The Scandinavian origins of place names in Britain

Find the original meanings of British place names that use Scandinavian source words with this extensive list of terms, along with pronunciation.

See also Scots, Gaelic and Welsh

Introduction to Scandanvian

The Scandinavian place names across Scotland can be traced back to a number of origins and influences, and it would be wrong to collectively refer to these simply as the ‘Vikings’.

Let’s look at four areas of Scotland individually – each with its different Scandinavian story.

The Northern Isles (Shetland and Orkney) is the area with probably the biggest Scandinavian influence. Settlers from Norway arrived around AD800 and their rule lasted several centuries.

As a result, 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.

While the Norse language didn’t last so long down the west coast mainland of Scotland it left a considerable legacy in the place names.

However, the collapse of the Norwegian overlordship in 1266 led to a resurgence of Gaelic. Norse place names started being pronounced and later spelled in Gaelic. Some Norse names were replaced by Gaelic ones.

Also, many Scandinavian words were borrowed into Gaelic as loanwords and were then used to create place names by Gaelic speakers. For example the Gaelic word ‘sgarbh’ is derived from the Old Norse ‘skarfr’, meaning ‘cormorant’. Therefore the place name Geodha nan Sgarbh (NB0116) can’t be called Norse as it was coined by Gaelic speakers.

In the third area – the south-west of Scotland (Dumfries and Galloway) - the Scandanavian place names have been influenced by linguistic links to the north of England, the Isle of Man and Ireland, so aren’t always easily recognisable.

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

As the Scandinavian influence spread across Scotland during several unrelated settlement movements, there are various languages to consider. 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.

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. Yet the names of south-east Scotland point to East Scandinavian (Danish) influence, while in Shetland and Orkney, Norn, a language that developed from ON, was spoken until the 18th century.

All examples shown in the Scandinavian glossary below come from the Northern Isles or north-east Caithness. This is because in other areas, subsequent languages have altered the place names, sometimes beyond recognition. In some parts of the country it’s very difficult to distinguish between Scots and Scandinavian place names.

The list of Scandinavian-influenced place name elements reflects the orthography (how it’s written or spelled) 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 – details of which are given in the section Further information at the end of this post.

Scandinavian alphabet

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 ‘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) which is like the ‘e’ sound in the English word her.
  • æ: found in ON words like fær, ‘sheep’ and forms part of the names Fair Isle (HZ1871) and Fara (ND3295).

As well as 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 Scandanavian place names

Like place names in most languages, Norse names are largely descriptive and usually reflect how the name-givers perceived their surroundings. So 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 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 also 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. For example a generic element (a noun) and a descriptive, 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 common 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 glossary

This is a glossary of the elements from Scandinavian most frequently found in the place names of Britain. The first column gives the name element in the form found in place names. The original Old Norse word from which the element derives follows, together with its meaning. Examples (with grid references) are given for each element.

Abbreviations:

