High poetry: five eyebrow-raising mountain names

Posted by Carey Davies on 02/10/2014
"Are you sure you want to call it that, Lord Hereford?" Photo: Wikipedia

Strange, interesting, or just childishly amusing – to mark National Poetry Day we take a look at some of the more unusual names given to mountains across the world.

Helvellyn. Tryfan. Scafell. The Cobbler. Glaramara. Suilven.

Many of Britain’s mountains have wonderfully evocative names. Often rooted in lost or ancient languages, their original meanings can become blurred, adding a layer of arcane mystique to our wild places.

And then there is Lord Hereford’s Knob.

Mountain names can be a source of wonder, mystery, historical insight – and amusement. To mark National Poetry Day, we thought we’d bring a selection of eyebrow-raisers together, both from Britain and beyond, to celebrate the special sort of poetry which is wrapped up in mountain monikers.

What’s in a name? When it comes to mountains, you’d be surprised how much.

1. Barf

This Lake District charmer gets its name from the Viking word for ‘hill’ or ‘ridge’, but if you try a direct climb of its steep easterly ridge it may take on a more literal significance. Alfred Wainwright describes it like this: "Not a walk. A very stiff scramble, suitable only for people overflowing with animal strength and vigour." In Wainwright-speak, that basically means it’s a lung-bursting nightmare.

On the way up, don’t forget to greet the ‘Bishop of Barf’, a white painted stone marking the spot where local legend states the Bishop of Derry died after falling from his horse in 1783. The cause of his folly has a certain poetic irony – he had drunkenly bet he could ride up the hill.

2. The Executive Committee Range

Being the least-visited, most sparsely-inhabited continent in the world, many of Antarctica’s mountains are yet to be given names. The ones that have often carry a wild, evocative ring that does justice to the savagery and remoteness of the place, like Ulvetanna (‘Wolf’s Tooth’), Titan Dome, or Gygra Peak (‘The Giantess’).

Then again, there are ones like the distinctly un-poetic Executive Committee Range. It was named by and after the people who led the 1940 United States Antarctic Service Expedition. Evoking the rather unexciting business of minutes, meetings and passive-aggressive emails over agenda points, it probably won’t be featuring in a Leo Houlding film any time soon.

3. Lord Hereford’s Knob

“See this protrusion on yonder hill, servant?”

“Twmpa, sire?”

 “Yes, that one. I insist it henceforth be named after my esteemed self. Let the maps from this day on proclaim it ‘Lord Hereford’s Knob’.”

“Are you sure, sire?”

“What do you mean, lowly servant?”

“It’s just that, well, and it’s just a thought, but what if in many centuries hence the word ‘knob’ takes on a somewhat more prurient meaning? Rather than your name being associated with glory, it would achieve the opposite effect.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Nothing will change. Now help me mount this ass.”

4. Sgurr nan Spainteach

The origins of the intriguing Sgurr nan Spainteach go back to the Jacobite rebellion of 1719.

Originally conceived by a Spanish Cardinal, Giulio Alberoni, it saw the Spanish attempt to commit a fleet of warships and 7,000 men to the Jacobite cause in an attempt to destabilise Britain. Things didn’t quite work out as planned; storms swept much of the fleet off course, and many Spanish troops were captured in Eilean Donan Castle. The 1,000-strong Jacobite force which eventually squared up to the British army in Glen Shiel contained just 200 Spaniards.

Fought on the flanks of Sgurr na Ciste Duibhe, the battle was a resounding defeat for the Jacobites, but the Spanish contingent battled bravely. A subsidiary peak of Sgurr na Ciste Duibhe was named Sgurr nan Spainteach – ‘Peak of the Spaniards’ – in their honour, a permanent testament to the last time an invader was fought at close range on British soil.

5. Pendle Hill

Last but not least, we come to this enigmatic Lancashire lump. Pendle Hill has all kinds of mystical and murky connotations thanks to its association with the Pendle Witch Trials, so you might think its name meant something moody and interesting. It doesn’t.

‘Pendle Hill’ is actually a triple tautology; seven hundred years ago it was known as ‘Pennul’ or Penhul’, from the Cumbric ‘pen’ and the Old English ‘hyll’. Both words simply mean ‘hill’. Having forgotten this, speakers of modern English added another ‘hill’. So the literal translation is ‘hill hill hill’.

Not the most descriptive moniker, then, but an interesting reminder that even when on home soil, we are in some senses in a foreign country, surrounded by the unfamiliar places names of the past.

WATCH: The Antarctic sledge race: Leo Houlding and team take a break from climbing Ulvetanna in this BMC TV exclusive extra to the Last Great Climb:

READ MORE: Get into hill walking with these BMC resources



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Anonymous User
15/10/2014
And of course the mountain in the Cairngorms known in English as "The Devil's Point" has a Gaelic name which would translate literally as the Devil's .. er .. 'Knob'.

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