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Welsh History Review

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Vol. 2, nos. 1-4 1964-65

The significance of is and uwch in Welsh commote and cantref names

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THE SIGNIFICANCE OF IS AND UWCH
IN WELSH COMMOTE AND CANTREF NAMES
A very marked feature of the names for medieval Welsh units of
administration like commote and cantref is their frequent division
into is and uwch (med. Welsh uch). The line of demarcation is always
a natural phenomenon, most often a river, but also sometimes
a mountain or forest. The exact significance of is and uwch in this
context has not, as far as I know, been adequately discussed. The
usual meaning of the two forms is, of course, 'lower' and 'higher',
the comparative degrees of the adjectives isel 'low' and uchel 'high'.
As prepositions they mean 'below' and 'above'. But why above and
below? The most obvious interpretation is a purely geographical
below? The most obvious is a purely
one, and I originally thought in terms of the courses of the rivers fciuers
which provided the lines of division. Is an uwch might conceivably no h
refer to the two banks, left and right. But no such correlation could bonus
be established. Is and uwch are used indiscriminately of the lands
on the left and right banks. And in any case, they are not applied
to rivers solely. A second possibility was orientation, i.e. whether
is and uwch corresponded to points of the compass, north, east, not
south, or west, as the case might be. But again there were no signs compass
of correlation.
Recently, however, a third explanation has presented itself, o
The division of Gaul into Cisalpine (Lombardy) and Transalpine
(Gallia Cisalpina and Gallia Transalpina) provided the clue. Cis
means 'on this side of, as does its companion citra. Trans is 'the I u^c^
other side of. Cisalpine Gaul was certainly so named from the -noun
point of view of Rome, the central authority, and means 'Gaul on
our side of the Alps'. Why then could not is and uwch mean some-
thing similar: is = cis, citra, and uwch = trans, ultra? Here, I think,
we have been misled by the use of Latin sub, subtus, and supra for
some of the medieval Welsh divisions into is and uwch. They are
mistranslations, and it would have been much more accurate and
better from our point of view if the terms cis, citra, trans, ultra had
been used, and as we shall see, this was actually the case in a few
instances.
The working hypothesis that I wish to suggest is quite simply
this: that the terms is and uwch in this context are not purely
geographical, but are rather historico-geographical, and that they
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