Early Settlements

Early Settlements

Stone Technology

The first men to come to Cumbria were Mesolithic (Early Stone Age) migrants who made no physical impression on the land, and left very few remains, but whose importance lies in their pioneering the Atlantic immigration route from the Mediterranean matrix and Iberia across Brittany and up western Britain and Ireland. Only two sites belonging to these people have been found in Cumbria, at Walney Island and at Drigg, but by comparison with similar sites elsewhere (along what is now the Celtic fringe) it may be assumed that they were seasonal nomads who hunted for food along the shore line. Although they have been described as living at subsistence level, their diet included deer, salmon, porpoise, wildfowl, oysters and other inter-tidal shellfish, hazelnuts and various berries. Their implements were made of flint (which they could have obtained from the off-shore beds near their known sites), beach pebbles, and gritstones from the bare Pennine uplands. Their dwellings were little more than windbreaks, shallow pits scooped out on the beach and covered by a skin or sapling roof that was supported by wooden stakes.

The next wave of immigrants (Neolithic man) swept up the Atlantic route about 3500 B.C. settling adjacent to the existing Mesolithic people and inter-mingling with them to produce what has been described as “a native British Neolithic culture.” The usual term for this culture is Secondary Neolithic. These people brought a new tech­nology, agriculture, and an improved form of the earlier stone technology; two attributes which enabled them to make man’s first indelible marks on the regional landscape.

Megaliths, tool factories and stone-age settlements
Megaliths, tool factories and stone-age settlements

They tilled the soil with polished stone hoes and fire-hardened digging sticks. They sowed wheat and barley, reaping the crop with flint sickles. The crop was dried in clay ovens and ground in rotary querns that were made of either sandstone or gritstone. Animal husbandry extended to keeping sheep, goats, oxen and pigs. Breeding stock would be kept over the winter, but the rest would be slaughtered each autumn. Elm pollen counts show a marked decrease in tree population from about 3000 B.C. which has been ascribed to the grazing of cattle on elm shoots, but there is also evidence of systematic and wide­spread lowland forest felling at the same period. Modern experiments with polished stone axes of this time show that four men can clear 600 square yards of birch forest in three hours, each axe head being effective on about 100 trees before needing replacement or resharpening.

Although these people were nomadic they also made per­manent settlements. The two most extensive so far dis­covered in Cumbria are at Walney Island and at Eskmeals, both very close to the known mesolithic sites. Another site was uncovered when Ehenside Tarn at Beckermet was drained. The contents of this latter site included stone axes, partially finished as well as completed ones set into beechwood hafts; fish spears; a dugout canoe and a wooden paddle; sandstone and gritstone grinders; and round-based pottery. Radiometric dating puts the site between 3300 B.C. and 2700 B.C.

The heavy stone tools that characterise the Neolithic cul­ture were (in Cumbria) manufactured from fine-grained volcanic rock that can be shaped by chipping away shell-shaped fragments. (The same technique is used on flint). The raw volcanic material was roughed-out during spring and early summer at various factory sites above Great Langdale and immediately south-west of Scafell Pike sum­mit. The roughs were taken to coastal settlements for grinding and polishing. The finished tools were used in an extensive trading system, based on the Atlantic and sub­sidiary routes. Axe heads from Cumbria have been found in Hampshire, the Thames basin and the Western Scottish Isles.

During the Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age (c.2000 B.C.) stone circle monuments were erected. Various suggestions have been made for their purpose, from religious temples to astronomic observatories and star movement computers. The two functions (religious and astronomic) could well have been complementary, since in primitive society scien­tific knowledge was the preserve of the priest class, and the regularity of the arrangements of these monuments sug­gests a high order of mathematical precision.

