Graham Leslie McCallum

The tree of happiness flowers and fruits most abundantly for the creative man


How the geographical ‘Lang’s Nek’ in Northern Natal became ‘Laing’s Nek’ is a point of puzzlement. For well over 130 years now, the mountain pass, its winding road, the railway track, the railway tunnel through the ‘nek’, as well as the battlefield – have held the latter ‘erroneous’ spelling. It is this spelling that has prevailed in history book and monument, thus perpetuating the ‘error’. Curiously (although the first part of the name was altered) the second part of the name (Nek)  was not anglicised to ‘neck’. For those enamoured with lexicology – the word ‘nek’ is from the Dutch and translates directly into English as ‘neck’. In South African Dutch (Afrikaans) – a ‘nek’ describes a geographical feature that is known as a ‘saddle’ in English. That is, the area located between two apposing prominences.

One can invent several reasons for this spelling error – for example – that it had its beginning with the slip of a reporter’s pen who heard Laing instead of Lang. Perhaps one of those newspaper reporter’s who accompanied General Sir George Pomeroy Colley into the Battle of Lang’s Nek and Majuba. Or perhaps a Mapmaker simply made a spelling mistake. Or that the family at some point changed the spelling of their surname.

What is certain is that the man whose name was used as a place-name, wrote and signed his name William Timothy Lang, as can be determined by his marriage certificate (below).

William Timothy Lang 2

I was contacted by a descendant of William Timothy Lang who maintains that his family now spell their surname Laing. Perhaps, when everyone began spelling William’s surname as Laing, the family followed suit.

Today however, naming convention dictates that the earliest name prevails – and like a train in reverse on a switchback up Lang’s Nek Pass, the name has backtracked to its historic and correct spelling ‘Lang’.

These errors and changes made me think of a poem I wrote regarding the English word ‘knave’ that not only changed its pronunciation, but also its meaning. I guess just about everything is prone to the vagaries of time, of pens or the mouths and minds of men.

Lexicology of the word Knave

How peculiar, that words can creep and sneak
like the Old English-noun ‘knave’ –
that crawled from meaning ‘lad’ to meaning ‘lout’ –
And curiously – what it gained in clout
it lost, in sloughing-off its knuckledusting ‘k’.

And who lashed the winsome lad into a lout,
then robbed him of his glottal ‘k’? –

The maws, the jaws of the common crowd.
It’s they who soil and stain, mix and mangle
words between their teeth and tongue.

Like wave to rock, and tide to land,
the once firm, now eroded, and the solid to shifting.
Strong words, once well-wrought
are now sloshed about, then spat out on the shore.


Langsnek, drawing 1896

(above) An illustration of the Transvaal road to the interior winding its way up the pass and cresting the escarpment at the ‘Nek’. This saddle is clearly evident in this watercolour painting. On the right of the image is a small stream, a tributary to the Buffalo River that runs further towards the east of this location. Meek’s farmstead is visible in the image where the road forms a small loop. This small triangular-shaped farm lay within and surrounded by the larger Farm ‘Lang’s Nek’.

Lang's nek w

(above) A drawing (1881) of the pass with Mount Majuba on the left of the image, looking north along the road to the Transvaal. The highrise in the distance and to the right of the road is called Deane’s Hill. This prominence is named after Colonel Bonar Deane who died leading a bayonet charge to its summit during the Battle of Lang’s Nek in 1881. He was shot through the head by republican-minded Transvaal burghers ensconced in and behind trenches and revetments near this hills summit.

The restoration of the earlier spelling ‘Lang’ is historically important for it acknowledges the source of the name, William Timothy Lang.

In 1874, William Timothy Lang bought a farm located to the north and east of Mount Majuba in Northern Natal and named his farm ‘Lang’s Nek‘ after himself and the ‘nek’ that lay on the northern edge of his farm. Of interest the summit of Majuba, where the well-known battle occurred in 1881, lies inside the boundary of the farm, as does the rise, up to the Nek and Deane’s Hill where the Battle of Lang’s Nek happened earlier that year. The Buffalo River formed the eastern boundary of the farm. The district, previously Crown Land, had only recently  been opened up for settlement and the land surveyed and cut-up into farms.

Map, Majuba, Farm Stonewall, Farm Langs, Farm Belfast

The road to the Transvaal wound its way through the middle of Lang’s farm, running up the rise to the saddle over the Small Drakensberg to the hinterland. Although steep, the relatively steady rise of the terrain still afforded a well-drawn ox-wagon to ascend at a slow pace and to traverse the pass. The rough track that broached the escarpment in the 1880’s did so very close to the modern road. When the rail line was built in the 1890’s by the Natal Government Railways, their Engineers blasted a tunnel under the escarpment’s crest allowing trains to gain the plateau with greater ease. It was this passage that became known as Lang’s Nek Tunnel.

Of interest there were earlier tracks up the steep escarpment to the Transvaal that lay to the north west of Lang’s Nek Farm. One road ran through Potterhill Farm, across the Hlelegwa Stream, past Singazi’s Kraal and the farm La Belle Esperance, skirting Mount Majuba and then up the spur to crest the escarpment, where the road rejoins the Lang’s Nek road above the tunnel. Another road ran  up from the town of Newcastle in the south, then across the saddle between Inkwelo and Majuba Mountains to join the Potterhill Farm Road to the  west of Majuba. An early track ran through Potterhill Farm, up the Iketini Heights. This rough track is still visible today on satellite images.

(below) An early map from 1863.

Map of Northern Natal, Majuba, 1863

William Timothy Lang was born on the 15th August 1845 at Lanark, Lanarkshire, Scotland to William Lang and Jane Hamilton. He married Julia Donoghue on the 30th of May 1867 in Newcastle, Natal aged 22, Occupation Wheelright. When he married he was a resident on the farm ‘Mount Prospect’, Newcastle District.

During the 1st Anglo-Boer War – it was the steep but steady rise on Laing’s Nek Farm that slowed the British advance under General Sir George Pomeroy Colley on the 28th of January 1881 sufficiently to allow the Transvaal Burghers behind their revetments to cut down the British soldiers. This miserable conflict became known as the Battle of Lang’s Nek – and led to the later Battles of Ingogo and Majuba. (see postings on these conflicts).

Battle of Langsburg showing stonewalls, breastworks and entrenchments

A photograph of the stonewalls, breastworks and entrenchments thrown up by the Transvaal Burghers, Battle of Lang’s Nek.

Lang's Nek Illustration 1881

An illustration of the Battlefield. The road can be seen in the middle of the image with the advance of the British troop to  its right. Today a Memorial to the 58th Regiment is positioned where the shell bursts are recorded in this image (right).

Graham Leslie McCallum




One comment on “LAING’S NEK / LANG’S NEK

  1. kdutoit
    February 16, 2015

    found this a very interesting read as I am related to William and Julia…….they had a son called Basil Mountjoy Laing who was my great grandfather……….married a newcastle fella and whenever we visit we go and try find out a bit of the history……….

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