Recording in Devon and Cornwall

By Katherine Forsyth, OG(H)AM’s UK Principal Investigator

Last month Megan Kasten, Nora White and myself spent a happy week in south-west England recording ogham inscriptions using photogrammetry (see here for more on this technique). It was fantastic to finally get to see stones I’ve been reading about for years but very sobering to realise it is now nearly a century since R. A. S. Macalister viewed them (Archaeologia Cambrensis 84,1929) and they have not benefited from the passing of time. All are damaged, partial and/or exceptionally worn. Megan worked wonders recording them but without earlier accounts to guide us it would be very hard to make out the ogham in some cases. All the inscriptions are bilingual, or rather ‘bi-version’ for they are not exact translations of each other. Three are from early ecclesiastical sites, three others appear to have once stood by ancient routeways. This matches the overall statistics for (non-ogham) inscribed early medieval monuments in the south-west. Several were fortunately preserved by reuse as bridges or gateposts. (In the following, drawings are from Macalister 1945, preliminary 3D models by Megan Kasten, other photos author’s own). 

Megan holds up the 3d printed model above the brook at the Fardel farm.

Fardel E-DEV-001

In a nice segue with our previous fieldwork in the British Museum (see link), our tour kicked off in Devon at Fardel (pronounced FAHR-dil). Rev. Samuel Pearse of Cadleigh first recognised this stone in his late-18th-century boyhood when he spotted it in use as part of a culvert under the road over the Fardel brook. Much later in life, in 1860, he was able to have it removed to the farmyard at Fardel and the following year it was donated by the owner to the British Museum. Megan had recorded the stone last year and produced a 3D print of it at a miniature scale. We thought it fitting to ‘return’ it to its original position (see image) and then having photographed it, we were able to donate it to the man who farms there today. 

Two images side by side - Megan recording the Roborough Down stone, and the line drawing of the inscriptions by Macalister.

Roborough Down, E-DEV-002  (CIIC 488) 

We then travelled on to Tavistock where we encountered this stone, which was first recognised in 1834 in use as a gatepost to a field on Roborough Down (near Buckland Monachorum). You can still see the metal fittings on the upper right-hand side. The finder tried to get it moved but the farmer refused. Only in 1868 did the future Duke of Bedford succeed in offering a new gatepost in exchange and had it moved to the vicarage garden of Tavistock, where two other early inscribed stones had been brought some decades previously. Three years later, John Rhys recognised the ogham inscription on its edge and it’s still there, just. 

The stone currently stands 1.52m tall, and is inscribed across the broad front face and left arris. The latin reads in three lines, downwards: 




‘of Dobunnos faber, son of Enabarros’ 

Assuming Latin faber is a common noun rather than a personal name, it covers a range of roles which are distinguished in Gaelic/Irish. It can mean gobae ‘smith’, which is twice found glossed with this word, but that means only an ironworker, not the higher-status, precious-metalworker (cerd) which also falls under ‘faber’. It can mean ‘carpenter, joiner’ too, which would be Irish saer. These three professions were deemed of different status — cerd being the highest, but all within dóernemed ‘base nemed (‘noble’)’—and it is hard to know which is referred to here. It is a unique occurrence of the word in early Medieval British epigraphy, and it would be wrong to think that faber is here to add ‘colour’. Rather, I think, it is mentioned because the rights which are being exerted by this inscription in some sense depend on this status being acknowledged. The ogham reads, simply: ENABARR[I], the Irish male personal name *Énbarr, ‘bird crest/head’. The presence or otherwise of a final -I has important dating significance, so it is particularly frustrating that the inscription is so worn in this area. There are slight markings visible which are consistent with there having been a final vowel, but it is slight. So, maybe yes, maybe no, but not a basis for any theories. The palaeography of the Latin letters suggests a date in the mid-sixth century: note those wonderful Bs with separated bowls and the lovely v-shaped bars to the As! 

The resulting 3D model of Roborough down in purple.
3D model of Roborough Down.

