St Piran in the landscape

Forget myths of millstones. In fact, little is known of any actual historical figure called Piran. (For some of the mythology and a few facts see here.) What we do know is that the cult of St Piran became popular in west Cornwall and also spread across the sea to Brittany. We can plot those places in the Cornish landscape to which the elusive saint gave his name. Three are parish names.

Perranzabuloe is the best known. The Latin in sabulo (in the sands) was being added by the 1400s to distinguish this Peran from the other two parishes of the same name. Perranzabuloe was recorded in Cornish as Piran an treth in 1425 and Peran treth in 1608. The earlier name for the church site, when the parish had still not been carved out from St Agnes, was Lanpiran, recorded in the eleventh century.

In the tax lists of 1524 Perranzabuloe was named just St Peran. So were the other two parishes. Presumably, given the difficulty of communications and the fact that the three parishes were in different hundreds – Pydar, Kerrier and Penwith – there was less need to distinguish them before the 1500s.

By 1543 however, while the Pydar St Peran (now Perranzabuloe) was still called just Peran, the others had become St Peran Arworthal and Peranuthnoe. They were both named after the manors in which they were found. Arworthal meant either ‘beside the marsh’ or ‘facing watery ground’ depending on the source we read. The meaning of Uthno, which first appeared in 1086 as Odenal and then Hutheno or similar, remains obscure.

Perran then colonised other places in Perranzabuloe. These were all named in the English language. Perranporth contains a Cornish element but in the Cornish language it should be Porthperran and not Perranporth. It was known as St Peran’s Creek in 1577. By 1810, after a mining village had sprung up on the spot, it had got the name Perranporth. Perrancoombe was also on the map by 1810 as was Perran Bay, given to the older Ligger Bay, named after the headland on its northern side.

The final place – Perranwell – is in Perranarworthal and was known by its Cornish equivalent as well in 1680 – Fenton Perran – suggesting that Cornish lingered on to the very end of the 1600s in this district.

And I almost forgot to offer a St Piran’s Day greeting to all my readers. Gool S. Peran da thawhye oll. Have a good day!

4 thoughts on “St Piran in the landscape

  1. My aunt lives in Perranarthworthal and certainly her house faces watery ground! And very marshy. It is very good to understand the full meaning of place names especially when they remain apt.

    Do you have any idea why these particular places would have been named after St. Piran? Could he have travelled there and convinced a few through his preaching sufficient to result in a name being allocated to a place, or would it more be local worthies who were his followers?


    1. The consensus these days among those who know is that it’s probably more a case of the saint’s cult migrating to other places (presumably a relatively contingent process) than an actual ‘saint’.


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