Wednesday, August 10, 2016



The Bassas river is the most problematic of the Arthurian battle sites, as no such stream name survives and we have no record other than this single instance in the HB of there ever having been a river so named. We can only say that the location of the Bassas may be somewhere in the same general region as the Glen and Devil's Water battles. We will see below that the locations of subsequent battle sites will support this notion.

Some Arthurian theorists have opted for very questionable identications of Bassas. They have pointed to Bass place names such as Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth, the Bass at Inverurie in Aberdeenshire and Bass Hill at Dryburgh.

Alas, the etymology for bass is fairly recent. In the Scottish National Dictionary there is an entry under 'bass' as follows: “A workman's tool basket; also a basket for carrying fish – known in Banff and Fife: on Lothian coast ‘bass’ is a square straw basket about 2' by 2' used for ca rying fish.”

Bass Rock and similar formations would have been named by fisher folk due to their resemblance to such a basket.

The Bass Burn or Bass ‘stream’, a tributary of the Scar or Scaur Water approximately 15 miles North-West of Dumfries and just south of Auchenhessnane, was originally called the Back
Burn. Both the 1st edition (1861) and 2nd edition (1899) Ordnance Survey maps name it as Back Burn. The 1955 edition names it as Bass Burn. It is possible that either the original surveyors simply misheard what the local people called it, or that later surveyors did. As there are other Back Burns in Lowland Scotland, the chances that this stream’s original name was Bass is slim.

An acceptable, and perhaps preferable, explanation for the name Bassas is that it records an OE personal name found in place-names, i.e.
Bassa. This is the view of Graham Issac.

The ending -as in Bassas would appear to have no explanation in either Latin or Welsh grammar. But it does have an explanation in Old English grammar. The name could thus be Old English. Just as Baschurch (Shropshire) is from Old English 'Basses cirice', i.e. 'Basse's church' (Eglwyseu Bassa in the Old Welsh poems), and Basford (Nottinghamshire) is Old English 'Basses ford', and Baslow Derbyshire) is Old English 'Basses hlaw', i.e. 'Basse's burial-mound'; so 'flumen quod uocatur Bassas' is easily unde stood as 'the river which is called Basse's', i.e. 'Basse's river'. There is a Basingbourne in Cambridgeshire, Old English Basingeburna, which is 'the stream of Basse's people', 'Basse's kin's stream'.

There are two genuine OE Bassa place-names further north in Northumberland. Bassington in
Cramlington parish was a farmstead a litte over a mile north-west of the village. It appears on a map of 1769 and is probably a much older site. In the present day town of Cramlington the site of Bassington Farm is on the Bassington Industrial Estate. However, other than this Bassington's proximity to the Devil's Water at Linnels (approximately 20 miles as the crow flies), there is little to recommend it as the site of Arthur's Bassas River battle. Most damaging, there is no stream here.

The other ‘tun of Bassa’s people’ is at the confluence of the Aln and the Shipley and Eglingham Burns not far east of a Roman road that connects Dere Street and the Devil’s Causeway. This Bassington is also roughly equidistant between the Northumberland Glen and the Devil’s Water/
Dubglas near Hadrian’s Wall, and near the Roman fort of Alauna on the Aln at Low Learchild.

Once again, however, there is no stream at Bassington bearing the Bassa name.

In the East Riding of Yorkshire, near Bridlington, there is a place I originally overlooked. This is Bessingby, the by or ‘farmstead, village, settlement’ of the people of Bassa. The important thing about Bessingby is that there was a Romano- British settlement here (
=1191551) and a Bessingby Beck or stream nearby.

A Roman road ran from Stamford Bridge to Bridlington
=1029959&sort=4&search=all&criteria=Orby&ra tional=q&recordsperpage=10) and some believe (see Rivet and Smith) this to be the territory of the Gabrantovices, probably “cavalry fighters” and not “goat fighters”. The Gabrantovicum Sinus of Ptolemy would then be Bridlington Bay.

It is quite conceivable that Bessingby Beck was once known simply as “Bassa’s Stream”.

There is a problem with this placename, however. The –by terminal is Norse, and it is likely, therefore, that the entire name is not from Bassa, but from Bessi. Or, that if Bassa is the name recorded, it would not have become a place-name until fairly late. Here is what Alan James had to say on ths subject:

“A. H. Smith's PNERY, 100, which says: 'The first element may be a patronymic formation, "the people of Basa or Besa", but there is little or no evidence for such -inga- formations with OScand by. It is therefore more likely to be a patronymic Basing or Besing with an uninflected genitive. Each name is well recorded... the fo mer may be from OE Bassa or OScand Bassi, the latter from OScand Bessi (a variant of Bersi....).

