Vikings on the Wirral

Viking Place Names

As with much of the UK, the Roman names used on the Wirral are sadly lost in the mists of time, however the Vikings who came several hundred years later left such an influence that many of their names remain in use today, in some form or another. In fact 90% of the Wirral place names in the Domesday survey have a Viking origin, and they are all associated with towns and villages today.

There is an erroneous myth that the Vikings came to the Wirral because of Ingimund who was expelled from Dublin to the north west coast of England and here he was granted land to settle by Æthelflæd, eldest daughter of the famous Alfred the Great in the year 900 AD. In truth, the documentrs pertaining to Ingimund do not mention the Wirral at all, but merely state he was permitted to stay at a place near a "fort" which some have assumed (or rather hoped) might be Chester.

Furthermore, Æthelflæd was occupied fortifying territories against the norse, so they certainly weren't being granted permission to establish any kind of kingdom as some have suggested. The Viking prevailance in the Wirral is not a result of one fictious incident of invitation, but simply displacement from Ireland (that much is true) over many generations, via a very significant and ancient coastal port (Meols). In fact, the very strategic nature of Meols is yet another reason why the Britons' foes would not have been handed the Wirral peninsula to turn into their own land. The Wirral was not "given to the Vikings" any more than Liverpool was "given to the Irish" in the 19th century - it is merely the big port through which they arrived and and area upon which their influence was strongly felt.

Various placements reveal the Viking settlers in the area, such as Shotwick (perhaps from Norse 'Sudrvík') and Thingwall ('Thing' means the meeting place of the assembly, and 'vellir' meaning 'fields').

The reference to the fields is significant, as it is one of a whole host of descriptive terms for land to be found in the origins of many Wirral place names. The reason for this is, in contrast to the exploitative trading cultures of the Vikings in Wales, or the great and bloody Danish invasion of England in the East, the Norse presence in Cheshire revolved around agriculture.

Within these slices of farmland, the collection of dwellings known as a 'bær' was situated in the field or 'tún' - both of which are word elements which contribute to modern-day place names. Thurstaston is a prime example, being 'Thorstein’s tún', or the farmstead of Thorstein. An alternatively term for 'tun' was 'stadr', and this can be seen today in Brimstage, formerly Brynston. Other names include Storeton or 'Stór-tún' meaning 'big field' and Prenton (formerly 'Prestune') meaning the priest's field. This name specifically illustrates the Christian nature of the Norsemen at this time, either having been converted before leaving Dublin, or taking on the customs of Mercians for whom baptism was a rule.

Oxton has nothing to do with Oxen, but refers to a ridge or 'ok', hence 'Oks-tún' is the farmstead on the ridge. Greasby's derivation (in the Domesday's spelt 'Gravesberie') has nothing to do with a cemetery as you might think. The component 'grave' can refer to charcoal, or areas where peat was dug.

Although 'thwaite' is to be found commonly in place names further north than Wirral, there are fields called thwaites within Wallasey, demonstrating the Norse farming system persisted in the Eastern tip of Wirral too, and nearby the repeated use of name 'Carr' is from 'kjarr' was another descriptive name for a field. A further agricultural term is found in the probable derivation of Caldy (including the school Calday), originally 'Calders' in the 11th century, being from 'calf-dales'.

As well as many 'Carr's the Wirral also has many a 'Rake' which is a descriptive term meaning to drive, as in herding sheep, from 'reka'.

The word 'shieling' means a pasture on a hill or mountain used in the summer, but can also refer to the hut belonging to the shepherd. The term can also appear as 'sæters', and often with the ending dropped, just as 'seat' or 'sea'. On the Wirral we find it in Seacombe.

It is abundantly clear from nature of all these place names how the area was so heavily centred around agriculture. Another example is in Irby, which is likely to have been from 'Ira-bær' meaning the settlement of the Irish. The 'by' ending from 'bær' is quite a well-known Norse suffix and on the Wirral is also found in Raby, meaning the settlement on the boundary.

At the top of the Wirral, West Kirby was formerly the Norse 'Kirkjubyr' meaning 'settlement with church'. The 'west' prefix was added to differentiate it from an earlier 'settlement with church' being 'Kirkby-in-Walea'. Further east, where the Romans had their extremely important port, is Meols which is shown in the Domesday survey as 'Melas' and is from the Norse 'melr' meaning 'sand dunes'.

To digress for a moment, there is another interesting linguistic root here: The Germanic 'Walea' became the modern name Wallasey. 'Walea' simply means 'foreigner' or 'stranger', and could be a term applied to any unfamiliar group. So the Germanic Saxons referred to the settlers on the eastern tip of the Wirral as 'the strangers' and they became 'Walea'. But nearby the same term was used for those occupying the entire neighbouring county - the Welsh. Hence 'Wallasey' and 'Wales' have the same derivation.

But the use of this term does not stop there. People speaking a Saxon-influenced language throughout the western world would use 'Walae' or its equivalent to refer to any foreigner. Hence for example, the Polish word for the Italians is 'Wlochy'.

This shifting and confusing behaviour of language can make analysis difficult. Take for example the modern-day place of Noctorum. On the Domesday survey the area is 'Chenoterie' which at first glance would seem to be a different name entirely. But remove the first syllable and you have 'No-ter-ie' which is comparable to 'Noc-tor-um'.

A couple of derivations have been suggested for this name, one being the Norse 'Cnocc Tirim', meaning 'Dry Hill' and the other a Celtic phrase 'Hnotar-holm' meaning 'nut-field'. Given the evidence of the places around (and Noctorum's high ground) the Norse explanation would seem more likely. It is interesting to note that the Domesday spelling of the place is carried into the present day by the road named Chenotrie Gardens.

The Earliest Britons  | The Romans and Hadrian's Wall  |  The French Rule of Britain