Viking influence on Scotland's vocabulary and place names

CENTURIES of Viking invasions left an indelible mark on Scotland and its people, the evidence of which can still be seen today.

A large number of Scotland's surnames, place names and vocabulary originated from the Vikings. Picture: TSPL
A large number of Scotland's surnames, place names and vocabulary originated from the Vikings. Picture: TSPL

Viking seafarers launched their first raids on Scotland in the late 8th century, and Scandinavian influence continued well into the 12th century.

Clear evidence of their impact can be found today in Scottish Gaelic, Irish and partly in English.

In Scotland, there are literally hundreds of words, surnames and place names which possess Scandinavian origins. Some of us even share their DNA.

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    Place names

    Most of the Old Norse-derived place names in Scotland are located in places where the Vikings settled in large numbers.

    While there are relatively few such place names on the mainland, there is a heavy Scandinavian influence embedded in the place names of the Western Isles and the north.

    For example, Stornoway is an anglicised adaption of the Old Norse, stjarna (bay) and vágr (bay).

    And it would be hard to concoct a more Viking-sounding place name than Wick - its root is derived from the Old Norse word vik (small creek/inlet/bay) and is used to describe the raiders themselves. Lerwick and Uig also share the same origin.

    Other notable place names around Scotland include:

    • Busby – Buskr (a bush, a shrub) by (a farmstead, village)

    •Humbie – Hundr (hound, dog) by (a farmstead, village)

    • Eriskay – Eric’s Island

    • Scalpay – Boat-shaped Island

    • Westray – West Island

    • Jura – Deer Island (djúr – animal, beast) ey - island

    • Kirkwall – Church’s Bay. In Danish: Kirkevold

    • Dingwall – Assembly field/meeting place

    • Tongue – Tunga (tongue, spit of land)

    • Twatt - þveit (a piece of land, clearing)

    • Laxdale - Lax (salmon), Dalr (valley, dale)

    • Seaforth - Fjord (sea loch)

    • Hestwall - Hestr (horse)

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    Many of Scotland’s clan names offer up firm evidence of our Viking past. The surname MacIvor translates as the sons of Ivar; MacSween, the sons of Swein; Macaulay, the sons of Olaf; and MacAskill, the sons of Asgeir.

    The people of Orkney, a well-known former Viking stronghold, possess evidence of Norse settlement in their genes. DNA studies show that around 20% of Orcadian residents carry the M17 marker, a gene inherited from the Vikings. When the stats are narrowed to include only men with ancient Orcadian surnames like Linklater, Foubister, Clouston, Flett or Rendall, the percentage of M17 rockets to 75 per cent.


    A huge number of words which we consider to be 100% Scots are actually derivations from Old Norse. Even the word ‘kilt’, perhaps the most ‘Scottish’ word of all, translates into Old Norse as a verb: to tuck up or fold. The following Scots words all have Viking roots and have equivalents in Danish, Norwegian and Swedish:

    •Greet - Græd (cry)

    •Een - Øjne (eyes)

    •Keek - Kigge (look)

    •Dook - Dykke (dive)

    •Bairn - Barn (child)

    •Ken - Kende (to know)

    •Haar - Haar (hair)

    •Flit - Flytte (flutter)

    •Muckle - Meget (much)

    •Reek - Røg (smoke)

    •Kilt - Kjalta (to tuck up)

    •Scaff - Skaffa (to acquire)

    •Hame - Hjem (home)