John Moss, Celtic Places & Placenames (Pen & Sword, 2022)
In Celtic Places & Placenames, John Moss takes us on a journey through the British Isles to seek the origins of settlements and places of interest attributable to the Celtic era and sometimes beyond. In doing so, Moss finds echoes of a culture we often forget in the modern age.
Moss initially wriggles around the concept of a unified Celt people, who maintained many cultural connections while being distinct tribes. He describes where the term comes from and gives a potted history of how the Romans cast Celtic tribes into the dark corners of the British Isles and a wee part of France. His book is split into twelve parts grouping together place names with identifiable terrain features or regions. Moss sets off into his theme with a list of common Celtic places, of which there are many.
The first geographic region we encounter is Cornwall and the southeast of England. Moss starts with a brief overview and follows with an alphabetised list of places and names – that is, after all, what we are here for. The full island of Ireland comes next, in the same format, then the Isle of Man. Scotland and the English border region take up nearly a quarter of Moss’s book as you might expect given the relative size of Scotland within Britain. Likewise, Wales takes up forty pages, reflecting the undisturbed nature of many parts of the principality. Having taken us on a geographical tour, Moss switches to features, beginning with Celtic river names then mountains. The names of Bronze and Iron Age hillforts are given their own chapter, probably because Moss notes there were over 4,000 of them, though curiously, he includes some in his list that do not have Celtic names – Moss relies on descriptive paragraphs for those places. He does that too for some of the prehistoric structures that make up his next chapter. Moss is on more certain ground for those places identified by Celtic crosses even if some are of early medieval origin. Moss concludes his survey across the channel in Brittany where Celtic tribesmen fled when Britain suffered under periodic invasions. A useful bibliography and list of websites concludes the book.
Celtic Places & Placenames is a book that might struggle for a classification. I can see historically minded tourists thumbing through this as they travel around Britain. Conversely, local historians will appreciate knowing some of these place names. Moss doesn’t help himself in this regard because he omits to argue why we need this knowledge, which relegates his survey to the trivial in some ways. Yet a place name is important because it provides a starting point, a grounding, for that place, or a description long lost in the mists of time. That makes you see a place differently, through the eyes of those who named that place. This, therefore, could be a useful book for researchers as well as the merely curious.