The lands adjacent to the Atlantic route, from Brittany to the Scottish highlands and islands, are liberally dotted with megalithic monuments – approximately circular, generally between 50 feet and 250 feet in diameter, and sometimes with outlying standing stones. During the 1950s, Professor Alexander Thom wrote various papers summaris­ing the results of surveys he had made at many of these monuments, including some of the Cumbrian stone circles (Castle Rigg, Eva, Swinside, Long Meg and her Daughters, Glassonby, Shap and Orton). His conclusions – that many of the circles follow a definite geometric pattern based on a standard unit of length and that many monuments were so constructed that they could be used as astronomical obser­vatories – are based essentially on mathematical prob­abilities, and are implacably denied by many conventional archaeologists on the grounds that archaeology is a factual science and not a speculative one At each site which he examined Professor Thom took accurate survey measurements to see if any group of stones could have provided, in ( Neolithic times, an alignment towards any significant astro­nomical event, such as a rising or setting of the sun, moon, or very bright stars. Any random arrangement of objects will provide a number of such alignments quite by chance, but the number of significant sitings that have been recor­ded at over 250 sites along the Atlantic route is so much greater than can be put down to random chance, that his theories cannot be dismissed simply as speculative moon­shine. If an archaeologist digs up an object which by its shape could have been used as a bowl, or a knife, he happily accepts the possibility that it was a bowl, or whatever – but the same archaeologist faced with a megalith that could have been used as an astronomical observatory will probably refuse to accept even the possibility of it having been used as such.

As well as the large stone circles, there are many small ones marking burial grounds which are in the form of either a long gallery, or a single burial chamber.

Beaker Folk and the Bronze Age

The Beaker Folk were so called because of the charac­teristic red earthenware beakers that have been found in their burial chambers. They buried their dead inside crypts which were covered by small round barrows. They have been connected, by both supporters and opposers of Pro­fessor Thom’s theory, with the later, most developed, stages of megalith building. Their culture, based on metalwork­ing and trading, supposedly had close trade links with the Mediterranean peoples, especially Mycenae, and its decline (about 1500 B.C.) is equally supposedly co-incident with the cessation of both the Mediterranean trade and the megalith building activity.

Bronze age immigration followed the Eden Valley and Irish Sea trade routes. Early Bronze age weather condi­tions enabled Irish Sea crossings by dug-out canoe but a climatic deterioration reduced this link by approximately 750 B.C. During this transitional phase the main occup­ations were stock-rearing, hunting and grain cultivation, with population shifts away from the coastal sites to upland locations. Cremation became established as the culture developed. As well as metalworking (bronze, gold, copper), the post Stone Age peoples were agriculturalists, pasturing cattle and cultivating wheat and barley. The use of metal implements, and the pressures of a steadily increasing population, increased the rate of forest clearance as the settlements spread upwards from the earlier coastal habit­ations.

Iron Technology (the Celts)

The first wave of Iron Age immigrants, normally termed “Iron Age A,” followed the by now traditional Atlantic route up the west coast, round about 400 B.C. Professor J. H. Fleure has suggested that, on the evidence of settlement patterns generally round the Irish Sea, the “Iron Age A” people settled on the lowland pastures, leaving the Bronze Age settlements higher up undisturbed. There is little direct evidence of Iron Age culture in Cumbria; though whether it is because there was little influence, or whether it is because the evidence has been ploughed under and des­troyed, is a moot point.

The second wave of Celtic immigrants “Iron Age B” affected Cumbria mainly by a westward encroachment by the Brigantes from their tribal grounds in Yorkshire. These newcomers were a hard tribe of independent hill farmers who kept cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, horses and dogs, hunted deer and ‘hare, but who have left little sign of amble farming. The evidence of pre-Roman Brigantian settlements in the region is scant, and of inconclusive dating. The most productive sites so far discovered are on the east of Cumbria, in the Crosby Ravemsworth area, and at a hill-fort site on Carrock Fell; and it has been suggested that the Brigantian influence had only just reached the region when the Roman subjuga­tion started. On the other hand there are possible Iron Age B sites well within Cumbria (at Muncaster, Lanthwaite Green and Coniston) that date from pre- and early- Roman times, as well as some specifically tactical deployments of the Roman Army during the first century of occupation, which suggest that the Brigantian writ ran sufficiently well across Cumbria to affect Roman policy.

The Roman Occupation

Roman Cumbria
Roman Cumbria

The Roman authorities probably saw Britain mainly as a rich source of raw material; metals, wheat, cattle and slaves. Accordingly, when they invaded the island in 43 A.D. they fairly quickly brought under their control the area south and east of a line between the river Severn and the Trent/Humber confluence. This was what they had come for; the frontier was marked out by the Fosse Way and garrisoned by de­tachments of Auxiliary troops. The campaign had taken four years. Unfortunately the natives on both sides of the frontier were hostile and as one incident succeeded another the Romans found themselves being drawn, by the inexorable military logic of an occupying power, further into the militarily and economically less inviting highlands of Britain. Eventually in 77 or 78 A.D. Gnaeus Julius Agricola, an able administrator and an ambitious military commander, was appointed governor of Britain. A career administrator could reasonably expect the governorship of an important province like Britain to be followed by high honours at Rome, especially if his term of office was marked by some singularly outstanding achievement. Agricola’s ambition, as governor, was the subjugation of the entire island together with, if all went we’ll, some action in Ireland.