What is curious about this inscription is that both son and father are named in the Latin text, but in the ogham, only the father. Why was that? Some have suggested the Latin inscription was added a generation later, but this seems unlikely to me. There is otherwise no evidence of ‘ogham-only’ monuments in the south-west, and the bi-script layout of text is quite typical. I can’t think of any other clear examples of bilingual monuments naming only the father. So what was going on at Roborough Down?  If the purpose was to secure the authority of a kin-group’s claim to ownership of land (which seems to be the case from what we know from Ireland), then it is largely immaterial if that claim is made via a father or his son except that it defines the extent of the derbfine (four generation kin-group) which was the basis for inheritance in early Irish law. If the family were migrants, then there may not be second cousins around locally to care that their rights were asserted. To the Irish-speaking group *Énbarr was the significant person from whom authority came, but to the Romano-Britons authority came from Dobunnus and his status as a cerd/faber. Curiously, his personal name echoes that of the Roman period tribal name, Dobunni, in the Cotswolds around Cirencester, 150 miles away. Such a name only makes sense for someone ‘displaced’ from the tribal group but who is in some way still associated with it. His father has an obviously Irish name, but could he have spent time in the lands of the Dobunni before settling in Cornwall? Could his mother have come from the Cotswolds?  

Three images side by side - Megan and Nora recording the Lewannick 2 stone in the churchyard with the help of an umbrella, next to the line drawing of the inscription and the screenshot of the 3D model.

Lannwenek | Lewannick 2, E-CON-002 

The following day was spent at St Martin’s Church, Lewannick, where there are two ogham inscriptions. In 1892, antiquarian A. G. Langdon discovered the first on the south side of the churchyard. Re-erected, it now stands 1.22m tall and, unlike the previous ones, has a Latin inscription written horizontally across the broad face, with ogham up the left edge. This is a feature usually associated elsewhere in Britain either with an early date or (sometimes) an ecclesiastical context. The spring sunshine presented some challenges, but Nora and Megan did their best with the umbrella on this exceptionally worn stone. It is fully bi-lingual and interestingly so. The ogham reads: IGENAVI MEMOR and the Latin: INGENVI MEMORIA ‘the memorial of Ingenuus’. This is a Latin name which comes from a legal term for someone free-born (rather than manumitted from legal slavery). The spelling of the ogham, with G for the sound /ŋg/, shows that it is not simply a calque on the written Latin, but is an independent spelling of how it sounded to Irish ears. As Sims-Williams points out, it also shows that the value ‘NG’ given for the character [ᚍ] must have been a later accretion (2003, 221). If it were available at the time, this value would have been the perfect time to use it. The Latin word memoria is found frequently in Continental palaeo-Christian inscriptions of late fourth century onwards, and also occurs on the famous Voteporix stone from Castell Dwyran, Carmarthenshire (CIIC 358) and at Yarrow, Selkirkshire (CIIC 492). The word was adopted into Irish (memra, mebair). The lack of a patronymic has been taken as an indication that an ecclesiastic is commemorated but this may be overstepping the mark: no patronymic is given on Voteporix’s stone. However, the lann place-name, sub-oval outline of the churchyard, and substantial build-up of ground level within the boundary, all point to it being an early church site. Was this the case already when the stones were erected, or was a church founded at an ancestral burial ground? Palaeographically, Tedeschi suggests a date in the fifth century (2005, 242) but acknowledges that linguistic dating points a bit later (Sims-Williams 2003, 361), so possibly early 6th century.  

A photo of Lewannick 1 inverted, because the stone is currently displayed upside down; this is next to the line drawing of the inscription and the screenshot of the 3D model.

Lewannick 1, E-CON-003 

This curious stone was discovered in 1894 in two pieces, built into the walls of the north porch of the church. The Latin inscription [HI]C IACIT VLCAGNI, ‘here lies Ólcan’, reads in the same direction as the two ogham texts. If the latter are in the traditional vertical-up direction then what remains must be inverted, but then the Latin doesn’t read in the expected top-down way. Further support for this comes from the apparent correction of a mistake which shows the left was carved first (which is what we’d expect). There the ogham carver attempts ULCAGNI but puts the 2 strokes of L to the left rather than right of the arris. Having gone wrong at the outset, knowing the following letter comes from a different aicme, it gets put on the opposite (wrong) side, as does the other ‘sided’ consonant. What is written is UDSAGQI. Having got to the end and having realised the mistake, however, the name is re-carved on the opposite side, this time getting the placement correct: ULCAGNI. What is odd is that there’s no attempt to remove the erroneous carving. Might this suggest it was originally painted?  The placing of the Latin letters CIT follows the ogham showing which way round they were carved. This is the second south-west ogham with a spelling error. The same mistake was made at Fardel 30 miles away. 

