23 December, 2011

Locations: Mam Tor or Shivering Mountain, Derbyshire

Mam Tor is a prominent hill in the Derbyshire Peak District, part of the ridge forming the southern rim of the Edale valley (see earlier post on Edale).

Map link: Mam Tor

Mam Tor is a distinctive dome-shaped hill, standing 517 metres (over 1600 feet) above sea level and about 350 metres (about 1000 feet) above the valley floor, and with an impressively steep south-eastern face (marked with crag symbols on the map, and visible on the right of the picture below).

Mam Tor from the south

Mam Tor is also known locally as ‘Shivering Mountain’, because of the frequent landslips on its unstable south-eastern face. A huge landslide occurred on this slope several thousand years ago, forming the steep scarp just below the summit.

Mam Tor from the east, showing the steep upper part of the south-eastern face

Lower down the slope, the debris from this ancient landslide hasn’t stabilised yet. Several attempts have been made to build a Sheffield to Manchester through-road across the lower slope, and the hill has shrugged off every one of them. In 1979 the highway authority gave up and closed the road permanently. You can see the hairpin line of the road in the photo below, running below the steep section of the face.

Mam Tor from the east, showing the line of the defunct A625 road

The British Geological Survey has a brief description of the landslip and some impressive photographs (click on the links to Figures 2-5) of the wrecked A625 road.

The summit of Mam Tor forms a nearly flat plateau, and was the location of what must have been an impressively-sited early Iron Age hill fort. A double line of ramparts encircled the top of the hill (marked as earthworks on the map linked above), still clearly visible today.

Hill fort ramparts on Mam Tor, visible as two near-horizontal parallel lines near the top

‘Mam’ is of course instantly recognisable as a variant of ‘Mum’, Mom’, ‘Mama’, all forms of early infant sounds used to signify ‘mother’. In Scottish Gaelic place names ‘Mam’ also appears as a place name element referring to rounded hills (e.g. the west Highland mountain range called the Mamores); it is sometimes translated as ‘breast-shaped hill’, which has obvious connections with the ‘mother’ meaning.

‘Tor’ means a rocky peak, a steep hill, a prominent rock or a pile of rocks. ‘Tor’ occurs commonly in place names in the south-west of England (Glastonbury Tor being a famous example), predominantly in Devon and Cornwall, and in the Derbyshire Peak District. According to the Oxford English Dictionary it appears in Old English in a charter from 847 and may be one of the few borrowings from Brittonic (ancestor of modern Welsh) into Old English. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests it is cognate with modern Welsh ‘twr’, Old Welsh ‘twrr’, meaning ‘heap, pile’, and with Gaelic ‘torr’, meaning a steep or conical hill or a mound. I wonder if it is also related to the Latin ‘turris’, origin of ‘tower’.

So the name ‘Mam Tor’ means something like ‘Hill of the Mother’ (if you take the ‘Mam’ element to mean ‘mother’), or ‘rounded hill’ (if you take the ‘Mam’ element to refer to the shape of the hill), or a bit of both. If the name meant ‘mother’, it is possible to speculate that it may indicate some cultural significance. Possibly the hill was regarded as a central place for the people living in the surrounding areas, perhaps considered to be the ‘mother’ of their lands or fortunes. It may have had connections with a female supernatural force (a sort of ‘Mother Nature’?) or a female deity (a ‘mother goddess’). Kathleen Herbert imagined a Mother Goddess cult centred on the Mam Tor area in the mid-seventh century, in her novel Ghost in the Sunlight. The Iron Age hill fort is consistent with the hill having been regarded as an important place in prehistory.

By the time of Paths of Exile, set in the early seventh century, the Iron Age hill fort on Mam Tor would have long since gone out of use. However, the ramparts may well still have been recognisable, and the hill may still have had some local significance. Although I have not gone as far as Kathleen Herbert’s interpretation of it as a major pagan cult centre, it features in Paths of Exile as the traditional site of a feast held to mark the onset of winter.

Both elements of the name Mam Tor have cognates in Celtic languages*. There are several more ‘Tor’ place names in the Derbyshire Peak District; I can think of Higger Tor near Hathersage, Upper Tor and Nether Tor on Kinder Scout, Dovestone Tor, Back Tor and White Tor on Derwent Edge, and Back Tor on the ridge east of Mam Tor, and that’s not an exhaustive list. The occurrence of ‘Tor’ place names is one of the reasons why I imagined the language spoken in the area in the early seventh century to have been a Brittonic language (an ancestor of modern Welsh and Breton).

*Celtic languages are generally divided into two groups; Q-Celtic (Scottish and Irish Gaelic) and P-Celtic (Welsh, Cornish, Breton).


Nicola Griffith said...

Great post. Many thanks for the link to BGS (a resource I consistently forget).

Have a great Yule :)

Constance Brewer said...

Looks like Wyoming in places. The British Geological Survey pics were impressive. Thanks for linking. I guess when it doesn't want a road, the hill gets its way.

Merry Christmas!

Rick said...

I wonder what circumstances caused that whole side of the mountain to go down?

The Greek word 'tyrant' may also have a cognate origin to 'tor' (originally, ISTR, a guy who ruled from a stronghold tower).

In the two places called Back Tor, does 'back' simply mean they're behind something else as usually seen?

Gabriele C. said...

In Iceland they would blame the fairies who don't want a road at their backdoor. ;)

Carla said...

I hope everyone had a good Christmas, and wish you all the best for the New Year.

Nicola - thanks, glad you found it useful. The BGS site can be very interesting.

Constance - not on the scale of Wyoming! Yes, the hill definitely gets its way.

Rick - Good questions. I did find a technical paper online about the landslide a while ago, but I've lost the link and now I can't remember in any detail. I would guess a weak layer of rock giving way, a bit like a weak layer of snow that gives way and triggers an avalanche, only in rock. On the Trotternish peninsula in Skye there are some spectacular landslide formations, and those were caused by weak sedimentary rocks collapsing under the weight of a thick heavy basalt lava flow. Part of Mam Tor is shale, which is often quite a weak rock (it gets waterlogged; also, it is formed from mud and has a habit of trying to revert), and maybe the shale collapsed under the weight of heavier gritstone on top. But don't quote me on that.

You may well be right about 'tyrant' - I hadn't made that connection.

Not sure about the origin of 'Back Tor'. It could mean 'back' as in the furthest outcrop along the ridge as seen from wherever the name was coined; however, sometimes place names look like a modern English word but turn out to have quite a different origin when followed back to the earliest records. E.g. nearby Lose Hill is nothing to do with 'losing' (despite a romantic legend associated with the name) but turns out to be derived from the much more prosaic 'hlose' meaning 'pigsty' or something similar, so presumably a hill associated with a pig farm. If I get a chance, I will see if I can look up Back Tor in the English Place Name Society's reference books for you.

Gabriele - that's as good an explanation as any :-)

Rick said...

Whatever the cause, the collapse must have been very spectacular - from a safe distance! (Even more spectacular from an unsafe distance, to be sure.)

Wondering whether 'back' had some unrelated meaning was part of what prompted me to ask!

Carla said...

From an unsafe distance the observer may not have seen the full event. Is something still spectacular if there is no spectator to witness it? Discuss...

If I find out the origin of 'Back' in the Back Tor names, I'll let you know :-)