Place-names en route from Roskilde to Skagerrak

Published 08th Jul 2007

As a philologist with a special interest in the names that were coined by the Vikings in the British Isles, I cannot help speculating about the different languages that would have been spoken by the members of the crews who manned Skuldelev 2 on her maiden voyage in the 1040s, during her working life in the Irish Sea and beyond and on the last voyage which took her to her final resting-place in Skuldelev.

Since the ship was built near Dublin by Scandinavian-trained craftsmen, it was probably commissioned by men from the Viking kingdoms of York and Dublin. This was at the period when the 'North Sea Empire' of Canute and his sons had finally come to an end with the death of Harthaknut in 1042. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has several references to fleets under the command of the English, Danish and Norwegian kings raiding around British coasts at this period and we also hear about maverick raiders. A couple of Scandinavian pirates called Lothin 'the hairy one' and Erling 'son of a jarl', both perhaps nicknames or fictitious names, ravaged and pillaged around England with twenty-five ships in 1046 before selling their spoils and captives in Flanders, while four years later thirty-six ships came from Ireland bent on evil and sailed up the Welsh river Usk and joined forces with the Welsh king against the English. 

We have no lists recording the names of the crews of the ships involved but even had we known their names, we could not have known their nationalities. Many of the men bearing Scandinavian names probably came from the Danelaw but they probably spoke English and felt themselves to be Englishmen, just as did men of Danish descent such as Oda, archbishop of Canterbury, who died in 961, and Oskytel, archbishop of York, who died in 971, as well as Ulfcytel, jarl of East Anglia, who fought many battles against the Danes in England and was killed by Canute’s men in 1016. 

The longships probably contained men of differing nationalities and some of the crew would have felt more at home than others. Perhaps it would have been normal for there to have been a few men on board who could, if necessary, communicate with any of the natives they might meet. These useful multilingual seamen would also have been able to explain to their comrades the meaning of the names of the settlements or landmarks that the ships passed by. 

In 2007 the Sea Stallion begins its voyage among Danish place-names, beginning with Roskilde, a name that is recorded on a coin that is almost contemporary with the original ship. This coin must have been struck between about 1023 and 1029 and bears the mint-name Roscel, meaning Róir’s kelda or 'spring', while the name Skuldelev, the site of the fairwater barrage where the ship had been scuttled, is first recorded in a charter of St Canute granting lands to the cathedral in Lund that is dated 1085. The name takes the form Skuldalef and has been thought to contain the name of one of the three Norns in Norse mythology, although a more mundane explanation of the name is as 'the inheritance liable to taxation'. Nothing was closer to the hearts of the kings ruling the lands around the North Sea than the thought of the taxes that could be imposed on the population. 

The Sea Stallion will leave Isefjord at its narrow opening at Halsnæs. The oldest record of the name Isefjord is as Ysafiorth in the thirteeenth century and the name can be translated as 'the fiord with much ice', while Halsnæs is first recorded in almost this form as Halsnes in 1320 and obviously means 'the ness at the neck'. From here the ship will sail across the Kattegat, which now has a Dutch name that has only been known since about 1650. It means 'cat hole' and is thought to refer to the narrow and dangerous passage. To the Vikings, however, Kattegat and the Baltic Sea would both have been known by the collective name Codan whose Latin form, Codanvs Sinvs can be traced back to the first century after Christ. The name Codan, of uncertain meaning, was revitalised artificially during the Romantic period.

On her way north the Sea Stallion will pass by Hals Barre and the entrance to Limfjord at Hals. The Limfjord, which forms a somewhat tortuous route between the Kattegat and the North Sea would have served as a route to the North Sea, had the accompanying ship not drawn too much water. Its name is first recorded in an Old Norse source as Limafirthe in the ninth century and means 'the fiord where lime occurs', referring to the occurrences of moler clay and white chalk. The name of the settlement Hals is recorded early in the thirteenth century as Haals, again meaning 'neck', while the sand-bank off the coast of Hals bears the word barre, borrowed into Danish from French via German in the eighteenth century and hence not known to the Vikings, as an affix to the name of the settlement.

The Sea Stallion will instead sail around the top of Denmark, where the Kattegat will run into the Skagerrak. This is, like the Kattegat, a name of Dutch origin that arose in the seventeenth century. The first element of the name is Danish, however, and first recorded in 1284 as Skaffuen, the definite form of the word skagi meaning 'point or pointed land formation' and obviously referring to what we now know as Skagen. The second part of the name Skagerrak, however, is the Dutch word rak meaning 'a straight stretch of water'. 

Leaving Skagen in its wake, the Sea Stallion and its crew will be saying goodbye for the time being to Danish place-names, although the names they will meet in Norway, Scotland, Orkney and Ireland will not all be entirely strange to them.

Gillian Fellows-Jensen, dr. phil.


Created by Gillian Fellows-Jensen, ret. linguist and name-researcher, Copenhagen University