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10 - Understanding the Norse Period through Place-name Evidence: A Case Study from the Island of Mull

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 October 2023

Tom Horne
Affiliation:
University of Glasgow
Elizabeth Pierce
Affiliation:
University of Glasgow
Rachel Barrowman
Affiliation:
University of Glasgow
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Summary

As tools for understanding Scotland’s Norse period, place-names are invaluable. The place-name evidence, especially when considered alongside local archaeological and historical evidence, suggests that we need to be more circumspect about the dates we use to define Scotland’s Norse period. This chapter focuses on the place-names of a relatively small area within one of the islands off Scotland’s west coast – the island of Mull – which has major implications for our understanding of the Norse period in the Hebrides and the wider North Atlantic.

Many of Scotland’s place-names were coined between 500 and 1000 (Taylor 1998: 1). Place-names are therefore key artefacts for at least part of Mull’s Norse period, if not this period in its entirety. In terms of dating the beginning of Mull’s Norse period, 795 is a reliable watershed. This is the year in which an entry in a contemporary year-by-year chronicle – The Annals of Inisfallen – records pagans plundering the monastery of Mull’s neighbouring island of Iona, which had been established in the 6th century (AI 795.2). The native language of these pagans was Old Norse. From at least as early as 795 then, speakers of Old Norse were active in the vicinity of Mull and the implication is that at least some of Mull’s Old Norse place-names may have been established from around this date.

The very fact that Old Norse place-names exist in Mull at all provides evidence of resident Old Norse-speakers on the island, although this was not always the prevailing view among scholars (see, for example, Nicolaisen 1992; but see Kruse 2004; Rixson 2010; Whyte 2017: 77). Moreover, the fact that these Old Norse place-names survive long enough to be recorded among Mull’s settlement-names when they first appear en masse in textual sources in the 15th century provides evidence of some degree of continuity and stability in the resident population from the Norse period into the subsequent period – a period in which Gaelic was the predominant language of the island. In other words, the shift from Old Norse being the predominant language used to create new place-names in at least some parts of Mull to Gaelic being the predominant language used in local place-naming did not involve Gaelic-speakers exterminating Old Norse-speakers. Instead, this language shift happened within family groups and communities.

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Chapter
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The Viking Age in Scotland
Studies in Scottish Scandinavian Archaeology
, pp. 135 - 142
Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Print publication year: 2023

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