16 Jun 2011

Place-names in the Northern Isles, an overview.

Posted by AndrewJ


Place-names in the Northern Isles

A few chapters on place-names:

  1. Language of formation
  2. The dating of names
  3. Common place-names of ON origin

1.     Language of formation

In principle, place-names in the Northern Isles may be of Pictish, Old Norse or Scots origin. Due to the lack of early sources, only the name Orchades recorded by Ptolemy in the first century can be identified as unambiguously pre-Norse. The name was adapted to what seems to be a purely Old Norse form Orkneyjar. A handful of other island names also seem unlikely to be of Old Norse word stock, but the Vikings’ habit of adapting names means that the Pictish stratum is basically inaccessible and that the names as we see them today are either of Old Norse (ON) origin such as Rousay and Stenness or of Scots (Sc) origin such as St. Andrews and Staney Hill.  We should always keep in mind that names of Old Norse origin only survive as borrowings in the Scots, which means that they have all been adapted to Scots to a greater or lesser degree.

Quite a number of names contain elements from both languages, e.g. Loch of Harray (Sc + ON) or Quoy Sinclair (ON + Sc). These are not mixed or hybrid formations but the result of linguistic borrowing. Both words and place-names tend to be borrowed in a contact situation and such loans can be used in place-name formation. In the Northern Isles this means that borrowed words or names of Old Norse origin can be used in Scots formations and that one element of ON does not necessarily imply an ON origin. In most cases it is still possible to determine the language of formation for the mixed name. This is important for the dating of names and for the use of names as sources in other disciplines.


1.1. The language of the generic is of primary importance

The names Boat Meadow and Boats Hellia share the same specifying element, which may be Scots ‘boat’ or the synonymous Old Norse bátr. Of these, Boats Hellia, seems to be a Norse formation. Calling a flat rock on the coast ‘hella’ requires competence of Norse language (that is: if the word was not borrowed into the dialect.). Boat Meadow on the other hand is a certain Scots formation, because the generic ‘meadow’ only exists in Scots. The same applies even if the first element is Norse. For instance in the name Nistaben Meadow, Nistaben is an original Norse Neztabœrinn ‘the lowermost farm’. The formation is Scots, with a Scots generic specified by an existing farm-name of Norse origin.

Problems arise for the name Boat Geo. The origin of the generic is Norse gjá n ‘cleft, ravine’, a word that has been borrowed into the dialect in the form geo. This is the common term for steep narrow inlets in the dialect, and is also frequent as a place-name element. The formation language of this name must thus remain uncertain.


1.2. All elements of the name should be taken into account

If the generic of the name does not reveal the formation language, the specific may help us. A few geo-names may serve as examples. The specifics tell us that Knocking Stane Geo and Peat Geo are Scots formations, whereas Ramna Geo contains the Norse bird’s name hrafn masc. ‘raven’. And while there is no linguistic way of telling whether an uncompounded Garth is a Scots formation with a borrowed appellative, the specific of Evrigar is Norse øfri ‘upper’, and this is an indication of a Norse formation. In the case of Garth, early records will of course increase the probability of it being of Norse origin.


1.3. Morphology

Morphology is probably the best indication of source language. Place-names containing reflexes of Norse morphology must have been coined while the Norse grammatical system was still in function. A lot of Orkney place-names have the endings -en, -an, -on, which reflect the Norse suffixed definite article: Lyron < leirin fem. def. ‘the clay(ey place)’, Breckan < brekkan fem. def. ‘the slope’, Tooin fem. ‘the hillock’. These can be regarded as certain Norse formations. The genitive plural morpheme in Old Norse is -a. We can thus distinguish between a Scots formation Lambsqouy ‘lambs’ enclosure’ and the synonymous Norse formation Lamaquoy < lambakví, with the medial a reflecting the ON genitive morpheme.

The morphological criterion should also be used with care. Marwick often prefers a Norse origin where a Scots origin is more plausible. Most importantly, he considers the frequent endings –y or -ie as reflections of Norse masc. nom. -i. But in the name material I have studied, many -ie-endings cannot be derived from an original i-ending, e.g. Skibby Geo < Skipagjá ‘inlet of the ships’, Ernie Tooin < arna(r)þúfan ‘hillock of the eagle(s)’ Wadi < vað neutr. ‘ford’ and Quinni, some form of kví fem. ‘enclosure’.  For the latter two, there are no forms in the paradigm ending in -i. The endings in these names should rather be interpreted as the very productive Scots ie-suffix. All Old Norse names that are borrowed into Scots are adapted to the Scots language system to a greater or lesser degree. As a group, morphological endings are probably more liable to adaptation than place-name elements, since place-name elements may correspond to appellatives that are still comprehensible, whereas the meaning of morphological endings is normally lost in a language shift. The incomprehensible endings are likely to be dropped or substituted by Scots suffixes, and consequently we should be very careful about trying to reconstruct the original morphological form of Norse names.

On the basis of the criteria suggested above, the follow table can be made. Even though all examples refer to Norse-Scots contact the criteria ought to be valid for other languages in other contact situations.

Norse formation –          certain if the name contains reflexes of Norse articles or case morphology: Ernie Tooin–          likely if the generic is of Norse origin, and supported if there are additional Norse elements:  Fisk Hellya
Scots formation –          likely if all elements are Scots, including local borrowings from Norse-          certain when a Scots generic is specified with an existing place-name of Norse origin: Breckan Park

–          certain for of-constructions: Bu of Hoy.

Uncertain formation –          if all elements are current in both Norse and the local      Scots dialect: Boat Geo, Midhouse


2. The dating of names

The dating of place-names is important when names function as sources for other research, e.g. archaeological and historical studies. Some names contain very old linguistic features or words that become obsolete, allowing a dating ante quem. Other names reflect cultural practices that can be ascribed to a certain period, e.g. names containing Christian names or words such as monk or church have to post-date the conversion to Christianity.

