Were your ancestors Vikings?

There’s been a rash of articles floating around my alerts about Viking surnames. Apparently the TV channel History teamed up with experts from the Centre for Nordic Studies in the University of the Highlands and Islands, in which it looks like the experts did all the work and shared their knowledge and the TV channel surveyed 2000 people on questions which, given the answers, probably looked a bit like: “Do you want to be descended from a Viking?” and “Do you know anything about the Vikings?” Scintillating stuff.

I really hope that by now, unlike some of the people in that survey, you are aware that the Vikings were around in, for example, the 9th century, and not a) Elizabethan times like those people thought, or b) as one well-meaning schoolchild parent once suggested to me: “before the Romans”.

I wish all schools had basic timelines of history hung on their walls.

Since as usual I can’t find the actual source of either the survey or of any written-up piece from the university, I’m just going to go through the names that various newspapers have dropped and explain their actual origins as best I can. This will be dodgy as all I have is my 2005 reprint of the Oxford Dictionary of English Surnames, and the internet for the Gaelic ones. Nonetheless, it sounds fun.

Important point for my own peace of mind: Dr Alexandra Sanmark who is the academic mentioned in all of these identikit articles, is an expert and if I question any names here it’s only because I can’t find anything academic written to look at, not because I think I know better.

Names which end in -son or -sen. This is a fairly well-known Scandinavian pattern, I think. It literally does just mean, for example, John’s son. Johnson. This originated as a type of surname called a patronymic. Actually I don’t think that it its original form it counts as a surname at all but I’m loathe to call it anything else. It’s kind of more like a byname, since it just describes someone.

(Scandinavian names in Britain?? Yeah, well, I did a tiny blog on that yesterday.)

Check out this blog for a slightly better explanation of a byname, which is a descriptive second name used to distinguish people – it was not passed down through the family. Heritable names evolved out of bynames, and that’s more or less what’s happened with the -son/sen names. I wonder if they started happening because the meaning started to blur … to explain that:

Johnson. The earliest record my dictionary has of that surname is in 1287, as Jonessone. But hilariously, the man’s first name is John. So he will pass that byname down to his children. And given that I’ve heard there was less of a variety of names in the early medieval period (warning, unsubstantiated speculation!) I wonder if that sort of thing helped this pattern of name to become hereditary.

The articles all then go on to say something along the lines of “Other surnames which could signal a Viking connection include … Roger, Rogers, Rogerson and Rendall.”

This is personally interesting, since Rogers is my grandmother’s maiden name. So I go and look it up in my dictionary, and don’t find what I expect at all.

This name was introduced to England by the invading Normans. They had it because they were ancestral Scandinavians who had, as far as I understand, assimilated into Frankish culture. This meant that the existing Germanic name (H)Rodger (fame + spear) got boosted by the Scandinavian name Hroðgeirr, which meant the same thing.

So there’s my Viking connection, just … not quite from the direction I was expecting!

Rendall is either a pet form (nickname) of Reynold or of Randolph. Again, these were names introduced with the Normans which had exceedingly similar Old Norse and Old Germanic versions.

And of course the newspapers didn’t stick with jut English names.

The Scottish surname MacAsgaill comes from … well, the articles say the Old Norse name Arskell or Asketil and my dictionary says Askell. Mac means son of, so we’re actually dealing with patronymics here too.

There’s also:

MacCaskie, which comes from a Gaelic nickname of Askell: Ascaidh.

Macaulay: the Old Norse name Olafr.

MacLeod or McCloud: Comes from the Old Norse name Liotr, which actually might have been a byname itself since it means “ugly”.

McIvor’ is also mentioned in the articles but I can’t find that in my dictionary. Let’s see what Google has to say … Got it! Goes back to the Old Norse name Ivarr, apparently.

Other names mentioned are from Shetland and Orkney, which was extremely strongly Scandinavian-ised ( I must do a blog on this) to the point where they actually spoke a different language. My dictionary’s got nothing on these, so, to the internet!

Linklater’ = lyng heather + klettr rock (Source)

Flett’ = eventually from the Old Norse flotr “arable land”. (Source)

Scarth’ looks an awful lot like Old Norse skarð but the extremely well-respected big brother of my dictionary just says it’s named after the name of a piece of land. (Source)

Heddle’ Named after a place again, but apparently originally from Old Norse hey (I don’t trust the given etymology, does it really mean high??) dalr, valley. (Source

Halcro.’ Named after a place. Can I find what it means? Can I hell.

For Irish names, I found a great little article here. I’m going to quote from there unless me and my dictionary have anything else to add.

McAuliff, son of Olaf (You can really see the similarities between this and the Scottish version MacAulay)

Groarke, Mag Ruairc, son of Hrothkekr;

McBirney, son of Bjorn;

Reynolds, Mac Raghnall, from the Norse first name Ragnall.

Doyle is Ó Dubhghaill, from dubh, “dark”, and gall, “foreigner”, a descriptive formula first used to describe the invading Vikings … O’Loughlin and Higgins both stem directly from words … [directly referring to the Vikings]: Lochlann in Irish and Uigínn, an Irish version of the Norse Vikingr.


Well I enjoyed this sojourn into surnames, and I hope you might have found it a little bit interesting! See you tomorrow, and thank you for sticking with me!


Were your ancestors Vikings?

2 thoughts on “Were your ancestors Vikings?

  1. Always was a sucker for etymologies and I guess always will be, so this was obviously a delight to read! I love how almost everything is a variation of My Dad Did This or My Dad Was That when you get down to it.


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