The place-name Peanfahel

Bede's Ecclesiastical History

In his Ecclesiastical History of the English People Bede refers to the two walls built by the Romans during their occupation of Britain. The northernmost of these was the Antonine Wall, a rampart of turf constructed and abandoned in the 2nd century AD. It ran across the narrow isthmus of what is now Scotland, marking a frontier between the firths of Forth and Clyde. Of its eastern end Bede wrote:

“It starts almost two miles west of the monastery at Aebbercurnig in the place which the Picts call Peanfahel, while in English it is called Penneltun.” (Book 1, chapter 12)

Aebbercurnig is Abercorn on the southern shore of the Firth of Forth but where was Peanfahel? The name, as Bede tells us, is Pictish. It incorporates the Brittonic term pen, “head or end”, with a second element meaning “wall”, thereby giving the literal translation “Wall End”. To Bede the place so named was the eastern terminus of the long-disused Antonine frontier.

Peanfahel is now Kinneil, the modern name showing replacement of Brittonic pen by Gaelic cenn which retains the original meaning. But Kinneil is not “almost two miles west” of Abercorn. In fact, the two places are six miles apart. Nor, indeed, does Kinneil stand at the terminus of the Antonine Wall: the small fortlet west of Kinneil House lies a couple of miles inland on the actual frontier line. We are left to wonder if the name Peanfahel more correctly belongs to a different place.

Bede’s description of the “Wall End” finds a much better fit at Carriden, where the Romans had a major fort at the Wall’s eastern terminus. It is therefore possible, as David Dumville has suggested, that the name Peanfahel/Kinneil has moved westward from an original setting at Carriden to its present location (Dumville 1994, 297). Such a shift could have occurred after the Wall’s extremities gradually disappeared beneath the medieval landscape, leading to the name being transferred to the most visible traces of its eastern end. It is only in our modern era, with the benefit of archaeological excavation, that the true “Wall End” has been rediscovered. In the early 8th century, when Bede’s informants told him about a place called Peanfahel, this eastern end (or beginning) was presumably still visible near the fort at Carriden. The latter name originated as Caer Eidyn, “[Roman] Fort of Eidyn”, a name coined by local Britons in post-Roman times to indicate that the old site lay within the bounds of Eidyn, a district whose principal centre of power was Din Eidyn, the great “Fortress of Eidyn” at Edinburgh. The decaying Roman settlement of Caer Eidyn and the Antonine terminus known as Peanfahel, although nestling alongside one another at Carriden, may have represented two separate features in the eyes of 8th-century observers.

Reference:

David Dumville, “The eastern terminus of the Antonine Wall: 12th or 13th century evidence” Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 124 (1994), 293-8

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