The Old Norse elements in Scottish names can be viewed as part of a Scandinavian tradition, where place-name chronologies are well established. Of particular importance is the dating of groups of names coined with the same generics. The most common generics include:


      Iron age        ׀     Viking Age     ׀          Middle Ages



––––  vin –––– – – – ‘natural pasture’

–––   heim —– – – – ‘home, settlement’

––––––––––  byr, bœr –———— – – – – – ‘farm’

– – ––––––––––– land –––– – ‘land’

– – – – – – –––––– staðir ––– – ‘places’

– – ––– þveit –––– – – ‘clearing, piece of land?’

– – – – ––– setr –––– – ‘seat, place’

– – – ––––––   ruð ––––– ‘clearing’


2.1. Pre-Viking elements

An important reason why heim and vin are viewed as pre-Viking age is the fact that these elements are more or less absent in the North Sea colonies.  Shetland actually has a few heim-names: Cauldhame, Sullom, Sodom (< Kaldheimr, Solheimr, Suðrheimr containing the specifics ‘cold’ , ‘sun’ and ‘south’) and possibly Digeren. Solheim and Suðrheim are actually regarded as potentially late heim-names in Norway. The compounds may have become standard names, suitable for any settlement. Vin is recorded as a specific in Winja depils ‘pasture ponds’, but not as an independent generic. Though evidence is scarce, the existence of these ancient elements may suggest that the Norse settlement started somewhat earlier in Shetland than in Orkney, which makes sense from a geographical point of view. The word vin was obsolete in ON by the Middle Ages.


2.2. Viking age elements and place-name chronologies

The typical Viking age elements byr, land, staðir and setr are all found in the Northern Isles. A chronology for these and other frequent generics has been suggested by H. Marwick:[i]

  • bœr/byr (primary)
  • bólstaðr, garðr, land (secondary)
  • setr, kví (younger, post 900)
  • bú, skáli, staðir (chronologically problematic)


Map from Thomson 1995


Marwick’s chronology is problematic for several reasons, as discussed by Thomson 1995.[ii] First of all, Marwick uses contemporary elements to suggest a chronological stratification. Býr can hardly be more primary than bólstaðr when both elements are current throughout the Viking age.

Only elements that can be limited to a certain period should be included in a chronology. This excludes land, which is common to ON and Scots and borrowings from ON such as garth (< garðr ‘farm’) and quoy (< kví ‘enclosure’). According to Thomson quoy and garth are productive in place-name formation until the 19th century. The Scots origin is obvious when the specifics are Scots, e.g. Heathery Quoy, Quoy Sinclair.

Whereas land, quoy and garth-names may be Scots or ON, Bu of-names can only be Scots formations. The word bu is a loan from ON ‘estate’  but it is invariably used in Scots of-periphrasis as an addition to the original name, e.g. Bu of Orphir. It functions as a parallel to Mains of X or Manor of X. Since the estates are either old major farms or large units created by amalgamation of several farms, there is a correlation to large and possibly old farms. Linguistically, however, they belong to the Sc period. The first records are from the 1492 rentals.

Finally, Marwick’s dating of names pre or post 900 is based on taxation. According to Orkneyinga Saga Harold Fairhair imposed taxes ca. 900. Marwick accepts this at face value, but it has been proved to be improbable by modern historians. Harold was more than busy at home, trying to unify Norway. Systematic taxation requires a well-functioning administration which cannot be older than the 11th century. This means that the absolute dating does not work. We cannot assume that all staðir-names are pre 900 or even pre 1100.

As maintained by Thomson, the suggested chronology is essentially a hierarchy based on location, size and status and the correlation to chronology is less certain. The name elements may be chosen for their appropriateness. For instance, setr-farms tend to relate to pastoral farms both in Norway and in the North Atlantic.  This may explain why setr is the most frequent habitation generic in Shetland as opposed to the neutral garðr/garth in Orkney, where production of cereals was more widespread.


Orkney Shetland Norway


kví ‘enclosure’


17,8%15,0 %



8,6 %




20,2%16,0 %

14,8 %







11,2 %

11,2 %

9,3 %

The most frequent habitation generics based on the 1507 skat list for Shetland, the two earliest rentals for 11 parishes in western and northern Orkney and cadastres and other early records for 13 parishes around the coast of Southern and Western Norway.


2.3. The language of origin

The language shift from Old Norse to Scots means that the formation language gives an indication of the age of names. Old Norse or Norn formations are possible from the Viking settlement until the mid 18th century when the language died, though less probable after ca 1700. According to contemporary sources, the use of Norn is rather limited at this stage. Scots formation is possible from the late 14th century when Scotsmen are known to hold important offices in Orkney. In place-names  from Orkney’s West Mainland Scots plural and of-periphrasis in ON names appear in the 1492 rental, whereas purely Scots formations start making their way into the rentals 100 years later. The 17th century appears to be the breakthrough for Scots names (cf. Sandnes 2010:269 f.).[iii] The formation language may thus give an indication of the age of a name, but it is not very precise.




Berit Sandnes berit.sandnes@sofi.se

[i] Hugh Marwick: Orkney Farm-names. W.R. Mackintosh. Kirkwall 1952.

[ii] W. Thomson: Orkney farm-names: a re-assessment of their chronology. In: Scandinavian Settlement in North Britain. Edited by Barbara Crawford. Leicester University Press. 1995.

[iii] B. Sandnes. From Starafjall to Starling Hill. An investigation of the formation and development of Old Norse place-names in Orkney. Scottish Place-name Society 2010. http://www.spns.org.uk/Starafjall.pdf.



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