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Introduction to Scandinavian origins of place names in Britain


Scandinavian place names can be found in various places in Scotland. But rather than attributing them to one point of origin, we have to distinguish between four areas of Scandinavian influence and a number of people involved in coining those names at different times. Often the Scandinavian settlers are referred to as ‘Vikings’, but to regard them as one coherent group is wrong.

The strongest and longest lasting Scandinavian impact on the place names of Scotland took place in the Northern Isles, that is, Shetland and Orkney. Settlers from Norway arrived around AD800. The Scandinavian overlordship and settlement lasted many centuries and consequently, the vast majority of place names in this area are of Scandinavian origin.

In the Western Isles, what is referred to as Old Norse (ON) was spoken for several centuries, and many islands, settlements and large geographic features, such as the highest mountains and largest inlets and bays, still have Scandinavian names. The Norse language did not last so long down the west coast mainland of Scotland (from the Clyde northwards), but there too it has left considerable traces in the place names. The collapse of the Norwegian overlordship in 1266 led to a resurgence of Gaelic and resulted in the widespread gaelicisation of place names (that is, the Gaelic pronunciation and later spelling of Norse names), as well as some replacement of Norse names by Gaelic ones. The strength of Gaelic varied and increased in the Hebrides towards the south. Also, many Scandinavian words were borrowed into Gaelic as loanwords and were then used to create place names by Gaelic speakers. Examples are Gaelic geodha, ‘gully, chasm’, which was borrowed from ON gjá, and Gaelic sgarbh, which is derived from ON skarfr, ‘cormorant’ as in Geodha nan Sgarbh (NB0116). Such a place name cannot be called Norse as it was coined by Gaelic speakers.

The third area of Scandinavian influence, the south-west of Scotland (Dumfries and Galloway), has close linguistic links not only with the north of England but also with the Isle of Man and with Ireland. In this area place names of Scandinavian origin have been influenced by a number of linguistic layers and therefore are not always easily recognisable.

The fourth area, the south-east of Scotland, has place name elements that are clearly linked with Scandinavian names of the north of England. Therefore the place name elements may be traced back to Danish, rather than to Norwegian.

As the Scandinavian influence on Scottish place names took place during several unrelated settlement movements, we are dealing with not just one but several Scandinavian languages. The Scandinavian settlers of the Northern and the Western Isles spoke West Scandinavian or West Norse, often referred to simply as Norse or Old Norse (ON), from which both Norwegian and Icelandic are derived.

Whereas the place names of the south-west indicate that the Scandinavian settlers who arrived from Ireland, who seem to have been mainly West Norse speakers, may already have been acquainted with Gaelic, the names of south-east Scotland point to East Scandinavian (Danish) influence. In Shetland and Orkney, Norn, a language that developed from ON, was spoken until the 18th century.

Geographic distribution of examples

All examples shown in the Scandinavian glossary originate from the Northern Isles or north-east Caithness. This is due to the fact that in many of the other areas of Scandinavian influence subsequent languages have altered the place names, sometimes beyond recognition. In some parts of the country it is very difficult to distinguish between Scots and Scandinavian place names. The list of Scandinavian-influenced place name elements reflects the orthography or spelling on modern Scottish maps. The entries are arranged in alphabetical order for easy reference. In the second column each element is linked with its original form, an example being the element brei, as in the place name Brei Geo (HU3787), which originates from the ON adjective breiðr, ‘broad’. All ON forms given in the glossary are based on the Icelandic-English Dictionary, whose details are given in the section below on Further reading


The column containing the ON forms introduces us to a number of unfamiliar characters:

  • ð: known as ‘eth’, occurs in words such as fjörðr, related to Scottish Standard English ‘firth’, and represents a voiced [th] as in the English definite article ‘the’.
  • þ: known as ‘thorn’, represents a voiceless [th], as in English ‘thorn’. It occurs in ON words such as þing meaning ‘assembly’, ‘meeting place’ and in þveit, ‘piece of land’, ‘clearing’.
  • ö: found in ON höfn, ‘harbour’, or ON strönd, ‘coast’, ‘shore’ represents a sound very like German ö (o-Umlaut).
  • æ: found in ON words like fær, ‘sheep’ and forms part of the names Fair Isle (HZ1871) and Fara (ND3295).

In addition to these characters, another difference between the Norse and the English alphabet is the Norse use of acute accents on the vowels a, o, u, i and y (depicting a sound located between [u] and [i]). An accent on a vowel means that the vowel is long.

Structure of place names

Like place names in most languages, Norse place names are largely descriptive and usually reflect how the name givers perceived their surroundings. Thus we find names referring to the shape of natural features, such as Longa Berg (HU3520), ‘long promontory’, ‘long rock’; or relative location, such as in Isbister (HU3790) from ON eystri, ‘easterly’; or ON hár, ‘high’, as in Hahouse (HY4551) or Ha Banks (HY4919).

