Airyholme – the Hovingham Horg?

Hollin Hill and Airyholme farm
Google Earth view of Hollin Hill and Airyholme farm – 2002

  Airyholme is located on the Howardian Hills, 1.5 miles to the south of Hovingham, and 6 miles west of Malton.

  “Airyholme with Howthorpe and Baxton Howe” is the rather long winded name of a township in the Hovingham parish. The township consists of just 4 farms, and its name appears to be derived from the ancient burial mounds in this area. In the early 1900’s, the author Rev. Arthur St Clair Brooke described the Hovingham parish, and specifically mentions Airyholme …
“Airyholme. This last is an interesting word. It is written Ergunholme in Domesday, and is derived from Horgum, plaural of Horg, old Norse for a sacrificial stone. The word is seen in transition in Dodsworth’s Notes where it is written Arg-holme. Airyholme is therefore the holme near the sacrificial stones. Opposite the place, to the north, is a knoll of green grass, called Hollin Hill, on the side of which are some huge flat stones, the upper- most resting on a roller of old oak. They have all the appearance of having once formed a heathen altar, and the fine old oaks which grow on the hillside help to confirm the impression. “ (Brooke,1904).

Roseberry Topping
Roseberry Topping – Odin’s Hill

  Another Airy-holme place-name can be found 25 miles to the north, where it is located on the east side of Roseberry Topping – anciently known as Othensberg, or Odin’s Hill. Airy-Holme appears in the Domesday Record as Ergun (or Ergum), and the local antiquarian the Rev J.C. Atkinson linked this name to the Norse word Horgum – meaning ‘sacred altars’. He noted that “the Horg was an altar of stone erected on high places, or a sacrificial cairn built in open air“. Old Norse texts mention that the Scandinavians honoured their gods at their “Hofum ok Horgum” – temples and altars, while the Anglo Saxon word ‘Hearg’ had the same meaning.
A Horg could therefore be either a large rock on a hill or a raised mound, both being used as a shrine where offerings were made to the Norse gods, ancestor spirits, and the landvaettir (spirits of the land). The Othenesberg and Airy-holme names at Roseberry Topping point to the early Scandinavian settlers dedicating that hill to their chief god Odin, and that they set up one or more Horg altars there.

Google Earth view of Hollin Hill
Google Earth view of Hollin Hill in 2002
Hollin Hill
Path curving around the top of Hollin Hill
Chalybeate waters
Chalybeate waters flowing at the foot of the hill
Airyholme and Hollin Hill map
Airyholme and Hollin Hill – OS map (Map credit NLS)

  The OS map shows Hollin Hill to be a dome shaped hill standing out from the ridge of higher ground running to the south of Hovingham and Slingsby. This ridge and the valley below, are the location of more than a dozen burial mounds, most of which were excavated by Canon Greenwell in the mid 1800’s. The Google Earth image (right) shows the top of Hollin Hill clear of trees in 2002, but since then the forestry has been extended over the hill, and now obscures its top. The old OS map does however mark the position of 3 stones on the hill, and it was hoped that these might be Brooke’s “sacrificial stones”. Unfortunately, a recent visit to Hollin Hill found no trace of the “huge flat stones” recorded by Brooke, these may have been broken up and removed, or because they were flat, they may lie buried beneath several inches of pine needles and fallen leaves from the forestry. A smaller rock (marked on the OS map) along side the path up the hill was found in this condition – half buried under twigs and leaf litter. The hill seems to have been planted with trees in the 1950’s, which were then cut down around the year 2000, and later replanted, so there is at least 70 years worth of fallen leaves, twigs, branches, etc. covering the surface of the hill. If the flat stones still exist then they will probably only be revealed if the hill is cleared of trees in the future.

  The visit to Hollin Hill did reveal one unusual feature about the location. On entering the woodland on the east side of the hill, a bright orange stream of water can be seen running amongst the trees at the base of the hill. Tracing this stream back to its source found that it emerges from a large boggy enclosure on the lower ground on the east side of the hill. The vivid orange colour of the stream indicates that there are chalybeate springs within the wet area, and the colour is due to the high iron content in the water, which leaves a rusty orange deposit on anything it flows over. What makes this location more interesting is that in the middle of this boggy enclosure the OS map marks a large burial mound – apparently one of the group excavated by Canon Greenwell. At first sight this seems a very odd location for a barrow, however the other tumuli in this area are placed either on the nearby ridge or in the wet valley bottom, so the location does seem intentional.

  The first part of the Airy-Holme name (Ergum) has been traced back to ‘Horg’ – a shrine located at a stone altar or a mound, while the word holme usually refers to a small island or a piece of land surrounded by water. This type of Holme does not really fit the local topography at Airy-holme, and so it is worth noting that the village of Holme on the Wolds is thought to derive its name from the Norse word ‘Haugr’, meaning a hill or mound. If this is the case, then this Airy-Holme would mean the ‘altar hill’.

  As Horgum is the plural of Horg, then the Ergum-holme name suggests that there was more than one shrine at this location. The rounded form of Hollin Hill itself has the appearance of a natural raised mound, partly encircled by marshy ground, with the boggy enclosure and burial mound on the east side, and the Hollin Hill Bogs extending around the base of the hill on its south and west side. So Hollin Hill could have been regarded as a ‘Holme’, and as Brooke suggested, the “sacrificial stones” on the side of the hill were the Horgum altars. If the hill was a cult site, then this may have also included the burial mound at the foot of the hill, perhaps in connection with the chalybeate springs?

  The OS map shows that Hollin Hill is surrounded by springs, – this being the main point on the long ridge of land where a large amount of water emerges to form streams, pools, and boggy areas. In the past this may have marked the location as being ‘special’, and a suitable site for a tumulus. A place where ruddy waters emerge from the ground beneath an ancestral burial mound would carry some pretty strong symbolism – the life blood of the land?

 After thoughts
A more mundane interpretation derives Ergun from the Irish word Airge, meaning “a place where cows are, a dairy, or herd of cows.”, with the later Airghe used for a hill pasture or a sheiling. Much of the land around Airyholme is prime arable and pasture land spread across numerous low hills and valleys (like the nearby Yorkshire Wolds)  so why pinpoint one particular location alongside Hollin Hill as being for cows or pasture land? This interpretation seems to overlook the Norse Horg word (and Anglo Saxon Hearg), and import a word from another language group altogether.

 That there were Norse communities in this area is shown by the Wiganthorpe place name just to the south of Airyholme. Wiganthorpe apparently has the meaning Vik or Viking village.

 Hollin place names are usually thought to refer to the Holly tree, making this the ‘Holly Hill’, but it is worth noting that no other hills in this area are named after trees, so why the Holly? With the Airyholme place name located alongside this hill, then perhaps, like Roseberry Topping, this was a sacred hill dedicated to some Norse deity – a holy hill?

Atkinson, J.C. (1882) A Handbook for Ancient Whitby and its Abbey.
Brooke, Arthur St. Clair (1904). Slingsby and Slingsby Castle.

The Lay of the Land


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