Toponymy - mapping place name patterns in Great Britain with QGIS

This project was to study the distribution of certain patterns in place names of Great Britain. To do this, I used the Ordnance Survey Open Gazetteer (crown copyright and database rights). These maps were created in QGIS.

Place names in Britain come from a number of sources; Old English, Brythonic (Old British), Old Norse (via the Vikings), Pictish and Gaelic. Wikipedia has a write up here; I used this as inspiration for the queries.

The maps use a hexagonal grid of approx 20x20km. The colour represents the number of places with that pattern within the cell.

Danelaw and the Viking Influence

This map shows the distribution of places ending in -by, -thorpe, -thwaite, -toft, -kirk, -ness. In England, it shows the diagonal band from Cumbria to Lincolnshire which was under DaneLaw. In Scotland, it shows most influence in Orkney and Shetland. Most of the remaining ones in Scotland are 'kirk'. I did a map like this a few years back, but the cartography was pretty basic ;-)

places with Viking imports


These maps all use the following legend. I originally used Jenks Breaks to categorise the regions; they almost always came out with a distribution of 1-2, 2-4, 4-8 etc. So that's what I used.


Pictish place names

One of the few Pictish place names I could find was -carden- (or -cardine). For example, Kincardine.

-carden or -cardine. The ones on the Welsh border are probably not of pictish origin!

Places beginning with Llan-

If there's an obvious Welsh place name pattern, it's the prefix Llan- (meaning Church). This is borne out by the map, which shows almost all such places in Wales (or near the English/Welsh border)

places beggining with Llan-

Influence of Brythonic - combe, coombe, cwm

Brythonic is one of the old British languages. Its word for valley is spelt differently; -coome or -coombe in England, cwm in Welsh. The sphere of influcence is felt most strongly in Wales, Devon and Somerset. Brythonic names are certainly found as far north as Edinburgh (for example, Penicuik is derived from Pen Y Cog, a name which wouldn't look out of place in Wales).

-combe, -coombe, -cwm, Brythonic

-combe, -coombe, -cwm, Brythonic

Making of the Map

In QGIS, I used MMQGIS to make the hexagonal grid. I removed cells which didn't overlap land, and manually removed some more hexes for aesthetic reasons (e.g. to separate the Western Isles from the mainland).

Each map was done by querying the gazetteer, saving as a new points layer, and doing a points-in-polygon analysis of this layer with the hex grid.

Finally, I buffer/dissolved the hex cells into a new layer to get the outline. The dashed outline was from applying Multi Ring Buffer plugin to this layer.