Home Norse The Building up of Isle of Man Place-names

The Building up of Isle of Man Place-names

by Bernadette Weyde
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The bulk of our place-names according to Marstrander (Norwegian linguist and Prof. of Celtic Studies in Oslo) belong to the period subsequent to Norse times. This raises a debatable point; did the Norsemen rename the natural features? Possibly the truth is that the Island was sparsely populated owing to the unwelcome attention of the earlier Norse immigrants that much of the country may be nameless and would perforce have to be renamed. When Norsemen settled in any part containing a Gaelic population it is possible that they may have adopted Gaelic names in use, but there is little evidence that this occurred; a few names however, survive which indicate bilinguality in the 11th and 12th centuries.

We have many names not only around the coast but in the remotest inland spots, showing how thorough was the Norse influence. Irishmen called the Manx people GALL-GAEL – who spoke Gaelic and Norwegian. We have confirmation of this bilinguality in many place-names; thus we find the mountain with the Norwegian name SARTFELL and a farm on its slope called CRONK DOO, both mean BLACK HILL. And in the parish of Rushen we have two farm names adjoining each other, KENTRAUGH and STRANDHALL, both meaning STRAND END.

Marstrander has pointed out that of the 178 Treen names written in our earliest archives, 118 are Norse and 58 Gaelic. The lowland and best farms were held by the chieftans. When a farm, in course of time, was partitioned into several smaller farms, it often became a village. We have several such BY-farms which became villages of this type – SULBY, DALBY, CROSBY and COLBY. For instance, Sulby had as many as 38 families in the 16th century. Other BY-names were SCOLABY, KIRKBY (Kirby), GRENABY, RABY, REGABY. Others have the BY (farm) prefixed showing Gaelic influence such as BEgoade, BEmahague and BIllown.

The vocabulary of the Manx language has been enriched in no small degree with words bequeathed to it by the seafarers from the Northlands. A very familiar coast name termination is WICK which occurs no less than 30 times around the coast. A VIK means a creek or bay, as in SODERICK, GARWICK, GREENWIK, FLESHWICK AND PERWICK, all named on account of creeks being frequented by the Norsemen, who were called Vikings or WIKING as the Norsemen pronounced it.

Ramsey was called, in ‘The Chronicle’, RAMSA from the Norwegian HRAMNS-Á meaning the RAVEN’S RIVER. This river is the boundary between Lezayre and Maughold. Ramsey Bay was to the Norsemen the most important landing place for when the tide was in, the longships could run far inland up the Sulby river. Next to Ramsey came Peel Bay, on account of the importance of St Patrick’s Isle fortress; HOLM-T’UN as it was called (later to be known as Holm-town and then Peel).

The most used bay, however, was what is now called Derbyhaven. Its oldest name was COMSARY from the Gaelic CAMUS NY REE ‘the Bay of the Kings’. When the Norsemen came they called it ROGNALD’S VAGR or REGINALD’S BAY. It is undoubtedly the memory of Kind Reginald (1178-1228) that is preserved in the present RONALDSWAY. He dwelt at Castle Rushen and probably built the old chapel which afterwards became the Academy.

When the Derbys became Lords of Man, the port became Derbyhaven. Thus we have three distinct names bearing the impress of royalty: the Gaelic CAMUS NY REE (the Royal bay), the Norse ROGNALD’S VAGR (King Reginald’s Bay) and Derby Haven after the Earls of Derby. Why was Derby Haven a royal port? The answer is that it was the gateway to the Castle of Rushen. In Norse times there was a tarbert across the narrow neck of the Langness, providing access to the inner and safe waters of Castletown Bay; as the entrance to the latter was dangerous, as it is to this day, while on the other hand Derbyhaven is one of our most natural harbours. A tarbert means a narrow isthmus where flat-bottomed galleys of the Norsemen could easily be dragged over and launched on the other side, and rowed then in safety to the Castle of Rushen. Guarding the southern entrance to Derbyhaven, is the little island of INIS MICHEL, or St Michael’s Island, now called Fort Island after the fort built there by the 7th Earl of Derby about 1640, but near by is the site of a much earlier fortress. The name of the peninsula, Langness, is Norse and it means LONG NOSE.

Our Norse place-names often illustrate a wealth of past history. The ancestral family farm of our Norse ancestors with its place of worship, often raised on a Celtic site and the saint’s name duly preserved, reflects as in a mirror an old-world society with its various strata of aristocrats, freemen and thralls – a society which with its admixture of Celtic blood has become the basis of the nation.


(source: Island Heritage by Wm Cubbon; artwork is by Conor Burke ‘Viking Cataclysm)

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