularized in the elegy Y Gododdin is a British-Gaelic fusion: Cat/Cad = battle and rath= fort. (I probably read this somewhere but I don’t recall where.) Peanfahel, a Pictish British-Gaelic fusion placename is only about 16 miles east of  Edinburgh where Y Gododdin is set. In fact, part of Y Gododdin was preserved in Dumbarton due west of Peanfahel.  Having a British-Gaelic fusion placename (Peanfahel) between Dumbarton and Edinburgh surely means that Catraeth could be another British-Gaelic fusion placename. With a name that means battle-fort it is clear that it could be a mythical place where many heroes are said to die. It could be represent an every-place. In an area with so many borders, near what was later called the cockpit* of Scotland, it is possible that there was a frontier fort with such a name. Either way, as I said, it is a name that could be easily transported into legend/myth as clearly Y Gododdin collected many elegies that could not have been associated with the original battle at the core of the collection.  If Y Gododdin does memorialize a battle at a place much closer to Edinburgh than the usual localization at Catterick in Deira/Yorkshire, then it could have occurred over a much wider time span. It could have occurred much closer in time to when it was preserved in the mid-seventh century. Whether there was ever a central battle to the collection or not, Y Gododdin did collect elegies of others over a range of time and I think the entire range was not long before the mid-seventh century when at least one phase of it was recorded.

* Note that in this case cockpit means literally cock fighting, a brutal ‘sport’. The types of skirmishes and major battles in this area does fit the metaphor of two plumed roosters fighting to the death well.

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3 comments on “Peanfahel and Catraeth

  1. Al says:

    Interestingly, this map (dunno the provenance) puts a Catraeth in what is modern-day Falkirk-ish:

    If the battle did occur up there, it begs the question: who were the Gododdin fighting? Saxons? Not from the West… more likely Irish/Picts. Which then begs the question why was the poem… modified… to say they fought the Saxons?

    Makes you think, even if it’s all crap 😉

  2. There are no Pictish texts to test this hypothesis. There are only a few inscriptions, a few personal names, and a few placenames.

    Well, this is true, but I’d say that the fact that some of the few comprehensible bits of the symbol stone inscriptions are those containing the filiation `maqq’, as opposed to the `map’ we should expect from a P-Celtic language, weighs strongly in favour of the hypothesis, myself! Cool stuff, thankyou for posting.

  3. math king says:

    i’m sorry all these posts trying to place Catraeth so far north just dont make sense to me…i look at the wider picture~

    …. the poem does not mention fighting Saxons from Northumbria…because it was not taken then, and also there are Gododdin warriors mentioned from Yorkshire, Cumbria and Wales in the battle…also I don’t think such warriors would feast for a year at Edinburgh to wait for the Saxons to appear on their doorstep?

    …Scotch Corner and Scot’s dyke are named for a reason.. the fort below Whitcliffe scar is Dark Age and one of a kind in Europe~ control of the A66 Roman road a vital east/west link to Cumbria and Wales~ the walls of a fort are named in the poem~ most likely this points to Roman as they were reoccupied by the Saxons and lastly Catterick is the largest 6th century Saxon warrior burial ground in Britain, whether this is published or not i don’t know~

    ..in my opinion the Gododdin and Arthur were truly British~

    …Pendragon castle is centred in ‘Britain’… there is no other claim for the home of Uther~

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