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The scandinavian origins of place names in britain

By OS Team

Published on 12 min read

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

See also ScotsGaelic 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.


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

ElementON originalMeaningExamples
aey nfislandFoula HT9539 Fladda HU3784
ayey nfislandOrfasay HU4977 Housay HU6771
ayreeyrr nfgravelly bankAyre of Breiwick HU5561 Fugla Ayre HU4661
baaboði nmhidden submerged rock, breaker, reefFlugga Baa HU6299 Gerda Baa HU5799
back, bakkabakki nmbank of a river, slopeBackarass HY4148 Ness of Bakka HU1751
beckbekkr nmbrook, burnKnowes of Maebeck HY4952 Burn of Swartabeck HY3808
bergberg nnpromontory, rock, rocky soilLonga Berg HU3520 Midberg HU5988
bieboer, býr nmfarmMurbie Stacks HU3062 Houbie HU6190
bisterbólstaðr nmdwelling place, houseKirkabister HU5495 Westerbister HY4602
brattabrattr adjsteepBratta Stack HU5989 Brattibeck HU2844
breckbrekka nfslopeBrattabreck HU3892 Breck of Hillwell HU3714
breibreiðr adjwide, broadBrei Geo HU3787 Breiwick HU2256
brettabrattr adjsteepBrettabister HU4857 Brettavale HY3020
brimbrim nnsurfBrim Ness HP5105
burraborg nffortificationWest Burra HU3632 Noust of BurralandHU3775
byboer, býr nmfarmHouseby HY6721 Tiptoby HU6091
clettklettr nmrockClett Skerry ND3095 Clett of Thusater ND0671
cliffkleif nfrockCliffdale HY6325 Moo Cliff HY3906
crookkrókr nmbendThe Crook HU2986 Crooksetter HU4076
cros, crosskross nmcross, junctionCrosbister HP5803 Cross Kirk HU2178
daledalr nmvalleyDeepdale HU3825 Quendale HU3714
deepdjúpr adjdeepDeepdale HU3825
fair, farfær nfsheepFair Isle HZ1871 Fara ND3295
fellfjall nnrough hill, mountainKat Fell HU3268
firthfjörðr nmfirth, fjord, sea-lochSellafirth HU5198 Laxfirth HU4759
fiska, fiskifiskr nmfishNorth Fiski Geo HU4696 Fiska Ness HU3066
fladdaflatr adjflatFladdabister HU4332 Fladda HU3797
fors, forsefors nmwaterfallForse HY5300 Burn of Forse HU5289
foulfugl nmfowl, birdFoula HT9539 Foulageo HU4335 Foula, Wick HU3664
garthgarðr nm>enclosure, fence, farmyardFrustigarth HY5218 Garths of Tresta HU6190
geogjá (gjó) nfchasm, rif, gullyRamnageo HP6200 Sultigeo HY3011
gerdigerði nnenclosureGerdie HP6208
gil, gillgil nnravine, narrow gullyDjupa Gill HU4066 Feetnies Gill HU3615
grográr adjgreyGrobister HY6524 Grobust HY4249
gruin, grunnagrunn nnshallowsGrunna Voe HU4766
grutgrjót nngravelGrut Ness HU6592 Grut Wick HU5070
ha, haahár adjhigh, upperHa Banks HY4919 Hahouse HY4551
hamhöfn nfhaven, harbourHamister HU5463
hamarhamarr nmsteep rock, rocky hillsideHamar HU5894 Hamar Geo HU5191
hamma, hammerhamarr nmsteep rock, rocky hillsideHamma Cletts HU3166 Hamma Ayre HU3361
hamnahöfn nnhaven, harbourHamna Heog HP6509 Hamna Dale HU5065 Hamnavoe HU4980
heoghaugr nmmound, cairnHeog HU4971 Heoga Berg HU4538
hesta, hestihestr nmhorse, stallionHesti Geo HU3881 Hestwall HY4702
hevdahöfði nmheadlandStour Hevda HU5273 Hevdawick HU3365
hohár adjhigh, upperHoy HU3744 Hoo Field HU4227
hogahagi nmoutfield, pastureHogaland HU3936 Hoga Ness HP5500
holmholmr nmisletHolm of Burrafirth HU3557 Long Holm HY3014
hopehópr nmbayLonghope ND3292
houllhóll nmhillMoss Houll HU5181 Queys Houll HU6098
housahús nnhouseHousabister HU4958 Housa Wick HU5491
howehaugr nmmound, cairnHowe Taing ND4294 Maes Howe HY3112
hushús nnhouseThe Hus HU1655
iseystri adjeasterlyIsbister HU3790
kirkkirkja nfchurchKirk Ness HU5565 Kirkabister HU5495
