Stream of consciousness

sucio-1A BAND of Celts wander north into new lands and discover a broad river sweeping through forests. They are in awe of the river because it is deep and powerful. They give it a name, and the name is Esk. To later generations this possesses magical, almost ethereal, qualities. The name resonates so strongly it survives several waves of migration: Romans, Anglo Saxons, Scots, Vikings, Normans. Thousands of years after those Celts peered through the rushes, that river is still called Esk. That’s fascinating . . .

I’m pondering this as I wander up the Rio Sucio on the outskirts of Orgiva, in Andalucia, many damp miles south of the River Esk. Thought processes fork and spill over stones like the branches of a stream. I pass a woman walking her dogs. She might be thinking about cooking dinner or the benefits of qigong. I’m thinking about river names.

Did you know that the river names Esk (of which there are several in England and Scotland), Usk, Axe and Exe share a common origin? The names stem from the ancient Celtic isca, meaning “water”. Simple as that. Those Celts peered through the rushes and said: “Huh. Water.” And it stuck.

The Rio Sucio, pictured above, is flowing for the first time since June. Two days of heavy rain have brought life to its thirsty runnel. Snow lies white and inaccessible above its source in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Rio Sucio means “dirty river”. Little romance there, either; but at least there’s an adjective and a smattering of imagination. The dirty river is tainted with grey clays washed down from the folds of Cerrillo Redondo – slippery Andalucian clays the locals use for waterproofing the flat roofs of their homes.

The white summit of Cerrillo Redondo
Rain clouds above Orgiva
Mule offering advice on Spanish river names

When you dredge the silted depths of river etymology you recognise that names such as Yellow River and Red River aren’t so bland after all. They are basic and functional, but to non-English-speaking travellers they probably sound romantic.

River names of my Lakeland childhood include Brathay (Old Norse for broad river); Calder (Celtic for rapid or rocky river); Caldew (Anglo Saxon for cold river); Cocker (Celtic, crooked river); Derwent (Celtic, river abounding in oaks); Ehen (Celtic, cold river); Gilpin (Anglo Saxon, gushing river); Greta (Old Norse, rocky river); Irt (Celtic, possibly fresh or green river); Kent (Celtic, sacred river); Liza (Old Norse, shining river); Lowther (Old Norse, foaming river); Mint (Celtic, noisy river); Rothay (Old Norse, trout river); Sprint (Old Norse, gushing river).

My favourite is the River Mite, which flows into the Irish Sea at Ravenglass along with the Irt and one of the many Esks. The consensus is that Mite has its source in the Celtic word “meigh” – which means to urinate. Incidentally, the River Piddle, in Dorset, may or may not rejoice in similar origins. The Victorians altered the spelling to Puddle because that’s the sort of thing they were good at.

So I wander up the Rio Sucio pondering over stuff like this. Perhaps I should take up qigong. Perhaps I should find out what it is first.

FOOTNOTE: I have owned a copy of the Dalesman publication Lake District Place-Names, by Robert Gambles, since it was published in 1980. I nearly gave it away when I moved to Spain. So glad I didn’t. Incidentally, there is an alternative theory that the river names Esk, Usk, Axe and Exe mean “abounding with fish”. The scales of justice have yet to weigh on that one.

21 thoughts on “Stream of consciousness

  1. A family trait I suspect. My tangents go off at tangents on a regular basis! WHen I was in Gandia the local river was the Riu Serpis (Snake River in Valencian) and was a collection of stagnant puddles most of the time manned by the occasional optimistic Egret hoping for enough oxygen to still be there to maintain a couple of marooned fish. Then it would rain and you’d get flash floods, then puddles for the rest of the year again. Not quite the Amazon…


    1. Sounds just like here only with the egrets, though there are flocks of them down on the coast at Motril. We’ve been here a year now and I haven’t seen the river flowing wider than a few feet. You can jump it easily. The worrything thing is that its barranco is a couple of hundred metres wide, so I guess I haven’t seen it in angry mode yet.
      Cheers, Alen

