Go with the flow

The slow-flowing River Ouse

A couple of weeks ago I talked about the Vikings changing the name of York from the Anglo-Saxon Eoforwic to Jorvik, supposedly because it was easier for the invaders to pronounce.

I was contacted by the Reverend Canon Bill Ankers who recounted a discussion he’d had with his friend, Lord Nicholas Cunliffe-Lister, 3rd Earl of Swinton, who very sadly passed away last month.

Lord Swinton had an alternative theory about the name ‘Jorvik’. The Swinton estate has fishing rights for a large stretch of the River Ure around Masham and further upstream. In Wensleydale it used to be called the Yore and in fact, Wensleydale was once known as Yoredale, a name still seen in the area. Lord Swinton wondered if at one time, the river was called the ‘Yore’ all the way down to York, and thus gave the city its name.

It is a plausible theory because an unusual feature of the Ure is that after it passes a place called Cuddy Reach just west of the village of Linton-on-Ouse, it is thenceforth known as the River Ouse. Usually, when one river flows into another, it takes on the name of the main waterway. So when the rivers Swale and Nidd enter the Ure, that is where they end, and the water continues its south-eastern voyage under the name ‘Ure’. 

However, when the water reaches Cuddy Reach, a seemingly insignificant stream called Ouse Gill Beck enters the Ure and in an audacious takeover, snatches the grander river’s name and from then on the waterway is known as the Ouse all the way down to the Humber.

So why the name change?

This set my brother and I on a quest to work it out, delving in to our dad’s study stuffed full of files and reference books in an attempt to work out why the Ouse takes over the Ure. And we have come up with a theory.

Many of our ancient waterways have names that derive from the old Britonnic language spoken during the Iron and Roman ages. Names were influenced by a river’s characteristics and how the locals would refer to it. It is why we often get repetitions, such as five River Avons, four River Derwents, and five Ouses, all over the country.

The names ‘Yore’ and ‘Ure’ are likely to have derived from the Britonnic name ‘Isura’, with the Indo-European root ‘IS-‘ meaning ‘strong’ or ‘swift-flowing’. The influential Roman settlement Isurium was built in the first century A.D. just west of the Isura on the current site of the village of Aldborough near Boroughbridge. As the ancient language evolved, the intervocalic letter ‘s’ (i.e. a consonant that occurs between vowels) disappeared and hence we ultimately end up with ‘Yore’/‘Ure’ (in those days likely to have been pronounced ‘Yora’).

As for ‘Ouse’, the name derives from the ancient word ‘Udsos’ which is believed to mean simply ‘water’ or ‘slow-flowing’.

If you are familiar with the Ure, then you’ll know that as it tumbles through the hilly dales, it is indeed strong and swift-flowing. You may also be familiar with the River Ouse which, because it winds its way through mainly flat land, is a different kettle of river altogether, and therefore its ancient ‘slow-flowing’ name is far more appropriate.

In the first millennium A.D., traders would have used the river as one of their main forms of transport, sailing up and down between the main settlements. Those coming up river from the south would have referred to it as the Udsos/Ouse (slow-flowing), and those coming from the north would have called it the Yore/Ure (swift-flowing). So it is possible that the names would have overlapped at the stretch of river between York and Isurium where the land begins to flatten out and the river settles down. It is only in later centuries when we started to write things down and draw maps that we also began to hate such ambiguities as a river with two names. And so a definitive point was identified where the river switched names from Ure to Ouse.  

The Vikings were enthusiastic traders and it is entirely plausible that they would have followed what they called the Jore/Yore all the way to the southern capital of the ancient Kingdom of Northumbria, which they renamed ‘settlement (vik) on the Jore’ or ‘Jorvik’. 

So, could the late Lord Swinton be right?

Contact me, and read more, at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 23rd April and the Gazette & Herald on 21st April 2021

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