Viking Place Names

Many of the towns and cities we live in have names rooted in the Viking Age. What are some examples of these Viking-influenced place names?

Evidence of the Vikings

The Vikings have left their mark all around us, from the ruins of their houses and the precious objects they left behind, to the very skeletons of Viking men and women. However, one of the most ubiquitous pieces of Viking legacy is something we may not even realize – the names of the places we live.

The majority of place names in England attributed to the Vikings are found within an area once known as the Danelaw. This region was the center of Danish rule in the 9th century, stretching diagonally across the country from London up to Bedford, following the old Roman road of Watling Street. In AD 880, a treaty between the Viking King Guthrum and the Anglo-Saxon King Alfred formally defined the boundaries of the Danelaw as running “up the Thames, and then up the Lea, and along the Lea to its source, then in a straight line to Bedford, then up the Ouse to the Watling Street.”

While Vikings settled throughout England, the greatest concentration was in Yorkshire, where they established their capital. It is in this region that we find the highest number of place names of Viking origin.

Viking Place Names

• -thorpe: secondary settlement (but in the Midlands could by Old English Throp meaning settlement). Example Copmanthorpe
• -thwaite: originally thveit, woodland clearing. Example Slaithwaite (Huddersfield)
• -toft: site of a house or building. Example Lowestoft, Langtoft
• -keld: spring. Example Threlkeld
• -ness: promontory or headland. Note: Sheerness is Old English; Inverness is Gaelic (meaning mouth), Skegness is Old Norse
• -by: farmstead, village, settlement. Example Selby, Whitby
• -kirk: originally kirkja, meaning church. Example Ormskirk

Whereas the ends of names can still suggest that a place has Viking history, with suffixes such as: -thorpe, -by, -thwaite, and -kirk to name a few. A thorpe was an outlying farmstead, one that probably relied on a larger settlement nearby for protection. Thwaite comes from the Norse thveit, meaning a clearing or meadow. By far the most common is -by which means farmstead or village.

Changing Names

When Vikings settled in new areas, they often established communities alongside the existing inhabitants. However, they frequently renamed places that they found difficult to pronounce. For example, when the Vikings arrived in York, they struggled with the Saxon name Eoforwic (meaning “wild boar settlement”) and instead called it Jorvik (thought to mean “wild boar creek”). Similarly, they changed Shelton to Skelton, even though the “-ton” ending is typically an Old English marker for an enclosure or farmstead.

In some cases, Viking settlers had their names adopted for new settlements. Though records are limited, we know Vikings used a wide variety of personal names, including nicknames, which were likely just as significant as formal given names. For instance, Kexby derives from the nickname “Keik” meaning “bent backwards,” while Slingsby may come from the name “Sleng” meaning “idler.”

Beyond personal names, the Vikings also commonly named settlements based on the local landscape, such as Langthwaite (“long clearing”), Selby (“village with willows”), and Ellerton (“farmstead near alder trees”).

Overall, the Viking practice of renaming settlements, using personal names, and descriptive place names demonstrates their significant influence on the linguistic landscape of the areas they settled.

Other Local Place Name Meanings

  • Sheffield: field by the River Sheaf.
  •  Harrogate: Place at the road to the cairn (heap of stones).
  • Wetherby: wether sheep farmstead.
  • Whitby: white farm.
  •  Scarborough: the stronghold of Skarth.

Wold Newton and Octon both have the Old English suffix -ton, meaning ‘village’, ‘estate’ or ‘farmstead’, whereas Thwing may be derived from the Old Norse Thvengr, meaning ‘narrow strip of land’.

Viking York

Some of the names found in York are also evidence of its Viking history. Toft was Old Norse for a building plot, found in Toft Green, and Gate comes from the word for street: Gata. It’s important to remember in York: Bar means Gate, and Gate means Street. The street where JORVIK is located, Coppergate, comes from its Viking name, Koppari-Gata. Koppari means cup-maker, Gata means street, so Coppergate translates to: street of the cup-makers. This has been confirmed by the vast amount of wooden objects found in The Coppergate Dig, as well as wood shavings and tools. The word Bootham, the main street leading north west out of York, means ‘at the booths’ or market stalls.

The many origins and back-stories to the place names of Yorkshire and beyond show that, despite a thousand years of history, time has not managed to obliterate the Viking’s legacy.

So if you think the name of your town seems simple, you may just find it holds key details about the past and legacy of your home. Or maybe, it could turn out to have been a village full of lazy Vikings…