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sometimes it is convenient with adjectives. Have you ever tasted gray clays. It’s guaranteed more beneficial on roofs than in your throat. Adjectives are practical !!!
    I laughed at your: Celts peered through the rushes and said: “Huh. Water. ”
    The sentence contributes with an entire movie sequence 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Carol. I called it a mule but it might be an ass. There’s a difference but I’m not sure what it is. It might even be a very big donkey. It was very friendly and it had two friends with it.
      Cheers, Alen


  3. As usual streams of knowledge from your pen/keyboard. Never throw that sort of book away, I’ve a whole room of them to dip into from time to time. Someone else will throw them away for me.
    Hope you have plenty of snow this winter to fill the rivers and your reservoirs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi John. You are so right. I am glad I held onto that book and the others in my collection. Having said that, a box of books went atray during the move or in storage, so if you see a carboard box with a load of scruffy paperbacks lying at the side of a French road, it’s probably mine.
      Loads of snow up there, and it’s early this year. We’ve had 95mm of rain in the past ten days or so. Making up for three months without a single drop.
      Cheers, Alen


  4. The common elements of place names came to me the other day, but I can’t remember what it was. (Two villages, one in Lancashire the other in Cornwall, I think…) Anyway, the whole etymolgy of place names is fascinating and goes hand in hand with looking at maps. (I wonder what the origin of Crackpot in Yorkshire is: ancient king, Anglo-Saxon councillor?)

    The donkey/ass/mule looks like it’s talking to camera for some weird Freeview documentary.

    And while we’re on the subject of place names, whenever I think about where you live now I can’t help thinking you went all that way and ended up in a place that sounds like Orgreave.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Funnily enough, Chris, I once knew the origin of Crackpot but I can’t remember what it was. Seems like this memory lapse thing is catching. Perhaps I should ask the mule. I only asked it one question and it wouldn’t stop talking. I think it wanted a selfie taking and couldn’t manage it itself.
      The Orgreave thing is fascinating. Maybe that’s why Amber Rudd (she’s made that name up, I bet) couldn’t find anything controversial in the files – she was looking at South Yorkshire Police’s dossier on Orgiva by mistake. Hell, a half-decent writer could get a Comic Strip Presents script out of that.
      Cheers, Alen

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This kind of stuff makes me want to get maps out and pore over them! Love all those old river names, Alen. I hadn’t heard of most of them, and I didn’t know that ‘Esk’ came from ‘isca’. You are a fount of knowledge! 🙂 Actually you might find qigong very beneficial, as well!


    1. Hi Jo. There is also a reason (though I can’t remember it) why many major British rivers begin with the letter T – as in Tay, Tyne Tees, Thames, Trent, etc, and again it’s something to do with the Celts. Might be up your street, that.
      Qigong, ha ha. Hadn’t heard of it until this week. Those ancient Chinese people had too much time on their hands.
      Cheers, Grasshopper

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi Alen

    I’m fond of Welsh river names. They always seem so lyrical, and I like that they have a specific prefix for river (Afon) and stream (Nant). I quite enjoy the ambiguity about the source of the name…’s derived from “swift”, or it could just be named after someone’s dog.

    One of my favourites is Afon Crai – apparently ‘crai’ may mean rough or severe. The river gives its name to a village too. I think I might have been to a couple of villages in N Yorks that might have suited that moniker. Incidentally, Afon Wysg seems rather probably to be derived from ‘isca’ (as per Axe, Exe and Esk).

    I like that idea that no matter where you were, and no matter how your language had melded, merged and developed…..there was always someone who ‘ugged’ “WATER” and nobody thought to set up a committee to call it something more imaginative.

    It makes me think about how much and how little importance we attach to words.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Steve. Thanks for that comment. I find place names, and river and mountain names in particular, fascinating – so thanks for broadening my knowledge. Yes, many of them do sound almost poetical, but when you break them down into their native-tongue components they can be pretty mundane. I’ve always found Helvellyn falls into this category. It has an almost Arthurian sound to it, full of mystery and poetry, but the thinking is that it’s ancient Celtic for Yellow Hill. And then there’s the one that’s often quoted: Pendle Hill in Lancashire. The Celts just called it Pen, which means Hill. The Anglo-Saxons came along and extended it to Pen Hill, which became corrupted to Pendle but just means Hill Hill. And now we call it Pendle Hill, which means Hill Hill Hill. A committee would have been a good idea.
      Cheers, Alen


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