Out Walking With Vikings in Yorkshire

Walking and words, two passions of mine. Last week I was out walking discovering, as many of us now have, my own back yard, finding walks and history and stories right on my doorstep that I previously never knew existed. Given the amount of rain and snow that we’ve had, as soon as one ventures out into fields, it’s pretty hard not to get bogged down in mud. Now in these parts, we have words for mud that aren’t common throughout the rest of the country, clarty and claggy, Yorkshire dialect proving to be evocative yet as down to earth as we are known to be. But this got me to thinking, where did many of the words that we use in our dialect originate? I started to research and initially came across an article which stated that that many of the words that we use in Yorkshire, in particular are very similar to Scandinavian words still used today. Intrigued, I pressed on only to discover that quite a few of our words date back to the 9th century when we were invaded by the Vikings who brought their own language, Old Norse with them.

Now, I’ve heard of York (obviously) and the Jorvik Viking centre, but beyond that I’ve never really stopped to consider the Viking invasion of the UK.  Perhaps this wasn’t covered in history lessons at school, to be fair, even if it was, would I have listened?  However, it is a known fact back in the late 700 – 800’s Vikings settled across most parts of the country, but that the most dense population was found in Yorkshire, so why was this?  Well, ask any Tyke and we’ll all say the same, ‘They had sense.’  However, looking at it from a more logical perspective and given that the Danes were rowing over from ‘that side,’ it was more convenient for them to land somewhere along the east of our great island, and Yorkshire lured them with it’s spectacular coast line, there is no bias in that sentence at all, which thanks to a friend with a nautical bent, I know to be 82nm long, so we gave them a fair chunk to go at.  Scotland and East Anglia were also equally accommodating but they seemed to prefer Yorkshire.  Like I said, they had sense.

Another theory I read, on a certain search engine, was that word of the wealth of the monasteries had spread and it was in the Viking’s nature, if stories are to be believed, to seek wealth and therefore importance by any means, taking land with which to acquire wealth and plundering existing wealth being two of the most common. Now in Yorkshire we have more monasteries, mostly now hauntingly beautiful ruins, than you can shake a stick at, walk your dogs round or photograph and this seemed like a logical reason, until that was, I thought to fact check. Most Viking invasions took place in the 8th and 9th Centuries. York fell to the invaders in A.D. 866, and soon became the chief city of the area known as the Danelaw.  It turns out that other than a few, two of which are Kirkdale Monastery  which dates from AD 664 and Hackness Priory, founded before 680 by St Hilda and which was in fact destroyed in raids by the Danes c.870, most weren’t built until 200-300 years later.

Of course, we had and still have stunningly beautiful land, most of which was not farmed or cultivated, we also had a capturable workforce and harsh, bleak winters akin to their homelands. These could also have been factors, who knows? But whatever the reasons, they came, and in Yorkshire they left a legacy that is still prevalent today, wherever we look, in our place names and our language. Did you know that a third of the place names in the East and North Ridings in the Domesday Book are of Scandinavian origin? Speaking of which, has anyone else ever wondered why we had only three Ridings, north, east and the west? What ever happened to the south?  Well, it transpires that it was these Danish rulers who divided Yorkshire into three administrative parts called ‘thridings’ (thirdings) from which we got the Yorkshire Ridings which continued for over 1000 years, until 1974 when an administrative reorganisation of boundaries was implemented.

However, let me not drag you down the entire rabbit warren that all this research has dragged me down.  Given that this piece was prompted by walking, I’ll stick with imparting knowledge only on the words that we gained related to that.  Here is a small selection:

  • Beck (from bekkr) meaning stream or brook (Back Beck, Lumb Beck & Wine Beck)
  • Dale (from dalur) meaning valley (Wharfedale, Wensleydale)
  • Fell (from fjall) meaning hill, mountain slope, especially rough moorland (Park Fell and fell running, if anyone is so inclined!)
  • Foss, force (from fors) meaning waterfalls, rapids (Thornton Force, Scalebar Foss)
  • Gill, ghyll (from gjel) meaning small narrow valley or ravine (Gaping Gill)
  • Ing(s), (from eng) meaning meadow(s), especially water meadow near a river

(Fairburn Ings, and where, at this time of year, you may still catch a starling murmuration)

  • Scar, scaur (from skera) meaning cliff, or rocky outcrop with a steep face (White Scar, Ravenscar)
  • Tarn (from tjarn) meaning lake or pond, especially in an upland location (Malham Tarn)
  • Thwaite (from tveit) meaning village or small settlement              (Micklethwaite, and also found as a family surname)
  • Toft(s) (from toft) meaning a small farmstead with enclosed land; later applied to a village or small settlement (Altofts, Willitoft).
  • Ness: promontory or headland (Skegness)
  • By: farmstead, village, settlement (Selby, Whitby)

And after all that walking, you might head home and be tempted to a bit of ‘liggin out’ in front of the TV with a brew, ‘Ligg ned’ is still used today in Norway and literally means to ‘lay down.’

So, look out for these names and words the next time you head out for a bracing stroll, braving the elements, (in your own particular region, keeping lockdown rules in mind) and give a thought to our ancestors back in 850 AD. They arrived and without the protection of waterproofs or hiking boots, looked upon our great county, discovered its beauty, appreciated it’s dramatic scenery and nature and thought rather sensibly to turn their back on other counties and make Yorkshire their home.  Imagine if they hadn’t? If Yorkshire hadn’t been so beautiful or accommodating and the Vikings had been as prolific around the whole of the UK as they seem to have been here, would the whole country now speak in (Yorkshire) tongues? I love that thought, probably as much as my southern friends would shudder at it.


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