adj = adjective
nf = noun feminine
nm = noun masculine
nn = noun neuter

Element ON original Meaning Examples
a ey nf island Foula HT9539 Fladda HU3784
ay ey nf island Orfasay HU4977 Housay HU6771
ayre eyrr nf gravelly bank Ayre of Breiwick HU5561 Fugla Ayre HU4661
baa boði nm hidden submerged rock, breaker, reef Flugga Baa HU6299 Gerda Baa HU5799
back, bakka bakki nm bank of a river, slope Backarass HY4148 Ness of Bakka HU1751
beck bekkr nm brook, burn Knowes of Maebeck HY4952 Burn of Swartabeck HY3808
berg berg nn promontory, rock, rocky soil Longa Berg HU3520 Midberg HU5988
bie boer, býr nm farm Murbie Stacks HU3062 Houbie HU6190
bister bólstaðr nm dwelling place, house Kirkabister HU5495 Westerbister HY4602
bratta brattr adj steep Bratta Stack HU5989 Brattibeck HU2844
breck brekka nf slope Brattabreck HU3892 Breck of Hillwell HU3714
brei breiðr adj wide, broad Brei Geo HU3787 Breiwick HU2256
bretta brattr adj steep Brettabister HU4857 Brettavale HY3020
brim brim nn surf Brim Ness HP5105
burra borg nf fortification West Burra HU3632 Noust of BurralandHU3775
by boer, býr nm farm Houseby HY6721 Tiptoby HU6091
clett klettr nm rock Clett Skerry ND3095 Clett of Thusater ND0671
cliff kleif nf rock Cliffdale HY6325 Moo Cliff HY3906
crook krókr nm bend The Crook HU2986 Crooksetter HU4076
cros, cross kross nm cross, junction Crosbister HP5803 Cross Kirk HU2178
dale dalr nm valley Deepdale HU3825 Quendale HU3714
deep djúpr adj deep Deepdale HU3825
fair, far fær nf sheep Fair Isle HZ1871 Fara ND3295
fell fjall nn rough hill, mountain Kat Fell HU3268
firth fjörðr nm firth, fjord, sea-loch Sellafirth HU5198 Laxfirth HU4759
fiska, fiski fiskr nm fish North Fiski Geo HU4696 Fiska Ness HU3066
fladda flatr adj flat Fladdabister HU4332 Fladda HU3797
fors, forse fors nm waterfall Forse HY5300 Burn of Forse HU5289
foul fugl nm fowl, bird Foula HT9539 Foulageo HU4335 Foula, Wick HU3664
garth garðr nm >enclosure, fence, farmyard Frustigarth HY5218 Garths of Tresta HU6190
geo gjá (gjó) nf chasm, rif, gully Ramnageo HP6200 Sultigeo HY3011
gerdi gerði nn enclosure Gerdie HP6208
gil, gill gil nn ravine, narrow gully Djupa Gill HU4066 Feetnies Gill HU3615
gro grár adj grey Grobister HY6524 Grobust HY4249
gruin, grunna grunn nn shallows Grunna Voe HU4766
grut grjót nn gravel Grut Ness HU6592 Grut Wick HU5070
ha, haa hár adj high, upper Ha Banks HY4919 Hahouse HY4551
ham höfn nf haven, harbour Hamister HU5463
hamar hamarr nm steep rock, rocky hillside Hamar HU5894 Hamar Geo HU5191
hamma, hammer hamarr nm steep rock, rocky hillside Hamma Cletts HU3166 Hamma Ayre HU3361
hamna höfn nn haven, harbour Hamna Heog HP6509 Hamna Dale HU5065 Hamnavoe HU4980
heog haugr nm mound, cairn Heog HU4971 Heoga Berg HU4538
hesta, hesti hestr nm horse, stallion Hesti Geo HU3881 Hestwall HY4702
hevda höfði nm headland Stour Hevda HU5273 Hevdawick HU3365
ho hár adj high, upper Hoy HU3744 Hoo Field HU4227
hoga hagi nm outfield, pasture Hogaland HU3936 Hoga Ness HP5500
holm holmr nm islet Holm of Burrafirth HU3557 Long Holm HY3014
hope hópr nm bay Longhope ND3292
houll hóll nm hill Moss Houll HU5181 Queys Houll HU6098
housa hús nn house Housabister HU4958 Housa Wick HU5491
howe haugr nm mound, cairn Howe Taing ND4294 Maes Howe HY3112
hus hús nn house The Hus HU1655
is eystri adj easterly Isbister HU3790
kirk kirkja nf church Kirk Ness HU5565 Kirkabister HU5495
lama lamb nn lamb Lama Ness HY6843
land land nn piece of ground Houlland HU5080 Mailand HP6008
lang langr adj long Langa Skeo HY3208
lax lax nm salmon Lax Firth HU4760
lee hlið nf hillside, slope Lee of Laxo HU4563 Lee Taing HU4333
