Gaelic Place-Names: Viking Influence on the Gaelic Place-Names of the Hebrides

The Viking raids around the Scottish coast began in the closing years of the eighth century, with devastating attacks on Iona Abbey and the Isle of Skye. These ‘vikings’ were Norwegian adventurers who sailed to the Hebrides via Shetland and Orkney in search of wealth, and later, land, as the raiding gradually gave way to colonisation over the course of the ninth century. The Vikings would control the Hebrides for the next four hundred years, with the islands officially coming under Norwegian rule in 1098. The islands were known in the Old Norse language as the Suðreyar ‘the Southern Isles’ to distinguish them from the Norðreyjar or ‘Northern Isles’ of Shetland and Orkney which had also been ceded to the Norwegian crown.

This ‘Kingdom of the Isles’ lasted into the second half of the thirteenth century, until the collapse of Norwegian power on the western seaboard of Scotland in the aftermath of the Battle of Largs in 1263. Three years later, the Treaty of Perth returned the Hebrides to Scottish rule, but the impact of the Viking era left a lasting mark on the islands, both culturally and linguistically. In particular, the place-names of the Hebrides reveal a significant Old Norse influence.

From the period of colonisation, many of the Old Norse names coined by the Viking settlers survive to the present day. Examples include Habost ‘high farm’ (Lewis), Breivig ‘broad bay’ (Barra), Sandavat ‘sandy loch’ (Lewis), Conisby‘king’s farm’ (Islay), Hestaval ‘horse hill’ (Lewis), Papadil ‘priest’s valley’ (Rum), Leurbost ‘mud farm’ (Lewis), Smerclett ‘butter rock’ (South Uist), Laxdale ‘salmon (river) valley’ (Lewis), Cattadale ‘valley of the cats’ (Islay), Earshader‘beach settlement’ (Lewis) and Nereby ‘lower farm’ (Islay). Additionally, many of the smaller Hebridean islands have Viking names, with the Old Norse word for an island øy featuring in names such as Soay ‘sheep isle’, Flodday ‘float isle’, Sanday ‘sand isle’, Calvay ‘calf isle’, Stromay ‘tidal isle’, Fladda ‘flat isle’, Ensay ‘ewe isle’, Shillay ‘seal isle’, Kearstay ‘hart isle’, Langay ‘long isle’ and Pabbay ‘priest isle’.

However, the Vikings also left their mark in another way, as many of these Old Norse place-name elements were borrowed and adapted by the Gaelic-speakers of the Hebrides. These loan words reflect the importance of the sea to this remote archipelago, with many borrowings relating to coastal features.

Examples include the Gaelic word òb meaning ‘a bay, a cove’ which was borrowed from Old Norse hòp ‘a small land-locked bay’. Names featuring this element include Òb nam Portan ‘bay of the crabs’ (Skye), Òb Dubh ‘black bay’ (South Uist), Òb nam Feusgan ‘bay of the mussels’ (Skye), An t-Òb ‘the bay’ (Harris) and Òb a Deas ‘south cove’ (Skye). This word was also borrowed from Old Norse into Scots in the form hope, meaning ‘a small bay or haven’ and features in place-names such as St Margaret’s Hope and Chalmers Hope in Orkney.

Another Old Norse word gjá meaning ‘chasm, cleft, gully’ was borrowed into the Gaelic language in the form geodha which can be translated as ‘inlet, cove, gully’. Examples include Geodha Grannda ‘nasty cove’ (Lewis), Geodha na Bà Ruaidh ‘cove of the red cow’ (Islay), Geodha nan Ceann ‘headland cove’ (Colonsay), Geodha a’ Sgadain ‘herring cove’ (Lewis), Geodha Garbh ‘rough cove’ (South Uist), Geodha Ruadh ‘red cove’ (Lewis), Geodha nan Damh ‘cove of the stag’ (Islay), Geodha Mhor ‘big cove’ (Lewis), Geodha Dubh‘black cove’ (Skye), Geodha an Tairbh ‘bull cove’ (Lewis) and Geodha Gorm ‘blue cove’ (Colonsay). As with òb, this word was also borrowed from Old Norse into the northern dialect of Scots, in the form geo ‘a creek or inlet of the sea with steep rocky sides, a cleft with deep water among rocks’, and is found in Scots place-names such as Castle Geo and Red Geo in Caithness.

