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Yorkshire hydronims explained: what’s in the rivers’ names

The oldest place names belong to natural features such as hills, valley and rivers.

Most of the rivers that flow through God’s Own Country or serve – or used to serve – as county boundaries have names of Celtic origin.

The Celts are believed to have descended from the first known permanent settlers of Britain which explains why some Celtic origin placenames have survived to the present.

These names have changed almost beyond recognition in more than 2,000 years. Progressive waves of invasion and new languages – plus the evolution of English itself – and near-total illiteracy have corrupted these names.

This is why we can never know for certain what the names of our rivers mean, but linguistic scholars have made considerable effort to work out what they are most likely to mean.

By comparing these names to ancient Celtic languages and seeing if the names match the river or area’s geographical features (still present today) they can make an educated guess.

Some of the names are more recent, deriving from Anglo Saxon and Old Norse, and so the meaning can be determined with greater probability.

Here are Yorkshire’s 11 longest rivers – from longest to shortest – plus what their names mean and why there’s no point calling most of them ‘river’.

1. Swale

The Swale at Richmond
The Swale at Richmond (Image: PA Wire/PA Images)

At 73.2 miles the Swale, which runs from near Keld to the River Ure (see below), near Boroughbridge, is Yorkshire longest river.

Swale derives from the Anglo Saxon sualuae meaning ‘rapid and liable to flood’ which remains true today.

2. Ure

The second-longest river in Yorkshire at 73 miles runs from near the Dales hamlet of Aisgill to 11 miles northwest of York where it becomes the Ouse (see below).

Its name may derive from the Celtic Isura meaning ‘the strong or swift river’. To call it the River Ure means ‘River Strong River’.

3. Derwent

The third-longest river at 71.5 miles flows from near RAF Fylingdales to the Ouse at Barmby on the Marsh, near Goole.

Its name probably means ‘valley thick with oaks’ in the Celtic language of Brythonic.

4. Aire

The south bank of the River Aire at Kirkstall Valley Nature Reserve, locally known as 'Armley Beach'
The south bank of the River Aire at Kirkstall Valley Nature Reserve, locally known as ‘Armley Beach’ (Image: Dave Himelfield)

The Aire rises at Malham Tarn and flows 71 miles, including through Leeds, to its confluence with the Ouse.

Nobody is certain of its origin but it may derive from Isara like the Ure (see above), aer meaning ‘slaughter’ or eyjar meaning ‘islands’ in Old Norse.

So yes, River Aire could also mean ‘River Strong River’. Hmm.

5. Don

The Don at Sheffield
The Don at Sheffield (Image: Yorkshire Live)

The Don begins at the confluence of the Great Grains Clough and Black Grough near Dunford Bridge and flows 70.9 miles to the Ouse at Goole.

The name probably comes from Dana meaning ‘water’ in Brythonic. So River Don means ‘River Water’.

6. Wharfe

The Wharfe flows 60 miles from the Dales hamlet of Beckermonds to the River Ouse, at Cawood, near Selby.

Its name derives from the Old Norse hverfi meaning ‘to turn’ which it most certainly does as it winds through the Dales.

However, the Norse name may derive from an obsure Brythonic word meaning ‘liquid’.

There you have it – the ‘River Liquid’.

7. Nidd

The Nidd, which is half a mile shorter than the Wharfe, begins on Great Whernside, a fell near Kettlewell. It joins the Ouse at Nun Monkton, near York.

The name, of Celtic origin, may mean ‘brilliant or shining’ but it may also mean ‘river’, so it’s another ‘River River’.

8. Tees

The Tees at Middlesbrough
The Tees at Middlesbrough

The Tees is actually longer than any of the above rivers at 85 miles but the length that serves as the boundary between Yorkshire, County Durham and Teesside is just shy of 55 miles today. If you count the bits that Yorkshire ceded to County Durham and Cleveland in 1974 it’s considerably longer. It ends up in the North Sea at Redcar.

Probably of Brythonic origin, its name may derive from tes meaning ‘warmth’ or ‘boiling’ or even ti meaning ‘manure’!

9. Ouse

The Ouse begins as the Ure (see above) and flows 52 miles to the Humber near Goole.

Mystery surrounds the etymology of Ouse but it may come from a pre-Celtic word – or Roman-British word – meaning ‘water’.

Another ‘River Water’, perhaps?

10. Calder

The Calder at Todmorden. Calder may have meant 'violent water'; not much has changed
The Calder at Todmorden. Calder may have meant ‘violent water’; not much has changed (Image: Julian Hamilton/Daily Mirror)

Forming the old boundary between Lancashire and Yorkshire, the Calder rises above Todmorden and flows 44 miles where it joins the Aire (see above) near Castleford.

The name might derive from a Celtic language meaning ‘hard or violent water’ or ‘river of stones’. So ‘River Calder’ may mean ‘River River of Stones’.

11. Humber

Nobody knows where the Humber gets its name but it's probably something to do with water
Nobody knows where the Humber gets its name but it’s probably something to do with water (Image: Julia Hoyle/PA Wire)

The widest river in Yorkshire by far begins near Goole at the confluence of the Trent and the Ouse (see above). It flows 38.5 miles to the North Sea at Spurn Head.

The origin of its names isn’t clear but is likely to be Celtic and has something to do with water, like ‘boiling’ or ‘water’.

So it’s possibly another ‘River Water’

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