ler leir nm mud, clay Lerwick HU4841 Ler Geo HU2585
ling lyng nn heather Lingarth HP6009
lund, lunn lundr nm grove Lunnasting HU4665 Lunna Ness HU5071
mid miðr adj middle Midbister ND4490 Midness HU4572
mire mýrr nf swampy moorland, mire Hesta Mires HU4994 Mires of Oddsetter HU5992
ne nyr adj new Nebister HY6337
neap gnípa nf gnúpr nm steep hill Hamara Neap HU5966 West Neap HU5891
ness nes nn headland, promontory Ness HU2158 Scat Ness HU3809
nor norðr adj northerly Norbister HU3732 Norwick HU3681
noup gnúpr nm peak Noup Head HY3950 Noup of Noss HU5539
pap papi nm priest, cleric Papa Skerry HU3738 Papa Stour HU1660
pund pund nn enclosure Pund of Burravoe HU3890 Houlls Pund HP5805
qui kví nf enclosure Qui Ayre HY2115 Qui Ness HP6203
quoy kví nf enclosure Quoys of Catfirth HU4454 Gritquoy HP5803
ramna hrafn nm raven Ramna Geo HU5591 Ramna Taing HU3242
roe rauðr adj red Roe Clett HU3978 Roeness HU3243
ron, rona, roo, roonies hraun nn rocky hill-ground Langa Roonies HU3367 Roonie Geo ND3792
ros, ross (h)ross nn horse Ross Geo HY4849
scord skarð nn valley crossing a ridge Scord HU5992 Northscord HU3366
setter setr, sætr nn dwelling place, house Dalsetter HU5099 Winksetter HY3415
sil sild nf herring Silwick HU2942
ska skagi nm cape, low point of land Skaaga HU1655 Skaw HP6516
skaill skáli nm hut, shieling Langskaill HY4321 Aikerskaill HY5804
skeo skjá nf hut for drying fish or meat Langa Skeo HY3208 The Skeo HU4434
sker sker nn skerry Taing of Tor Sker HY7345 Innsker HY5221
so sauðr nm sheep Sorquoy ND4691
sta staðir (pl) nm steading farm Hoversta HY4117 Griesta HU4144
stack, stakk stakkr nm hill, precipitous rock Aastack HU4596 Stakka Vatn HU3529
stane steinn nm (standing-)stone Whitestanes HY4715 Kirk Stane HY5316
stav stafr nm staff, post, stick, stave Stav Geo HU3786 Stava Ness HU5060
stem, sten steinn nm (standing-)stone> Stenness HU2177 Stembister HY5302
ster setr, sætr nn dwelling place, house Swinister HU3380 Ocklester HY5102
stour stórr adj big Papa Stour HU1660 Stour Houll HU3073
strand strönd nf coast, shore Strand HU6691
strom straumr nm stream, running water Strom HU3948 Stromfirth HU4050
swart svartr adj black, dark Swarthoull HU2978 Swart Hamar HY6238
sweinn, svín nn pig Sweinna Stack HU4391 Swinister HU3380
swin
taf topt, tupt nf house, site, foundation Evertaf HY4551 Kirkatafs HU5598
taing tangi nm tongue, spit of land Taing of Berstane HY4710
ting þing nm assembly, meeting, place of parliament Tingwall HY4022 North Nesting HU4559
tof topt, tupt nf house, site, foundation Tofs of Tain ND2465 Thurdistof ND2067
tongue tunga nf tongue, spit of land The Tongues HU3721 Tongue Field HU4131
twatt þveit nf piece of land, clearing Stennestwatt HU2351 Brunatwatt HU2450
vat, vatn vatn nn lake Vatsland HU4646 Virda Vatn HU3529
vird, virda varða nf heap of stones, cairn Vats Virda HU4333 Middis Vird HU3072
voe vágr nm small sheltered bay Loura Voe HU4453 Snarravoe HP5602
wall, well völlr nm field, level ground, meadow Tingwall HY4022
west vestr adj westerly Holm of Westquoy HY3607
whal, whale hvalr nm whale Whale Firth HU4693 Whal Geo HU1751
wick vík nf bay Whale Wick HU3632 Wick of Aith HU6389

​Further information and references

Top image: Lowest Watermill, Mill Burn, Loch of Fladdabister © Creating Comons, Colin Smith via Geograph via Geograph

  • Cleasby, Richard; Vigfússon, Gudbrand (1957): An Icelandic-English Dictionary, 2nd edition, Oxford University Press. For an online version of the first edition (1874) see archive.org
  • 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.

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