There is an important group of place name elements that refers to actual farms or settlements, such as the frequently found -bie from ON býr, ‘farm’, as in Trenabie (HY4350), South Breckbie (HY2426) and Houbie (HU4548), ON bólstaðr, ‘farm’, which in Shetland and Orkney occurs as -bister (Kirkabister (HU5495), Westerbister (HY4602)), but takes the forms of -bost, -pol or -bol in Hebridean place names. The generic -sta is from ON staðir ‘steading’, ‘farm’, as in Hoversta (HY4117) and Griesta (HU4144), whereas ON setr ‘residence’ and sætr ‘dwelling place’, ‘hill pastures’, ‘dairy lands’ developed into the frequently occurring element setter, as in Dalsetter (HU5099) and Winksetter (HY3415), as well as –ster, as in Swinister (HU3380).

Animals such as horses, lambs and sheep are regular components of place names and result in names such as Hestwall (HY4702) from ON hestr, ‘horse’, ‘stallion’, Lama Ness (HY6843), from ON lamb, ‘lamb’, and Sorquoy (ND4691), from ON sauðr, ‘sheep’. Coastal terminology is often inspired by fish and mammals living in the waters such as salmon, ON lax, in Lax Firth (HU4760) and, whale, ON hvalr, in Whal Geo (HU1751).

Soil type inspired names such as Grut Ness (HU6592) from ON grjót, ‘gravel’, and Lerwick (HU4841) from ON leir, ‘mud’, ‘clay’. An important category of descriptive place names are, of course, colours with ON svartr, ‘black’, as in Swarthoull (HU2978), ON rauðr, ‘red’, in Roe Clett (HU3978) and ON grár, ‘grey’, as in Grobust (HY4249), to name but a few.

The Scandinavian place names of Scotland follow straightforward composition patterns. Most place names are made up of more than one element, with a linguistic relationship between the elements. The element qualifying a generic element is called a qualifying or specific element.

  • Definite article + generic: Place names can consist of a single generic element, usually a noun. These are often preceded by the English definite article ‘the’. Examples are, The Tongues (HU3721) from ON tangi, ‘spit of land’, ‘tongue’, The Skeo (HU4434) derived from ON skjá, ‘hut for drying fish’, and The Crook (HU2986), based on ON krókr, ‘bend’.
  • Specific + generic: This is the most frequent composition pattern. Whereas generics are always nouns, specifics can be either nouns or adjectives. Typical examples of names consisting of an adjective and a noun are Deepdale (HU3825), ‘deep valley’, from ON djúpr, ‘deep’, and ON dalr, ‘valley’, and Brettabister (HU4857), from ON brattr, ‘steep’ and ON bólstaðr, ‘farm’. Breiwick (HU2256), from ON breiðr, ‘broad’ and vík, ‘bay’ follows the same pattern, as does Midness (HU4572), from ON miðr, ‘middle’ and ON nes, ‘headland’, ‘promontory’.
  • Generic + preposition + existing place name: Place names following the above pattern are very typical of the Northern Isles. The preposition linking the generic and the specific is usually the Scottish English word of (Scots o). The specific is always an existing place name. Examples of this pattern are Burn of Forse (HU5289), Garth of Tresta (HU6190), Burn of Swartabeck (HY3808) and Clett of Thusater (ND0671).

Scandinavian place names of Orkney and Shetland have been subject to extensive research. In Shetland a pilot project has been set up to collect and record local place names from lists of names, maps, documents held locally and – most importantly – local informants. The place names are entered in a database intended to promote and ease cross-disciplinary research. The Shetland Place-Names Project involves local history groups, day-care residents and individuals from throughout the islands. The project is currently funded until the end of March 2005.

Further reading

Cleasby, Richard; Vigfusson, Gudbrand (1957): An Icelandic-English Dictionary, 2nd edition, Oxford University Press.

Jakobsen, Jakob (1936): The Place-Names of Shetland, London and Copenhagen.

Marwick, Hugh (1952): Orkney Farm Names, Kirkwall.

Nicolaisen, W F H (2001): Scottish Place-Names – Their Study and Significance, John Donald, Edinburgh.

Stewart, J. (1987): Shetland Place-Names.

For further information on the Shetland Place-Names Project contact:
Eileen Brooke-Freeman, Project Officer, Place Names
Shetland Amenity Trust
Garthspool, LERWICK, Shetland, ZE1 0NY
Phone: 01595 694688
Fax: 01595 693956
Email: eileen@shetlandamenity.org

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