lamalamb nnlambLama Ness HY6843
landland nnpiece of groundHoulland HU5080 Mailand HP6008
langlangr adjlongLanga Skeo HY3208
laxlax nmsalmonLax Firth HU4760
leehlið nfhillside, slopeLee of Laxo HU4563 Lee Taing HU4333
lerleir nmmud, clayLerwick HU4841 Ler Geo HU2585
linglyng nnheatherLingarth HP6009
lund, lunnlundr nmgroveLunnasting HU4665 Lunna Ness HU5071
midmiðr adjmiddleMidbister ND4490 Midness HU4572
miremýrr nfswampy moorland, mireHesta Mires HU4994 Mires of Oddsetter HU5992
nenyr adjnewNebister HY6337
neapgnípa nf gnúpr nmsteep hillHamara Neap HU5966 West Neap HU5891
nessnes nnheadland, promontoryNess HU2158 Scat Ness HU3809
nornorðr adjnortherlyNorbister HU3732 Norwick HU3681
noupgnúpr nmpeakNoup Head HY3950 Noup of Noss HU5539
pappapi nmpriest, clericPapa Skerry HU3738 Papa Stour HU1660
pundpund nnenclosurePund of Burravoe HU3890 Houlls Pund HP5805
quikví nfenclosureQui Ayre HY2115 Qui Ness HP6203
quoykví nfenclosureQuoys of Catfirth HU4454 Gritquoy HP5803
ramnahrafn nmravenRamna Geo HU5591 Ramna Taing HU3242
roerauðr adjredRoe Clett HU3978 Roeness HU3243
ron, rona, roo, roonieshraun nnrocky hill-groundLanga Roonies HU3367 Roonie Geo ND3792
ros, ross(h)ross nnhorseRoss Geo HY4849
scordskarð nnvalley crossing a ridgeScord HU5992 Northscord HU3366
settersetr, sætr nndwelling place, houseDalsetter HU5099 Winksetter HY3415
silsild nfherringSilwick HU2942
skaskagi nmcape, low point of landSkaaga HU1655 Skaw HP6516
skaillskáli nmhut, shielingLangskaill HY4321 Aikerskaill HY5804
skeoskjá nfhut for drying fish or meatLanga Skeo HY3208 The Skeo HU4434
skersker nnskerryTaing of Tor Sker HY7345 Innsker HY5221
sosauðr nmsheepSorquoy ND4691
stastaðir (pl) nmsteading farmHoversta HY4117 Griesta HU4144
stack, stakkstakkr nmhill, precipitous rockAastack HU4596 Stakka Vatn HU3529
stanesteinn nm(standing-)stoneWhitestanes HY4715 Kirk Stane HY5316
stavstafr nmstaff, post, stick, staveStav Geo HU3786 Stava Ness HU5060
stem, stensteinn nm(standing-)stone>Stenness HU2177 Stembister HY5302
stersetr, sætr nndwelling place, houseSwinister HU3380 Ocklester HY5102
stourstórr adjbigPapa Stour HU1660 Stour Houll HU3073
strandströnd nfcoast, shoreStrand HU6691
stromstraumr nmstream, running waterStrom HU3948 Stromfirth HU4050
swartsvartr adjblack, darkSwarthoull HU2978 Swart Hamar HY6238
sweinn, swinsvín nnpigSweinna Stack HU4391 Swinister HU3380
taftopt, tupt nfhouse, site, foundationEvertaf HY4551 Kirkatafs HU5598
taingtangi nmtongue, spit of landTaing of Berstane HY4710
tingþing nmassembly, meeting, place of parliamentTingwall HY4022 North Nesting HU4559
toftopt, tupt nfhouse, site, foundationTofs of Tain ND2465 Thurdistof ND2067
tonguetunga nftongue, spit of landThe Tongues HU3721 Tongue Field HU4131
twattþveit nfpiece of land, clearingStennestwatt HU2351 Brunatwatt HU2450
vat, vatnvatn nnlakeVatsland HU4646 Virda Vatn HU3529
vird, virdavarða nfheap of stones, cairnVats Virda HU4333 Middis Vird HU3072
voevágr nmsmall sheltered bayLoura Voe HU4453 Snarravoe HP5602
wall, wellvöllr nmfield, level ground, meadowTingwall HY4022
westvestr adjwesterlyHolm of Westquoy HY3607
whal, whalehvalr nmwhaleWhale Firth HU4693 Whal Geo HU1751
wickvík nfbayWhale 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

  • 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.

Useful links

See the collection of guides to place names in Britain:

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