In 79 A.D. he advanced northwards from Chester up the west coast via Ribchester, Brougham and Carlisle, halting  at the Forth-Clyde isthmus; consolidating the military occu­pation with strategic forts, and constructing a naval base at Ravenglass. The road from Wafiercrook via Ambleside and Hardknott to Ravnglass, later designated the 10th Iter (military route) probably dates from this campaign.

Fifty years later, when the Hadrianic frontier complex was completed, the system H.Q. was located at Stanwix, just north-east of Carlisle. The western terminal of the wall was at Bowness on Solway, but because of the ease with which the Solway could be crossed the Cumbrian shore was defended by a chain of coast forts which extended via Mary-port and Moresby down to Ravenglass. The coast defences were linked to the Wall system by a network of roads and signal towers. The turf-walled fort at Hardknott was abandoned when the Wall system became operational, but after a Brigantian uprising in 154 it was rebuilt in stone to safeguard the Ambleside/Ravenglass supply road. The first fort at Am(bleside, which was of turf-walled construction, was levelled and used as the basis of a higher, stone-walled fort at some time between 100 and 120.

The map shows the pattern of Roman forts and roads, both proven and strongly suspected. There is an old local tradi­tion that a Roman road lead down from the Keskadale/Cole­dale region towards Buttermere, veering across Low Bank towards Crummock Water at Hause Point/Rannerdale. Such a route as the tradition suggests would not fit into the strategic pattern of roads.

As the Pax Rornana waned (towards the end of the 4th Century), and especially with the final abandonment of Had­rian’s Wall and its outlying forts in 383, the local people – a mixture of partially Romanised Celts, superannuated veterans from the various Roiipan encampments, and a few remnants of the pre-Celtic: inhabitants – collected into small hill fortresses such as at Castle How, Castle Crag and Castle Head.


When Britain lapsed into the post-Roman phase of Celtic twilight, with Picts raiding southwards across Hadrian’s Wall and the Anglo-Saxon incursions changing from seaborne raids into full-scale invasion (and ultimate conquest), a Celtic kingdom of Strathclyde evolved, stretching from the south-west Scottish lowlands down to the (Welsh) kingdoms of Gwynned and Powis. The Anglian influx from North­umberland through the Tyne Gap and the Saxon thrust through the Aire Gap separated Cumbria from its Celtic neighbours. By 685 the lowlands surrounding the Cumbrian dome were controlled by the Angles and for the first time extensive cultivation was made possible by the heavy ox-drawn ploughs used by the Anglian farmers.

It is suggested in The Place Names of Cumberland that Cumbria was part of an autonomous Celtic kingdom of Rhegedd, allied to Strathclyde in some loose confederation. Its most illustrious king, Urien (or Owen), had his capital in the Crosby Ravensworth area. After the Anglo-Saxon victory over the British confederation at Catterick in the 7th century, Rhegedd ceased to exist. The name “Cumbria,” meaning “the land of the Celts”, dates from this time. It is an odd quirk of history that preserves a Celtic name for a region which is no longer Celtic, while designating a major Celtic region by an English name, “Wales.”

Cumbria - English Place Names
Cumbria – English Place Names

During the 8th, 9th and early 10th centuries the Cumbrian dome was a Celtic enclosure within an Anglian surround. The Angles and Celts probably co-existed with only ninor local tensions, but as the Wessex kings established their ascendancy over Mercia and Northumbria, Cumbria was sub­jected to the rival claims of the Scottish kings (as the over­lords of Strathclyde) and the English (or Anglo-Saxon) kings. Also during the 8th and 9th Centuries, Norse vikings were colonising Ireland and Mann, and from across the Irish Sea they established settlements round the Cumbrian coast. From these enclaves the vikings began to colonise the unpopulated dales. The vikings’ route from Norway was via the Orkney and Shetiand islands and down past the Hebrides to Ireland. Civil war in Norway and allied internecine strife in the Irish colonies caused a fairly steady refugee movement eastwards across the Irish Sea. These refugees had, in many cases, acquired a hybrid cultural patina from the Irish people they had lived among.

