This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 25th April 1994, reproduced by kind permission of the author, the late Desmond Holden.

The “What's in a Name” series was a regular feature in the Advertiser over the period 1993‑2004, taking a refreshing look at the derivation of some typically Derbyshire surnames.

Articles are confined to the origins and meanings of surnames, and do not indicate any particular interest on Desmond's part in the genealogy, descent, or family history of individuals bearing the surnames featured.

Editor's Note: Articles are provided for general interest and background only. They are not intended to provide an exhaustive treatise for any individual family history - investigations of which may yield quite different results. Or, in Desmond's own words:

“In the end it must remain with individual bearers of the names to draw upon family traditions and to seek out such documentary evidence as is available to decide the matter for themselves.”

WHAT'S IN A NAME … Are you called HARBOTTLE?

This is a location name - that is to say, people called "Harbottle" can point to a specific site where their original ancestors lived. It is in Northumberland, miles from anywhere, in the Cheviot Hills. The name is extremely old and can be traced as far back as 1220 where it appears as "Hirbotle". As in the case of many surnames, the original spelling reveals its true meaning - which has nothing whatsoever to do with the familiar glass containers. The unit "- bottle" is reproduced in various forms in a fair number of place- names and means "a dwelling".

Sites bearing names which refer to buildings and accommodation are widespread: familiar examples are those incorporating the units "- ton" and "ham". Although the unit "bottle" is not common, it deserves special mention on account of the interesting part it appears to play in the development of the Alphabet.

To begin with, shelter is, of course, fundamental to human existence and so also is communication. What is remarkable that both come together in the development of writing. The second letter of modern alphabets (B) was originally a little picture of a house. If you draw a straight line to show the ground and sketch on it the outline of two sort of bell-tents standing together, then turn it clockwise and upright, you'll get something exactly like the way the old scribes, thousands of years ago, devised the letter "B".

In fact each letter of the alphabet was originally a drawing of something which began with the same sound as the thing drawn and in the languages of the Ancient World, their term for "house" all began with the sound "B-". We know the Hebrew one best today because we see so much of it in the Old Testament - see Genesis XXXV. It was "Beth" and it is not difficult to see how this ended up as "Beta" in the Greek Alphabet.

What is so very thought-provoking is that even in the Old Northern languages, remote from the developments of Israel and Greece, words can also be found for a "dwelling" and which all resemble "beth" and "beta". The one which interests us for the moment is the Old English "Boll". The similarity is indeed striking. The word "boll" gives us "-bottle" which was an old word for "house" but it is only preserved now in placenames such as Newbottle in Sunderland, Nobottle, near Daventry and Bootle; which occurs twice: Merseyside and Westmoreland.

So: for what purpose was the original "boll" intended? In the case of the Northumbrian version the reason lies in the first unit of the name "Harbottle". It appears in the earliest record as "Hir" and it is not difficult to see its connection with the modern word "hire".

After all this time and without access to records (assuming any have survived from that turbulent region!) it can only be a matter of speculation to explain how exactly "hiring" is involved. Even so, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the settlement - i.e. "the Botl" was originally constructed for housing "hired workers" - something akin, shall we say, to the modern arrangements in the form of "tied cottages" for agricultural workers.

Persuasive evidence that this could well be the case lies in the fact that in the vicinity of Harbottle there are the remains of a 12th century castle. The Lords of the castle would have governed extensive households, many members of which were required to "live in" - as the saying goes. No doubt there was need to provide for "outside staff' as well. A suitable site was consequently chosen and dwell- ings erected for their accommodation. Even long after the castle fell into ruins and the great establishments had been disbanded, the inhabitants would still have been identified as "the people who occupy the houses for hired servants".

The name is not unfamiliar. Lawyers who specialise in Company Law frequently refer to a case involving a Mr. Harbottle in 1843 in which an important rule was laid down. There are three entries in the current edition of "Who's Who?" But otherwise it is not widely distributed across the country. However a glance, admittedly only cursory, suggests that it is to be found in small concentrations - the local Directories list about a dozen. The groupings seem to be associated with mining areas.

This gives rise to a notion that perhaps original bearers of the name decided to give up their association with that remote moorland setting, and to take up employment in the coal or lead mines in Northumberland. Later on, some of them could have moved further south (or might have been ordered to do so) in order to practise their skills in the mines of Derbyshire. Who can tell?

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 25th April 1994.

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