Viking Place Names

Viking Place Names

Viking place names reflect the numerous invasions of Britain by Scandinavian settlers, beginning in the eighth century. Those who settled on the east coast were primarily Danes and those on the north west coast were of Scandinavian origin.

Despite their persistent attempts to invade and conquer Britain, the Scandinavians did not have a widespread influence on place names. The names that do exist are restricted to areas that were governed under ‘Danelaw’ - the area to the north and east of Watling Street, an ancient trackway stretching through England. Place names that have a clear Scandinavian origin can be found in the old East and North Ridings of Yorkshire, the Lake District, Cheshire, the East Midlands and East Anglia.

The most common suffix used in Scandinavian place names was ‘-by’, which referred to a village. The Scandinavians often added the suffix of ‘by’ to a village that already had a place name. Therefore, it is not unusual to have a combination of Old English with a Scandinavian termination such as Utterby in Lincolnshire. The ‘by’ stands for village and ‘utter’ comes from the Old English ‘uttera’, which means remote. Therefore to the Vikings this was ‘the remote village’. Selby means ‘the village with willows’, Linby means ‘the village with lime trees’ and Thrimby means ‘the thorn-bush village’.

Viking long boat
Viking long boat

The first part of a place names was descriptive of something in that village. ‘Kirk’ is a reference to a church, so Kirkby means ‘a village with a church’ – a common enough village name in areas under Danelaw. A village with a cross in it would be called ‘Crosby’.

Other names refer to a person who lived in a village – Prestby referred to priest who lived in that village.

The Scandinavians also differentiated between the inhabitants of a village. For example, Ingleby referred to ‘the village of the English’, while Normanby referred to ‘the Norwegian’s village’.

The Scandinavians also used ‘thorp’ in their place names. Thorpe meant a ‘secondary village’ or a village of lesser importance when compared to another nearby village. It was usually used with the name of the larger nearby village. Scotton Thorpe (in the old West Riding in Yorkshire) would have meant the small settlement near Scotton. Directions were also used with thorpe so that Westhorpe referred to the smaller settlement to the west of the larger one. Thorpe was also used in other ways that are self-explanatory – Newthorpe, Woodthorpe and Bishopthorpe are good examples of these.

Names, nicknames and titles could also prefix ‘thorpe’ as in Countesthorpe and Bromkinsthorpe (one with brown skin in the lesser village). The Normans continued with this particular practice after the conquest of Britain in 1066.

The Scandinavians also used ‘thwaite’ with a degree of frequency. It meant ‘clearing in a forest, meadow or paddock’. This was usually preceded with either a reference to the size of the field/area it was in (Langthwaite means ‘long clearing’ while Smaithwaite means ‘small clearing’) or the nearness of certain types of trees such as Applethwaite and Thornthwaite. Some had rather more obscure meanings such as Linethwaite, which means ‘flax clearing’.

In some cases, Scandinavian names have been mixed with other meanings – though Old English is the most common. Scandinavian Christian names have been used in conjunction with ‘ton’, so the name Thurmaston means the farm/village/homestead of Thormond.

The Vikings also used social titles to make place names. Jarl (nobleman), hold (yeoman) and dreng (free tenant) can all be found in place names – Yarlside means ‘a jarl’s mountain pasture’ while Drinhoe in Yorkshire means ‘a free tenant’s mound’.

The Scandinavians who settled in Ireland and then colonised the northwest of England brought with them a language that was heavily influenced by Irish. Therefore, a number of northwest place names have a clear Irish influence. This is true of Mosser in Cumbria, which means ‘near a mossy bog’ while Stephney means’ stout poles’. Whereas on the east coast a name came as a prefix, on the northwest coast it was used to end a word. Kirkandrews (‘the church of Andrew’), is an example of this.

See also: Norman Place Names

MLA Citation/Reference

"Viking Place Names". HistoryLearning.com. 2015. Web.