Wigan - whats in a name?
A recent article has put the origins of the Wigan place-name firmly into the 7th
century (the earliest date so far). The article, written by Dr Andrew Breeze,
appears in the Spring edition of the Lancashire History Quarterly and explains that the
name has Celtic origins. The translation means village, settlement and
appears in the Welsh as Gwigan. Scholars have long known this explanation, and the
fact that we know the name gained the g in the eighth century, pushes the
Lancashire version to the earlier date.
Other historians have also suggested Celtic origins for the name, but Dr Breeze
believes these to be false. In his book Place-names of Lancashire
published in 1922. Eilert Ekwall associates Wigan with the home of a local Celtic
leader, which he supports by citing another Wigan on Anglesey. The form,
he suggests, has been shortened from the Celtic compound Tref Wigan, i.e. homestead
of Wigan, (the second part being a personal name). But Dr Breeze systematically
rebuts this explanation, claiming there is nowhere in Anglesey with the name Wigan or Tref
Wigan. The closest on Anglesey are Lledwigan, which originates from the 14th
century, and Bodwygan (the Bod- element meaning homestead). Also the personal name
has no Celtic origins. The Bishop of Llandaff who died in 982, was called Gwgawn,
which is not an uncommon early Welsh name, but has no connection with the Wigan
Hawkes, the chief Librarian at Wigan before the war, catalogued half a dozen attempts
at solving the problem of the Wigan placename in his book Outline of flue History of
Wigan. These include William Camden in 1580 who suggested Wibiggin,
biggh being the Lancashire name for houses. Natten Bailey in 1764
(Etymological Engish Dictionary) suggests Pibiggin, pi being Saxon for
sacred. Porteus has Wichen meaning the hamlets. Another name for the mountain
ash is the wichen tree, which in Lancashire becomes wiggin tree. Dr Henry Bradley
gives y wig ayn, gwig being Welsh for fortress and ayn for hen or old.
In 1898 Henry Harrison in his book Place Names of Liverpool suggests it
comes from the Anglo-saxon 'wig' meaning fight which becomes plural with the
addition of 'an' this bolstered speculation in the last century that Wigan
had an Arthurian connection. After all, quoting from Nennius of the twelve
battles between the Britons and the Saxons, the second, third, fourth and fifth were
fought on the banks of the river Duglas, but is it the Douglas
that flows through Wigan?
In Ancient Lancashire Battlefields published in 1882, C Hardwich tries to
prove the link by quoting the Reverend Whitaker. The reverend, a local historian,
describes various ancient war burials found in the Wigan district. These sites are
impossible to verify and most likely not Dark Age.
Dr Breezes explanation, although not the most glamorous, has more credibility
and, if true, is very significant for the history of Wigan. Excavations in the Wiend have
shown that there was a Roman presence in the 1st and 2nd centuries. This new
evidence now suggests that the settlement may not have been abandoned at the end of the
Roman period, but was continuously inhabited through the Dark Ages and Early Medieval
The trip has not yet been completely finalised, however Sunday 9th August has been
selected for the date. We were hoping to arrange a visit to Wall near Lichfield
where the Staffordshire Archaeological Society is carrying out excavations. However,
they only operate on Saturdays, which makes it difficult for our purposes.
Middleharn Castle and Castle Bolton in the Yorkshire Dales have been mooted as
alternatives instead. The price as usual will be around £8, final details will be
sorted out before the next meeting. If you think you may be interested please bring
along (or send) money for the deposit (£5).
Wednesday 1st July at the history shop at 7.30 p.m. as usual. This months
speaker is Dr Maiy C Higham who will be talking on Medieval Parks and Gardens in die
North West. Some members may remember our speaker from many years ago when she
gave us a very interesting talk on Medieval Linen production.
Hope to see you at the meeting - BA.