What's in a name? Er, quite a lot actually!
Back in 1996, people in the north Lincolnshire town of Scunthorpe had a problem. Well, they had a problem if they wanted to create an account with internet giant AOL. The company’s profanity filter stopped anyone registering an account in Scunthorpe from doing so because the name of the town contains the a rather rude word. It meant you couldn’t search online for any local businesses with Scunthorpe in the name.
Luckily, it wasn’t long before the issue was sorted out and normal internet activity could resume for Scunnyites. But is it any wonder a US multimedia company were surprised, and suspicious, about a town name in the UK that seemed to contain the c word? Well, if they knew their history, perhaps they wouldn’t have been as these place names prove…
We have the Vikings to thank for the Scun in Scunthorpe. And indeed, for the thorpe in Scunthorpe, too. After about 700AD many Vikings left Scandinavia and travelled to other countries. Britain, Ireland, France, Russia, and some even say North America. Some went to fight and plunder with a view to returning home laden with gold and treasure. Others wanted to find fertile land to farm. They first came to Britain in 787AD, and most of them settled in the eastern part of the country, some around modern-day Lincolnshire.
Many examples of the names given by the Vikings to their settlements can be seen to this day. Scunthorpe is one of them. A thorpe in Old Norse was a farmstead where several families might live and work the land. And Scun was a person. Originally, his name was Skuma, and over the years that became anglicised to Scun. Skuma would have been in charge of his thorpe. And interestingly, Scuma was a nickname meaning ‘squinty-eyed.’ So people who live in Scunthorpe really live in ‘Old Squinty’s Farmstead’.
Grimsby, in north-east Linclonshire, has a similar history. For the Vikings, by meant a village, or a larger farmstead than a thorpe. And the Grim bit comes from the name Grimr. Grimr, like Skuma, was a nickname. It was used for someone who like wearing helmets. So, if you live in Grimsby, you live in ‘Old Helmet Head’s Village’.
A borough is a corruption of the word burh, which means a fortified place. Scar comes from the Old Norse word Skarthi. Yet again, this is a nickname. And this time, it’s a nickname for someone with a harelip. Luckily for us, history has recorded the identity of the Viking with a harelip who settled in what is now Scarborough. His name was Thorgils Skarthi, or Thorgils the Hare-Lipped.
Thorgils came to North Yorkshire from Norway with his brother Kormak in 966AD. And Thorgils was a remarkable man. For Viking people, the birth of a child with a disability was a problem. Especially the birth of a child with a harelip. Often, these babies were left outside the village or settlement to die of exposure. Babies with harelips have difficulty feeding, so for them to survive, they’d need to be hand-fed, which would mean much more time and work than a community that survived by subsistence farming could commit to. Saving Thorgils’ life must have been a heroic effort on the part of his mum. And it paid off.
Incidentally, Thorgils grew up to be something of a hunk. Which may be of interest to the people of Scarborough. This is how he is described in a Viking poem… Thorgils was a handsome man in appearance, big-shouldered and accomplished, fair of hair and complexion, very fine-eyed, slim-waisted and broad-shouldered, with fine hair that fell attractively. He was strong and hardy, a good swimmer, and very vigorous in whatever he entered upon.
Ness means quite simply a promontory, a high point of land that sticks out into the sea. And skegg is Old Norse for a beard. So, Skegness is ‘Old Beardy’s Headland’.
A dale is a broad valley, and comes from the Old Norse dalr. But what about Skelmer? It’s from another name. This time, Skjaldmarr. So Skelmersdale means ‘Skjaldmarr’s Valley’.
The name Skjaldmarr derives from the Old Norse words for a shield (skjald) and for a horse (marr). Incidentally, Skjald was also the name chosen by Odin for one of his sons. Odin was the supreme Viking god and creator, lord of the living and dead. When Odin came to Earth, he gave Denmark to Skjald, and so Skjald became the country’s first king. To this day, the monarchy of Denmark is referred to as the Skjoldungs. So Skelmersdale is a place with serious pretensions.