Another word relating to the shoreline is Gaelic mol ‘a shingly beach’, which was borrowed from Old Norse möl ‘pebbles, bed of pebbles on the beach’, and is found in names such as Mol an Eich ‘beach of the horse’ (Lewis), Mol Mhòr‘big beach’ (Barra), Mol an Tuim ‘island beach’ (Lewis), Mol Bàn ‘white beach’ (Harris), Mol na Dùine ‘beach of the men’ (Lewis), Mol Beag ‘small beach’ (Barra), Mol na h-Airde ‘beach of the promontory’ (Lewis) and in simplex form as Moll ‘beach’ (Skye).

The Gaelic speakers also borrowed words for rocks, including Gaelic cleit ‘a rock, a rocky eminence’ from Old Norse klettr ‘a rock, a cliff’. Names featuring this element include Cleite na h-Uamha ‘rock of the caves’ (Lewis), Clett na Cairidh ‘rock of the weir’ (South Uist), Clett Ruadh ‘red rock’ (Lewis), Clette an Iasgaich ‘rock of the the fishing’ (Harris), Cleite nan Uan ‘rock of the lambs’ (Lewis), Cleit Mhor ‘big rock’ (South Uist), Clette nan Luch ‘rock of the mice’ (Harris) and Cleite Beag ‘small rock’ (Tiree). This word also found its way into Scots in the form cletclett ‘a detached rock’ by way of the Vikings who settled in the Northern Isles and the adjacent mainland, with examples such as The Cletts of Ramnageo in Shetland and Little Clett in Caithness.

Gaelic sgeir ‘a rock or reef in the sea, a tidal rock’ was borrowed from Old Norse sker ‘a rock in the sea’. The word was also borrowed into English and Scots as skerry. Examples of Gaelic place-names include Sgeir nan Crubag ‘crab skerry’ (Lewis), Sgeir nan Gall ‘skerry of the foreigner’ (Jura), Sgeir Liath ‘grey skerry’ (Islay), Sgeir Mhòr ‘big skerry’ (Barra), Sgeir a’ Chaisteil ‘castle skerry’ (Skye), Sgeirean na Sròine Riabhaich ‘skerries of the brindled point’ (Jura), Sgeir Bhiorach ‘sharp skerry’ (Colonsay), Sgeir nan Caorach ‘sheep skerry’ (Harris) and Sgeirean Uaine ‘green skerries’ (Islay).

The Gaelic speakers also borrowed words for wildlife from the Vikings, such as Gaelic sgarbh ‘cormorant’ from Old Norse skarfr with the same meaning. Examples include Sloc nan Sgarbh ‘hollow of the cormorants’ (Colonsay), Geodha nan Sgarbh ‘cove of the cormorants’ (Lewis), Druim nan Sgarbh ‘ridge of the cormorants’ (Skye), Cnoc nan Sgarbh ‘hill of the cormorants’ (Tiree), Rubha nan Sgarbh ‘promontory of the cormorants’ (Harris) and Stac nan Sgarbh ‘cliff of the cormorants’ (Jura). The word was also borrowed into Northern Scots in the form scarf, and is found in names such as Scarf Point in Orkney and Scarf Water in Shetland.

These are only some of the many words which Scottish Gaelic owes to the Vikings, but they do give some insight into the ways in which these Scandinavian settlers helped to shape both the Gaelic language and the toponymy of the Hebridean landscape.


References & Further Information

Ian Fraser, ‘Norse and Gaelic Coastal Terminology in the Western Isles’ in Northern Studies, 11, 3-16 (1978).
Ian Fraser, ‘The Place Names of Lewis — The Norse Evidence’ in Northern Studies, 4, 11-21 (1974).
Jacob King and Eilidh Scammell, Place-names of Strath, Isle of Skye (Scottish National Heritage, 2015).
W.F.H. Nicolaisen, Scottish Place-Names (John Donald, 2001).

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