(Photo by Anthony Devlin/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Snowdon: A modest proposal

Is the call to rename Snowdon a real grievance or just another case of anti-Englishness?

Gwynedd County Councillor John Roberts recently proposed that the 1000-year-old name of Snowdon (technically Snaw Dun) be abolished, with only the (probably more recent) Welsh language name of Yr Wyddfa allowed when referencing the highest mountain in Wales (Cymru), with the broader Snowdonia area taking the Latin name of Oriri/Eryri (presumably a remnant of the Roman Empire’s colonising of Britain).

Why the obvious solution of recognising both historic names, as is the practice throughout most of Wales, is unacceptable has not been made clear, but this hard and unnecessarily divisive mode of binary thought does seem to be the ysbryd of the age.

I am more than sympathetic to the desire to preserve and promote the Welsh language, and (as a committed antiquarian, localist and romantic) I agree that the heritage and local culture of any site must be respected as one of the highest priorities. Of course, Yr Wyddfa should be considered acceptable, even preferable, despite the historicity of the ancient name of Snowdon/Snaw Dun. I do not see any valid argument, however, that the historic name of Snowdon should be deemed unacceptable (by the same logic the Welsh should instead only be called Britons).

Deleting the historic name of Snowdon is not about preserving anything

The name Snowdon is over a thousand years old, has been in use for longer than any documents trace, and is the name that the bulk of people know it by and have known it as for centuries (let alone all that juicy brand recognition for the tourist economy). Wales was never a British colony equitable to Burma/Myanmar or Ceylon/Sri Lanka (if anything, since Henry Tudor, it’s England that’s been a Welsh one; at least it was until it became a Scottish one under King James), and the notion that the name is an aspect of any such oppression is ahistorical and unjustified.

This picking and choosing and imposing of the elements of heritage that serve a fashionable narrative, alongside the purging of those elements that challenge it, is dangerous stuff, and it’s hard to see any justification in this instance for invalidating Snowdon as an acceptable alternative that isn’t just about anti-Englishness. I agree entirely that the Welsh language name should be acceptable and at least equally valid, probably more so. A dual name should surely be the order of the day, as with Ayers Rock/Uluru in Australia (though of course the colonial and cultural contexts are nothing alike).

In Cornwall too there are calls to re-find the “Celtic” heritage of placenames and embrace dual language signage. I applaud the notion and see no reason that it should be restricted to Celtic place names – the modern English language has many elements which were established by Viking and Norman colonial oppressors, and I see no argument whatsoever that modern English place names shouldn’t recognise the Anglo-Saxon predecessors on road signage and in official documentation.

The signs to my village should show it to be named Lindenhyrst (in runic script) and Linhest, alongside the modern English: Lyndhurst. The wider area should be known in official documentation and signage as Ytene (runes again) and Nova Foresta as well the New Forest, not to mention the Nevi Wesh (Romany) as the last trace of the Roman Spinaii. If only one name can be chosen, however, then should it be the most widely known, accessible and understood.

There are also calls, which I again wholeheartedly support, to reverse the culturally destructive re-drawing of county lines in 1965 and 1974, and to return to the historic English county and administrative borders and names; the governments that made the decision to change them were, after all, fleeting, and do not represent any mandate today. Certainly I didn’t vote for them.

The historic counties, on the other hand, have a precedent stretching back about as far as Snowdon – if a millenia isn’t long enough to make Snowdon acceptable, why should 50 be long enough to make the modern counties acceptable over the traditional ones, or a little over 200 enough for Brighthelmstone to become permanently Brighton? Bring back the Heptarchy.

The Bayeux tapestry, while we’re at it, should be repatriated. Made by English nuns after we were colonised by Normandy, the Norman empire stole this native art from our occupied shores and today France continues to profit considerably from these imperial spoils. Certainly, this transportation occurred long before even those of the Benin Bronzes or the Elgin Marbles, and so the restitution should presumably take precedent. But, I digress.

Snowdonia-based Mountain Leader Nick Livesey highlights the issue of foreign language accessibility for tourists (standard English is widely spoken and understood internationally, Welsh is simply not – barring a patch of Argentina), and of course the importance of communication is heightened when many of those foreign visitors may need to communicate in emergency situations whilst mountaineering:

My opinion, as someone who is passionate about Cymraeg and the preservation of Welsh place names, is that it is a pointless and divisive exercise. It’s no surprise that the idea has been put forward by a councillor in Gwynedd because they have a habit of hijacking the Welsh language issue and weaponizing it for political means … The whole thing is a vanity project and I can’t imagine that Yr Wyddfa will ever be adopted by the masses that climb it.

This seems to be the crux of the issue. Deleting the historic name of Snowdon is not about preserving anything. It is not about inclusivity, nor conserving Welsh culture. It is about distorting it. The English are very good at calling out and attacking inward-facing, exclusionary campaigns of ethno-nationalist cultural revisionism when they’re perpetrated by other Englishmen (or by Americans), but less so when it’s a Welsh county councillor or a Scottish Nationalist.

In a recent interview with the Guardian, John Roberts said: “If you lose the old names, you lose the heritage, you lose all the things that lie behind that name. If you lose the name, you lose an important part of the history of the area.” I couldn’t agree more; Snowdon must stay.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover