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The Naming of Whitby

This is the accademic view of how Whitby may have got its name, have a look here for "An Alternative Naming of Whitby"


The study of place names has become an important discipline over the past century; From the 1920s the English Place Names Society has catalogued and researched the meaning of place names across every county in England, a survey that is still ongoing to this day, with research being centred at the University of Nottingham since 1972.

Place names and their meanings are studied because, besides archeological evidence, they are probably one of the best ways to understand the history of a location, from when a settlement was initially established (A Celtic or Britannic name would imply that a settlement existed prior to the Anglo Saxon settlement of the 5th Century for example) the types of flora and fauna, the geography, or even the settlement's main industry. When looking to Pre-Christian England, these are often our only solid evidence when uncovering the history of a town, as writing was limited to runic inscriptions that lacked detail.

The earliest name attributed to Whitby is Streanœhealh or Strænosalch, most literally translates as 'Fort Bay' or 'Tower Bay' but among scholars it is widely assumed that a more accurate translation may be 'Beacon of the Bay'. All of these potential translations indicate that, prior to the establishment of Whitby Abbey there was a large, tower like structure that was prominent in the landscape. Given the location of Whitby, it is assumed to be in reference of some form of Roman Lighthouse. Even in the absence of a literal tower or lighthouse, Whitby is set across two very steep cliffs that border the estuary of the River Esk, that would have been even steeper in the time of the earliest settlers; they may well have looked like towers to those arriving from the coast. If you get the chance during your stay, go to the end of one of the two piers to watch the midday sun. The sun shines over the Esk through the cliffs, a literal beacon over the bay. The town's oldest name is commemorated by the house at the very top of Cliff Street, that overlooks the East side.

The current form of Whitby's name, first recorded in the Domesday Book (an ominous sounding title for one of our most complete references on historical place names) as Witeby has two possible translations, but what we can be certain of is that the name is of Norse origin. The final element '-by' meaning settlement or farmstead is the Norse equivalent of the Old English element '-tun'. The presence of a Norse element is understandable; Northumbria became a part of the Danelaw, an area of England under Danish rule from 876 AD that included fourteen shires and dominated the majority of northern and eastern England, along with around half of the Midlands. The changing of the name from Strænosalch to the Norse Whitby reflects the prominence of Danish settlers in this area of the Yorkshire coastline.

The first element, 'wite-' could be translated as either 'white' or 'Hviti' (Whitby would have originally been pronounced as 'vit-by', but the Anglo-Saxon 'v' sound was represented by a 'w'). Taking the latter translation as 'Hviti's settlement/farm' could give reference to a prominent Dane, he may have originally led raids against the villagers and monks, or he could have merely been one of the first settlers. The former possible translation, 'White farm/settlement' could reference any number of things. While not as stark as the White Cliffs of Dover, the sandstone layered in the geology of the Eastern cliffs and prominent in the Western cliffs is still light in comparison to the other materials that form coastal cliffs, or it could refer to a farm or settlement made out of white stone or lime washed local stone.

One previously unexplored interpretation is in regards to the positioning of the mouth of the Esk in regards to the sun, the Esk runs North in to sea, Whitby is one of the few locations in the UK where the light of the midday sun fills the river with an astoundingly bright light.  To the early rising fishers or travellers into Whitby, the settlement could certainly look like a white/bright village.  This idea is illustrated and explored further here “An Alternative Naming of Whitby”.

On a less serious note, my personal favourite theory is that has a connection to a certain legend about Abbess Hilde, where the seagulls emptied their bowels over her as soon as she set foot on shore - some things never change.

 

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