Place Names

Discover the Vikings through their place names

Viking place names in Scotland

Scandinavian place names in Scotland can be divided into four areas, influenced by different phases of settlement.

Shetland and Orkney

The strongest and longest-lasting Scandinavian impact on the place names of Scotland took place in the Northern Isles – Shetland and Orkney. Settlers from Norway arrived around 800, bringing with them a vast repository of place names which they applied to almost every feature in the landscape, both natural and manmade.

The Scandinavian overlordship and settlement lasted many centuries and, consequently, the vast majority of place names in this area are of Scandinavian origin.

Norn, a language that developed from Old Norse, was spoken until the 18th century. Today place names remain one of the clearest indicators of where the Norse settled, the landscapes they encountered and what they did.

Western Isles and West Coast

In the Western Isles, 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 it left many 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, i.e. Gaelic pronunciation and later spelling of Norse names, as well as some replacement of Norse names by Gaelic ones.

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, from ON gjá; and Gaelic sgarbh, derived from ON skarfr: cormorant.

South-West Scotland

The south-west of Scotland – Dumfries and Galloway – has close linguistic links with the north of England, the Isle of Man and Ireland. Because of the many different linguistic influences, place names of Scandinavian origin are often difficult to recognise in this area.

South-East Scotland

Scandinavian names in south-east Scotland are linked to those in the North of England and point to East Scandinavian (Danish) influence.

Viking place names in the Iberian Peninsula

Place names are sometimes the only evidence to explain who lived in a particular geographical area. For example, in the province of León, Spain, there is a small village called Lordemanos. This name could refer to a place inhabited in the past by Normans or their descendants.

The Vikings, who arrived for the first time on the Iberian coasts in the 9th century, are called "nortmanni" or "nordomanni", but also "lormanni" or "lordomani" in the Hispanic-Latin sources. This could be the origin of the name Lordemanos, and suggests that the people who lived near there saw a new group of people who were different to them and gave them this name.

Viking place names in Finland

The name Rosala (Rodzala 1540) is a typical ancient place name, in the sense that it can be interpreted in many different ways.

The element -ala can mean "a sacred place", or "a farm, or a hamlet". The element Rod(s)- also has multiple meanings, but the most common in place names are "a naval military unit", "a clearing, a settlement", and "a sand or gravel ridge". Other possibilities are "a wooden cross", "a sea mark" and "a border", but we cannot say for certain which of these alternatives the village was named after.