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No 15 July 1998

Monthly Newsletter

Wigan - what’s 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 place-name.

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.

King Arthur

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 Breeze’s 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 period.


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).

Next Meeting

Wednesday 1st July at the history shop at 7.30 p.m. as usual.  This month’s 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.