What’s in a mile?

A mile, as many of you probably know, is a unit of measuring distance derived from the Roman period, when it represented a distance of one thousand paces. Earlier today, I went for a hike up to the  Solar Observatory in Harestua (which now acts as a kind of education resource centre about the solar system but also the surrounding countryside), and along the way I noticed a placename sign. It was an area called milsteinbotn. 

Milstein, to my ears, sounded fairly similar to the English compound milestone – a marker of a mile travelled. But a mile – replaced in most places now by the standard measurements of metres and kilometres – is a notoriously unreliable unit of measurement mainly based on the fact that the length of a mile depends on the size of a foot, and this varies from place to place. An old Irish mile was longer than the equivalent English mile: It was said that four Irish miles was equivalent to five English miles – hence placenames like Twomileborris or Sixmilebridge in Ireland. An Irish mile was equivalent to 2240 yards, which is approximately 2048 metres. According to the  Oxford English Dictionary definition of a mile

“The length of the mile has varied considerably at different periods and in different localities, chiefly owing to the influence of the agricultural system of measures with which the mile has been brought into relation (see furlong n.). It was fixed by statute at 1760 yards (viz. 8 furlongs of 40 poles, each pole being 16½ feet) in 1592 (Act 35 Eliz. I, c. 6, s. 8), and in Britain is also called a statute mile. This is also the legal mile in the United States. The obsolete Irish mile was 2240 yards (approx. 2048 metres), and the Scottish mile (obsolete by the late 19th century) was 1976 yards (approx. 1807 metres) although values probably varied according to time and place.

While the differences between an Irish, English or Scottish mile were relatively small, the differences in the use of the term here in Norway are significant. An old Norwegian (or Scandinavian) mile was the equivalent of about 10km today. Despite being a Scandinavian mile, it was a unit of measurement only used in Norway and Sweden, and not in Denmark. The distance of ten kilometres apparently derives from an older unit of measurement of a “rast” or rest, which was considered a fair point at which to stop on a long walk, every 10km or so.

Meanwhile, botn translates as a corrie or cirque of glacial rocks – which were in plentiful supply right by the placename sign. Such glacial debris, which is carried by a glacier or ice sheet as it moves and known in English as moraines, or morene in Norwegian, gives the road I live on it’s name – moreneveien.  So in that simple compound placename we find a history of distance travelled on foot and the ways to measure such journeys, and a much older geological history of the area – this botn, this corrie, of glacial debris that reaches back into a time when probably no human foot left a trace in the land around this valley.