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The Vikings left their mark on the European map: Here is our guide to help you find them

By Staff

  • Snaefell The highest mountain of the Isle of Man, at 620 m ( 2,034 ft) above sea level. We have several mountains in Iceland called Snæfell. The name is composed of snæ, meaning snow and –fell, meaning mountain. Photo/Jon Wornham/Wikimedia Commons

During the Viking Age, which is commonly considered to last from the earliest recorded Viking raids in the 780s until the Norman conquest of England in 1066, Viking explorers, merchants and raiders extended their influence throughout Europe and beyond.

Sailing from their original homeland in Scandinavia the Vikings colonized the islands of the North Atlantic, including Iceland, and settled along the coasts of Western- and Northern Europe, reaching as far as Greenland and even the shores of North America. They also spread east, along the Baltic and up the rivers of Russia, making it all the way to Constantinople.

The Vikings gave names to places
Most of the Viking trading posts or colonies have long since disappeared, disappearing into the mists of time or swallowed up by the surrounding culture. However, even if the Vikings themselves and any physical remains they might have left behind, have long since disappeared, they did leave unmistakeable marks on the landscape in the local place names: Wherever the Vikings settled we can find place names with Norse origins.

There are literally thousands of place names in England, of Viking origin, and hundreds in Western Europe. Finding these place names isn’t that hard – if you know what you are looking for. To help you find these Viking footprints on the map we prepared this guide. Note that this is by no means a complete list. The varrious French, Englilsh or Irish place name elements with Viking origins, including given names, number in the hundreds.

North Atlantic Islands, the Danelaw and Normandy
Viking place names are understandably more common in the areas where Viking settlement and influences were most dense and Viking influences were strongest. Outside of the Faeroe Islands and Iceland the most thorough Viking settlements in the North Atlantic were in the Orkneys and Setland Islands, the Isle of Man. In the eastern part of Ireland, several towns and natural areas bear names also bear witness to the strong Viking presence in the 9th and early 10th centuries. 

England in 878, Danelaw
England in 878 Place names of Norse origin are most common in the Danelaw. Image/Wikimedia under a creative commons license.

In England Viking place names are of course most common in the area known as the Danelaw, the areas where Danish law applied in Northern and Eastern England, the shires of Yorkshire, Leicester, Nottingham, Derby, Stamford, Lincoln and Essex. The other main area where we find Viking place names is Normandy, a territory in North France conceded by the Franks to Danish Viking settlers around the mouth of the Seine. But we can find Viking traces in place names outside these areas as well.

Viking place names in the British Isles
When the Vikings arrived in a new land they gave their names to places. In some cases the Nordic names replaced the local names. A good example is Egilsay in the Orkney Islands. Egilsay simply means Egil’s Island. Then there is Snaefell, the highest point on the Isle of Man: Snaefell is composed of snæ, meaning snow and –fell, meaning mountain. There are a number of Snæfell’s in Iceland, and then of course there is the snow-mountain-glacier, or Snæfellsjökull.

In other cases Viking place names can be identified by the use of a Norse suffix, like –thorpe which means village or -by, which can both mean village or town, as in Grimsby, which simply means the town or farm of Grímur. In other cases the Norse suffix was added to an Anglo-Saxon word or name. Two particularly common examples in East Ireland are the suffixes –holm, hólm which translates as small island or hill, and -firth suffix, derived from fjörð, which means fjord.

The Vikings of Normandy
A common place name ending in parts of Normandy is –tot, from the Norse word tóft, meaning the place of a farm. In modern Icelandic we have the word tóft, which is used for the visible ruins of a farm structure, but is also known as a homestead name. There are at least 589 places in Normandy which end with suffix tot. Another particularly common is the suffix -londe with 269 places ending with the -londe or -lont suffix from the Norse word lund, which translates as clearing. There are several places with the lundur ending in Iceland, including Bjarkarlundur in the South Westfjords. 

Historical boundary of Normandy

Historical boundary of Normandy Place names with Norse roots are most common near the coast and along the river Seine. Photo/Wikimedia Creative Commons license.

Other common Norman place names of Scandinavian origin are –hogue from the Norse haug, meaning hill or mound (more than 100 examples) and -dalle from dal, meaning valley (over 70 examples).

How to find English place names of Norse origin?
Place names with Norse roots in the British Isles number in the hundreds. The easiest and quickest approach is to look for the place names ending in –by, meaning town or farm. There are 210 –by place names in Yorkshire alone. This word even exists in English in the word by-law, which means local law of the town. Another suffix is –thorpe, with 155 place names ending in –thorpe in Yorkshire alone. The suffix –gate from gata, which means street or road. Other places have a Norse prefix, like Grimston. Grímur was and still is a common name and ton is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning town. Grimston is sifmply the town of Grímur.

Common suffixes of Viking origin in England include:

-thorpe: þorp, meaning village. 
-toft: tóft, meaning farm.
-keld: kelda, meaning spring. 
-ness: nes, meaning cape.
-by or -bie: town, farm or settlement. 
-kirk: kirkja, meaning church.

All of these are found as parts of place names in Iceland as well. Other place name elements you are likely to encounter in Iceland as well as in the British Isles:

ayre: eyri, meaning a gravelly or sandy river, lake or ocean bank
ay: ey, meaning island.
dale: dal, meaning valley.
firth: fjörð, meaning fjord.
garth: garð, meaning enclosure.
gerdi: gerði, meaning enclosed area.
holm: hólm, meaning small island.
lax: lax, meaning salmon.
lunn: lund, meaning grove.
mire: mýri, meaning swamp.
noup: gnúp, meaning peak.
clett: klett, meaning rock or cliffs.
sker: sker, meaning skerry.
wick: vík, meaning bay.
vat: vatn, meaning lake.
strom: straum, meaning stream.
strand: strönd, meaning coast.

How to find French place names with Norse origins?
The Vikings did not leave as large an imprint on the landscape of France or even Normandy, where their influence was greatest. Place names with Viking roots are most dense close to the shore in Normandy, and become more spares as we move inland, with the exception of the banks of the river Seine. Still, there are hundreds of place names in Normandy with suffixes of Norse origins.

These are the most common suffixes of Norse origin found in Normandy:

-tot: tóft meaning farm.
-londe: lund meaning clearing, look for Icelandic place names –lundur, as in Bjarkarlundur.
-hogue: haug meaning small hill or mound. Look for Icelandic place names ending in -haugur or beginning with Haug-. But it also exists as a place name on its own.
-beuf: bæ meaning town or farm. The Icelandic equivalent is –bær which is a very common suffix.
-dalle: dal meaning valley. Look for –dalur in Iceland, an extremely common suffix.
-torp: þorp meaning village. Not particularly common in Iceland, but is known as a farm name. However, the modern Icelandic word for a village is þorp.
-nez: nes meaning cape. There are countless places in Iceland with the suffix nes.

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