In 945 Dunmail, the last Celtic king of Cumbria, revolted against the English King Eadmund. Dunmail was defeated (traditionally at Dunmail Raise) and exiled, with most of the Cumbria Celts, into Wales. The resultant depopulation made way for a mass viking immigration.

The settlement by the English and Scandinavian immi­grants does not conform to any simple pattern. The physi­cal evidence is as limited in scope as it is limitless in inter­pretation, while the evidence to be derived from place, lake, river and field names is as numerous as it is ambiguous. Many name elements (dale, thwaite, etc.) can be derived as easily from old English or Germanic sources as from old Norse. The three place name maps in this book have been derived from the county place name books specified in the bibliography. The term Scandinavian embraces Old Norse, Norse-Irish, Danish and Swedish elements; English embraces Old English, Middle English and a few Old Ger­man elements; British embraces all Celtic elements (Bry­thonnic and Goidelic) as well as Romano British elements relating to settlements with a tradition of continuous occup­ation since the Roman times.

An attempt at any comprehensive discussion of ethnic settlement patterns is beyond the essay of this book, but even allowing for the crudeness of the techniques involved in their derivation, a comparison of the three place name maps allows certain reasonable conclusions. Below the 500 ft. contour English and Scandinavian settlements are of comparable density except in the lower Lune valley, where the English predominate, and the coastal strip from St. Bees Head to Ravenglass, where the Scandinavians pre­dominate. Between 500 ft. and 1000 ft. the English settle­ment density is somewhat diminished and above 1000 ft. English settlement is rare. The Scandinavian name density does not appear to be affected by height until well above the 1000 ft. contour.

The viking colonisation in the east of the region may owe something to the existence of a Danish kingdom centred on York; there are certainly more Danish derived elements on the east than on the west, where the Irish influence is shown by the transposition of name elements.

With the exceptions of Derwent and Crummock Waters (both British), Thirlmere (possibly English, certainly dis­putable) and Haweswater (certainly English), all the major lakes were named by the Scandinavians (Coniston Water was originally Thurston Mere). The river names are pre­dominantly British – exceptions being the Waver, Eamont and Wenning (English), the two Greta’s (one near Keswick, one a tributory of the Lune), the Lisa, Lowther, Solway, Wrathay and Brathay (Scandinavian).

British Place Names
British Place Names

The relative scarcity of British names within the Cum­brian dome has been generally ascribed to the superimposi­tion of Scandinavian names on features and settlement clusters that had been previously named by the British. The usual reason for such a wholesale superimposition of immi­grant names on an already inhabited area is that the immi­grants took the region by conquest, reducing the surviving indigenous population to slavery; but the juxtaposition of British names with Scandinavian and/or English names in the Derwent, Eamont, Eden and Ellen valleys suggests that other, very local, factors were involved. There does not appear to be any evidence of extensive violent conflict be­tween the British and Scandinavians.

As an alternative explanation William Rollinson suggests, in his book A History of Man in the Lake District, that “… the Scandinavians also pressed inland … into areas which even the native British had not penetrated.” This implies that the British settlements had been limited to the lowland and lower valley areas, but Celtic names of post-Roman hill forts well into the central dome region do not support this implication. On the other hand an extensive Celtic migration after Dunmail’s defeat in 945 would have left vast areas with insufficient inhabitants to maintain the traditional names.

It is reasonable to assume that the settlement patterns of the English and Viking would be similar, with the initial colonists settling the more accessible, lower dales, and estab­lishing summer pastures updale. As the population in­creased the erstwhile summer shelters were transformed into full-scale farms, and new summer shelters established even further updale. Viking farm policy was one of keep­ing a few pigs and cows close by the home farm and mov­ing sheep up/down dale with the seasons. The consump­tion of beech mast and acorn by the pigs and the forest clearance for pasturage accelerated the de-forestation pro­cess.

