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Local History - Vikings

VIKINGS IN LANCASHIRE by Stephen Harding - 04 March 2004


In this fascinating Talk, given to a well attended meeting of the Society on 23rd January Professor Harding illustrated how the evidence of our ancestors is hidden in our genetic code and reveals how developments in the cutting-edge-science of population genetics have made it possible not just to discover where our ancestors lived (and who they may have fought, loved, learned from and influenced) but to create a family tree for the whole of humanity.

In 2001 the BBC launched the series “Blood of Vikings,” by taking oral swabs with the intention of investigating the evidence for Viking influence in the British Isles. As part of that series 2000 men were tested to see if they had genetic material in their Y-chromosomes comparable to men in the Viking homelands of Norway and Denmark. In the final programme of the series the BBC presented Bill Housley from the Wirral as one of the best examples of a match with men surveyed in Norway.

Was this a sheer coincidence, or is there something about the history of Merseyside, Chester, West Lancashire and indeed the North-West of England as a whole, that makes the finding about Bill’s Y-chromosome, perhaps not so surprising?

The first clue comes from Bill’s home village - Meols, near Hoylake. Meols is an old Viking name or, to be more precise an “Old Norse” name, meaning “sandbank”. “Norse” is used as a term to describe Vikings originating from Norway, distinguishing them from Danes. In fact, Old Norse (abbreviated as “ON”) is very similar to Old Danish (ODan). Although there are subtle differences they are not too dissimilar to Old English (OE), the language of the early Anglo-Saxon invaders from Northern Germany. The place-name element Meols also appears in West Lancashire as North Meols and Meols Hall, all near Southport. And it is no coincidence, it also appears in Iceland several times, as Melar. So, Vikings in Merseyside and Lancashire? Most definitely yes!

The place-name element most people are aware of as typically Viking is the ending ‘by’ which means “settlement” and the second clue
 here, comes from a consideration of the distribution of place-names in Britain with this element. Experts now regard the place-name -by as more typical of Danish as opposed to Norwegian Vikings. If we look at the distribution of all place-names of village and towns which can be traced to Danish, Norse or Norse-Irish roots, the evidence for significant Viking influence in Merseyside and West Lancashire is beyond dispute. In addition the influence extends to some surprising quarters. The connoisseur of Association Football may be surprised to learn that at least three of its teams in the area carry the flag of Viking names: the most senior of these is Tranmere, a village in the north of Wirral, which surprised many in 2000 by reaching the final of the English Football League Cup at Wembley Stadium. Across the Mersey into West Lancashire, another Viking village, Skelmersdale reached the final, also at Wembley, of the FA Amateur Cup in 1967, and reached the final again in 1971 to win the trophy. Nearby Burscough FC, which also sports a Viking name, are one of the top sides in the North-west of England outside the Football League.

Now whether we in Formby admire or love the Vikings, we have been left a heritage of their culture all around us in the names of our villages and towns: Our Sefton Metropolitan Borough; “Sef-tun” “Sedge Farmstead,” or Farmstead where rushes grow. Ainsdale; “Einulfsdalr,” “Einulf’s Valley.” In the Domesday Book, it is described as located between sandhills and mossland. Birkdale; “Birkidalr,” Birch-tree valley. Little Altcar; the can or marshland, beside the River Alt. Formby, Fomisby, “Forni’s village,” from a Norse personal name “Forth.” and the Norse “byr”, or Danish “by.” An alternative is Fornaby “the old village” from old Norse “forn”. An early form includes Fornebei (Domesday Book). Ekwall points out that Fornaby is a very common Swedish name, and Fornebu was until recently the site of the main Oslo Airport. Finally Great and Little Crosby Krossabyr, “The cross village.” Early forms include Crosebi (Domesday) and Crosseby.(1212).

Report by Louis Procter