The same name is found about 23 miles away at Nanscow (VLCAGNI FILI | SEVERI) and Ballyhank, Co. Cork (I-COR-049; CIIC 100). It means something like ‘little bad guy’ (Ziegler 1994, 241), and seems to be common among religious men (David Stifter pers. com.). It has been suggested that he too was an ecclesiastic, but I would be cautious about such an assumption – there are three examples from Anglesey of the same formula (i.e. personal name in genitive with ‘hic iacit’). The palaeography of the Latin inscription suggests a date in the 5th century.  

A photo of the Worthyvale stone from above, hanging over the river, next to a photo of the ogham inscription, which is next to the drawing done by Macalister of the two inscriptions.

Worthyvale, E-CON-001 

One of the undoubted highlights came with our visit to The Vale of Avalon Arthurian Centre, Worthyvale (from Guerdevalan, Cornish avallen ‘apple trees’). We were treated most hospitably by the Parsons, the owners of the attraction, who present all that they have very well. The stone lies in a precarious position on the bank of the river Camel which, as early as the 17th century, inspired readers of the Latin text to take it as incorporating the name ‘Arthur’ who was said to have died at the battle of Camlann. In fact, it has nothing to do with that and reads:  



But that didn’t get in the way of the story! For more detail on the remarkable tale of this stone see next month’s Ogam of the Month. In the meantime, we thoroughly recommend a visit (and the most excellent coffee and buns in the tea shop!) 

A photo of Megan recording the St Kew stone in the corner of the church; this is next to the line drawing of the inscription and the screenshot of the 3D model.

Lanndohow | St Kew, E-CON-005 

We rounded the day off with a visit to quiet St Kew. The site, Lan Dochou, ‘church of (St) Dochou’, is remarkably first mentioned in the Life of St Samson, written c.700 about events in the 530s, and has claims to early importance. The stone was found a hundred years ago in 1924 in the bed of a stream when ‘the bridge spanning the brook just below the church was widened’. It appears to have served as a gatepost at one time. It is a small, rounded granite boulder, broken at both ends (0.72m long). There is no distinct arris (sharp ridge where two surfaces meet) and the letters have been laid out with a gap between the proximal tips of b- and h-aicme strokes. 

The Latin inscription, running parallel with the ogham, reads IVSTI, with a minuscule s (c.f. Worthyvale). It is enclosed in a cartouche, which Tedeschi points out mimics the shape of a full-size monument (2003, 255), which is highly unusual, though not without precedent (cf. 10 miles away at Lanivet CIIC 465). The ogham has lost the first letter and part of the second, but can be reconstructed as: [I]ỤSTI  ‘of Justus’, the Latin male personal name meaning ‘the righteous’. The palaeography suggested a date no later than the mid-6th century (Tedeschi 2003, 256) and the stone may well have been there in Samson’s day. There is not space to go into the question of whether or not this might be the saint of this name culted in Cornwall, whose patronym is held by two parishes in west Cornwall. With a diminutive ending, Iestyn is culted in Angelsey where he is said to have been a son of Geraint ab Erbin king of Dumnonia who died in the 550s. Could this be the same person? Alternatively, the possibility of an Irish connection is held out by a murky hagiographical tradition of a Iustán who is said to be the uncle of an Uí Bairrche saint (Ó Riain, A Dictionary of Irish Saints, Dublin 2011).  

A photo of the slate in someone's hand, showing the inscription.

