Norse shielings in Scotland: an interdisciplinary study of setr/sætr and ærgi-names
Foster, Mark Ryan
This is a study of the Old Norse (hereafter abbreviated to ON) setr/sætr and ærgi place-names in areas of Scandinavian settlement in Scotland. The elements setr/sætr and ærgi all have a general meaning of a place for summer grazing in the hills, referred to in Scotland as a shieling. However, the related terms setr and sætr, are employed as shielings names in Norway and are indistinguishable from each other in Britain. It is only in areas of Scandinavian settlement in Britain and the Faroes that ærgi is found to signify a shieling site. The element ærgi was adopted as a loanword from either, the Scottish Gaelic àirigh or Irish áirge, both of which can also have the meaning of a shieling. What is unusual about this adoption is it is rare for a more prestigious speech community (ON in this instance) to adopt a word from, what is believed to have been, a less prestigious language at the time (Gaelic). Various scholars have looked at this question, but none have adequately explained the reason for the adoption. Much of the previous research has relied on comparisons of local farming systems that were recorded many centuries after the Viking Age. Farming techniques from the fifteenth to twentieth century are unlikely to adequately represent the agricultural situation in the Viking Age due to different social imperatives. The overall question I want to answer in this thesis, is why Scandinavian settlers in Scotland adopted ærgi, when they already had corresponding ON terms for a shieling. The distribution of ON settlement names is one of the main pieces of evidence to prove Scandinavian settlement in Scotland during this period. This is especially true of secondary settlements, such as shielings, which rarely feature in early documentation. The language shift to either Gaelic or Scots-English is likely to have led to the loss of many ON place-names, but will also have fossilised some names in the landscape. The location of these settlement names can give an understanding of how Scandinavian settlers utilised the landscape and highlight differences in the use of different shieling names. This thesis is interdisciplinary in nature, but one based on cultural and historical geography. The first element of the study is to understand why shielings developed in Scandinavian society and if there are identifiable environmental factors behind their location. Studies in Norway suggest shielings developed as a response to environmental constraints to agriculture and social pressures to produce a surplus. A locational study of shielings in areas that were the likely origin of Viking settlers in Norway, highlighted seven key locations for shielings. These locational factors were then compared to setr/sætr-names in Scotland. The locations were broadly similar to Norwegian shielings, however, Scottish setr/sætr-names were more likely to be situated in slightly more fertile locations than Norwegian examples studied. A comparison of Scottish setr/sætr-names with ærgi-names also revealed the latter to be more likely found on even richer grazing land. The conclusion being, setr/sætr had a more general meaning of a place for summer grazing, whereas, ærgi was specifically linked to richer soils and richer grazing land. This link may relate to an intensive dairy economy, something which is known from contemporary documentary sources from the Gaelic world, but has not been proven in pre-Viking Age Norway.