As the Viking settlers established themselves round and within the Cumbrian dome they developed a series of meet­ing/worship/burial centres at strategic locations at the edge of the dome, each centre serving several dales. In his novel Thorstein of the Mere, W. G. Collingwood portrayed the pattern of life (part sea rover, part farmer) followed by the Viking settlers in the 10th century (see appendix).

According to the Saxon Chronicle, in 1000 the English King Ethelred marched into Cumberland and ravaged it. The same entry refers to his intention of a rendezvous with his fleet being aborted by the inability of the fleet to put into harbour. A literal translation of the relevant passage in the Chronicle reads: “In this year the king marched into Cum­berland and devastated well nigh all of it and his ships went about at Legceastre and should have come to him but they were not able to so they ravaged (the Isle of) Mann.” The literary translation of the passage dealing with his fleet reads: “His fleet went round by Chester but were unable to make contact with him as had been planned, so they harried the Isle of Man.”

When Gosforth church was being restored in 1896, Dr. C. A. Parker investigated the origins of the Norse crosses  and hog-back tombstones in the churchyard. He also in­vestigated the (then still extant) local custom of a young people’s pilgrimage every Whit Sunday morning to give thanks for an historic deliverance from danger. Dr. Parker’s investigations led him to the theory that Ethelred was re­pulsed by a Norse army, possibly at Wrynose Pass. His fleet was prevented from putting into Ravenglass harbour, and coming to his aid, by a boom that was laid across the estuary mouth. The hogback tomb shows 12 armed men confronting 15 armed men, and according to Dr. Parker commemorates the Norse victory.

Scandinavian Place Names
Scandinavian Place Names

If Ethelred wanted a rendezvous with his fleet while ravag­ing Cumbria, Chester is a most unsuitable place to choose; Ravenglass would be much better. As an old Roman fortress and port, Ravenglass could have been confused with “the Camp of the Legions” by a Saxon scribe with no local knowledge of northern England. Until recently the name Legceastre, or Camp of the Legions, was also applied to the 2nd Legion barracks site at Caerleon, so it seems to have had a fairly indiscriminate usage. In his book The Gosforth District, Dr. Parker mentions the tradition that Ravenglass port was occupied up to medieval times, suggesting that the proliferation of local names containing “Castle” and “Walls” shows the size of the Roman and post-Roman settlement, and developing the theory that the sea-conscious Viking im­migrants “would naturally take possession of the harbour.

While discussing the significance of the carvings on the hogback tombstones and on the crosses, Dr. Parker also makes the point that “Doubtless the carvings were intended to teach grave lessons.” But in the last analysis all remains supposition; there is no clear or positive evidence one way or the other.

The extension of Norman rule over Cumbria was tenuous and uncertain. M the time of the Conquest, Cumbria was nominally subject to the Scots, but with the entire border area in more or less chronic dispute William I created several baronies across the area both as payment for services ren­dered and as a way of stabilising his northern frontier. According to Simeon of Durham, the Scots King Malcolm “took Cumbria by violence” in 1068, but swore an oath of fealty to William for it. William revoked this feudal tenancy after the Northern Rebellions. By 1072 the low­lands to the south of the Brathay/Rothay watershed were in Norman hands, as also was the Ambleside/Ravenglass route via Wrynose and Hardknott. In 1092 William II captured Carlisle and settlements were made all round the dome peri­meter to preclude further Scottish influence in the area. In 1136 Stephen ceded Cumberland and Westmorland to Scot­land, but in 1158 both counties were retroceded to Henry II in a treaty by which the two counties acknowledged the English crown but were excused all feudal levies except the provision of a militia when the king passed through Cumbria.

Nicholas Size, in his book The Secret Valley, utilised a considerable canon of folk-lore to suggest that a Norse re­sistance to the Normans Was organised from a secret head quarters in Buttermere. This resistance was, supposedly, able to hold the hills of the northern half of the Cumbrian dome against all attack. The resistance leader was, at least initially, Jan (or Earl) Beothar from whom the name Butter-mere is derived. According to the legend he turned Butter-mere valley into a fortified guerilla centre. But, as with the affair of Ethelred in A.D. 1000, there is no direct evidence one way or the other. Even the indirect evidence scarcely bears examination. According to the Place Names of Cum­berland, the name Buttermere is derived from the Norse des­cription of a lush valley meadow, a prosaic explanation which cuts the eponymous resistance hero down to size.