Pennwydh | Penwith E-CON-006

Our final day began with a trip to the Royal Cornwall Museum in county town, Truro, to record a remarkable piece. Discovered in 2009 by experienced field-walker, David Edwards, it is a surface find from a newly ploughed field adjacent to a burial ground beside the parish church of Breweni | Paul, Penwith. It is a small (0.11 x 0.07m) piece of local slate, barely 1cm thick, the remains of what, to judge by the scale of the letters, must have been quite a bit larger to begin with. The letters are slim and have been carefully scratched on with a sharp point. The bottom line has a vowel (U, E or I) then a forfid (supplementary letter) shaped like a Λ descending from the stem-line, perhaps with the meaning /p/. Finally, there are two, or probably three, strokes of a b-aicme consonant (so, V, S or N). The line above has the remains of the lower part of either another Λ or an X forfid, followed by S and then a blank stem-line. It is possible there is further carving above this. What can be discerned is a downward stroke intersecting with a long horizontal bar away to the right. It is somewhat lighter than the rest so may not be intended as lettering. 

This curious piece stands in marked contrast to the other oghams we’ve been looking at, with its forfeda and drawn-in stem-line. We need to remember a stem-line needn’t be an indication of later date: the Newgrange ogham, which could be as early as the fourth  century, is written on a stem-line. It is perhaps explained simply by the thin nature of the slate ruling out the use of an arris. The value /p/ is assigned only tentatively. There are three instances of a similar forfid in use epigraphically (Crickhowell, Margam, and Cool East) but these appear to have two inward leaning strokes intersecting just below the stem, whereas this one is definitely on the stem-line (with one stroke projecting a little beyond). Too little survives to hazard a reading, and nothing suggests any of the usual formula words. What is remarkable is its location, 60 miles from the next nearest ogham inscription. It is an important reminder that ogham was known and used more widely than the surviving monuments alone suggest. 

Walking back to the car we passed the parish church and, to my amazement, happened upon the monument to Dolly Pentraeth, fishwife of the parish, who achieved celebrity as the ‘last’ fluent speaker of Cornish. Though this is disputed, she was honoured 83 years after her death by Napoleon’s nephew, philologist Louis Lucien Bonaparte, who erected this memorial with the local (Irish) vicar. Apparently, if addressed in English she retorted: ‘My ny vynnav kewsel Sowsnek’ (‘I will not speak English!’). It is good there is a little Cornish on her memorial (which I’ve shown to my Celtic Civ students for so many years!):

A photograph of the monument.
Monument to Dolly Pentraeth.

‘Here lieth interred Dorothy Pentreath who died in 1777, said to have been the last person who conversed in the ancient Cornish, the peculiar language of this country from the earliest records till it expired in the eighteenth century, in this Parish of Saint Paul. This stone is erected by the Prince Louis Bonaparte in Union with the Revd John Garret Vicar of St Paul, June 1860. 

Honour thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee. Exod. xx. 12.  

Gwra pethi de taz ha de mam: mal de Dythiow bethenz hyr war an tyr neb an arleth de dew ryes dees. Exod. xx. 12.’ 

A photo from Lands End, with the Scilly isles visible on the horizon.
Land’s End, Scilly Isles visible on the horizon. 

All done for the day, we found ourselves 10 miles from Land’s End and couldn’t resist the temptation to make the pilgrimage. Things for the tourists were closing up but there was still time to enjoy a coffee and a well-earned rest overlooking the furthest west point of mainland Britain. 

Further Reading 

R. A. S. Macalister (1945) Corpus Inscriptionum Insularum Celticarum Vol. I. Dublin: Stationery Office. 

Elisabeth Okasha (1993) Corpus of Early Christian Inscribed Stones of South-west Britain. Leicester: Leicester University Press. 

Patrick Sims-Williams (2003) The Celtic Inscriptions of Britain: Phonology and Chronology, c.400-1200, Publications of the Philological Society 37, Blackwells, Oxford. 

Carlo Tedeschi (2005) Congeries Lapidem. Iscrizioni Britanniche dei secoli V-VII, Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa.  

Charles Thomas (1994) And Shall These Mute Stones Speak? Post-Roman Inscriptions in Western Britain. Cardiff. 

Andrew West (2009) ‘Blog: The Ogham Stones of Cornwall and Devon’, 8 November 2009, Last accessed: 20 May 2024. 

Sabine Ziegler (1994) Die Sprache der altirischen Ogam-Inschriften, Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, Göttingen. 

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