As there is no clear evidence for a change of a to e in ME, Besing- seems more probable, and in that case the less frequent but earlier Basing- forms would be Anglo-Norman spelling variants... Besing's farmstead'.

Subsequent work, especially by Barrie Cox, has demonstrated that the patronymic '-inga-' formations in S and E England (as far north as Yorks) date from the pre-Christian period, so such formations would have been long since obsolete by the time OScand by was introduced.

Smith's etymology would imply an Anglo- Scandinavian formation from the late 9th - early
11th ct.”

Thus this would seem an unlikely candidate for Arthur’s Bassas battle.

The conventional thinking on the Bassas name is to derive the first component from W. bas. Kenneth H. Jackson first discussed this possibility.

According to the Gieriadur Prifysgol Cymru, bas means ‘shallow, not deep, fordable; shallows, shallow water’. This would make a great deal of sense for a river-name – or even merely a DESCRIPTION of a river or stretch of a river.

Alan James of BLITON was kind enough to send me the following on bas in place-names:

Bas Late Latin *bassus adopted as Late Brittonic *basso-/ā- > Middle - Modern Welsh bas, Cornish *bas (in compound and place-names, see CPNE p. 18), Breton bas The Latin origin is reasonably certain, though the Late Latin ancestral form seems elusive. 'shallow', adjective. (a2) Bazard Lane Wig (stream-name, New Luce) PNGall p. 34 bas- + -ar, which see [+ SW Scots lane < Gaelic leana, 'a slow, boggy stream']. (c2) Bazil Point Lanc (Overton) PNLanc p. 175 ?bas- + linn, proposed by R. Coates, CVEP p. 318. Oliver Padel Cornish Place-name Elements Nottingham 1985: *bas 'a shallow', as a noun, 'shallows': only in basdhowr glossing vadum 'a ford' ... the verb occurs, ppp basseys 'abated'... Welsh and Breton bas... [occurs in Cornwall in:] C2) [= specific in name-phrase] Carn Base, coast[al name]; ?Park an Bays f[ie]ld[-name]

Alan James again came to the rescue when I asked how Bassas may have developed out of Late Latin or Late Brittonic:

“By the time the Latin word was adopted by Britt speakers, its inflectional forms were probably quite reduced at least in "vulgar" speech, and the Britt inflextions likewise. So your hypothetical form would be, for practical purposes *bassas. The -as suffix is nominal, noun-forming, it would be 'a shallow, shallows'. I suppose that might be a stream-name, more likely a name for a stretch of a river or a point on a river or estuary, a strategic location where a battle might well be fought, though of course there must be scores of possible candidates.”

Long ago the antiquarian Skene suggest Dunipace ner Falkirk in Stirlingshire for Arthur’s Bassas. The idea has not been thought well of by scholars over the years. However, recently place-name expert John Reid has tentatively proposed that Dunipace might be rendered Dun y Bas, the ‘Hill of the Ford.’

Commenting on this possibility, Alan James shared this with me:

“It ought to be *din-y-bas, not **dun-y-bais (that's what misled me); it would mean more correctly 'fort of the shallow', which is apparently okay topographically; the changes din > dun, /b/ > /p/, and /a/ > long /a:/ could all be explained in terms of adoption by Gaelic speakers. 'Hills of death' [a local, traditional etymology] would be G *duin-am-bais, which I wouldn't rule out, though I'm uneasy with /mb/ > /p/.”

If we may allow for bas here to be for a shallow ford, something rather remarkable occurs: we find ourselves directly between the Dumyat and Myot Hill hillforts which delineate the territory of the ancient Pictish Maeatae.  According to the Life of St. Columba by Adomnan, Arthur son of Aedan of Dalriada died fighting the Miathi.

I would then identify the Bassas River with the bas on the Carron.  This battle would then be an intrusion into the list of a battle belonging to a later Arthur.

 The Irish Annals place the Dalriadan Arthur’s death in Circenn. [For Arthur’s contest with an opponent at Abernethy on the border of Circenn, see Chapter 4 below.] This has created a major problem, for Circenn is the Pictish province lying to the north of the Firth of Tay and this is quite a distance from the territory of the Miathi. Scholars have tried to account for this confusion over the battle site location in various ways. Bannerman attemtps to offer an explanation (pp. 84-85 Studies in the History of Dalriada) for the two death sites. It would appear several battles had become confused in the Irish annals, with Arthur dying properly in the territory of the Miathi and NOT in Circenn.

However, suppose what we have here is a confused record of battles fought in the North by TWO ARTHURS - one who fought the Miathi at Dunipace/Bassas and another - the Dalriadan one - who was slain while fighting in Circenn?

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