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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Toronto’s secret Viking heritage

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The Vikings probably aren’t the first people who leap to mind when you think of Toronto’s heritage. After all, we’re a city founded by the British in territory previously claimed by the French on the ancestral lands of the First Nations. And while many people from Scandinavia have called Toronto home, immigration from the northern reaches of Europe has generally been dwarfed by immigration from other parts of the world.

Today, for instance, in a metropolitan census area of 5.5 million people, only 70 of them say that Norwegian is the language they speak most often at home. That’s compared to more than 300,000 who use Chinese languages. In fact, no Scandinavian language comes anywhere close to breaking into the top 50. More Torontonians speak Tigrigna or Marathi or Ilocano.

But if you know where to look, the linguistic traces of a distant Viking past are all around you. You can find them in the names of our streets, our neighbourhoods, our libraries, our schools… In words we use every day. And for the most part, that’s thanks to events that happened more than a thousand years ago many thousands of kilometers away. When the Vikings invaded the British Isles.

It all started in the late 700s with bloody raids along the coast. Unprotected British monasteries were a tempting target. And all the Vikings had to do was to sail across the North Sea — only about the same distance as between Toronto and Montreal. By the end of the 800s, they’d launched a full-scale invasion and conquered a huge chunk of the island. Their new territory stretched all the way across the north-east of what’s now England. Historians call it the Danelaw. The Norse ruled the land for about 200 years. And that meant waves of new Viking immigration.

While they were there, of course, they named things. Lots of things. Cities and towns and rivers and fields and farms…. Even a thousand years later, when you look at a map of England, you can see their linguistic legacy. It’s all over the former Danelaw. In the north and the east of England, the names of places are still full of Old Norse.

And when the British came to Canada, they brought some of those names with them. The British renamed places they found in Toronto — just like the Vikings had done in Britain. So today’s modern city — more than 2,000 kilometers away from the closest evidence of Viking settlement — is still full of traces of the days when the Vikings ruled much of England.

So take, for instance, Burnhamthorpe Road, which runs through parts of Etobicoke and Mississauga. It was named by the settler John Ableton all the way back in the 1860s. He suggested it because Burnham Thorpe was the name of his hometown back in England. It had been part of the Danelaw; the name originally came from those ancient Viking days — it’s one of dozens upon dozens of places in the former Danelaw that still end in -thorpe, which was the Old Norse word for “village” or “farmstead”.

The same goes for places that end in -holme. Like Glenholme Avenue near St. Clair West (which, while we’re at it, isn’t far from tiny Grimthorpe Road — the Viking name “Grim” with the Viking suffix “thorpe”.). “Holme” was an Old Norse word for “island”. So it’s not a coincidence that there are places in Sweden with names like Stockholm, Hässleholm and Ängelholm — or Horsholm in Denmark.

In some cases, the “holme” suffix has evolved over the centuries, turning into the ending “ham”. That’s what happened to one ancient town near Manchester: Aldehulme eventually became Oldham. And Oldham, in turn, eventually became the name of a road in Etobicoke.

It is a bit confusing, though: sometimes “ham” doesn’t come from Old Norse at all — sometimes it comes from the Old English word for “homestead”. And a lot of the examples are even more complicated like that. The Old English of the Anglo-Saxons (who ruled much of England at the same time the Vikings did) shared the same linguistic roots with Old Norse — some of the words are so similar that it’s not entirely clear which one is responsible for the modern version. In some cases, it’s probably both. For instance, they both used a word like “dale” to refer to valleys. And a thousand years later, we do too. Neighbourhoods like Riverdale, Rosedale, Willowdale and Bendale all echo the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons.

Sometimes, their words got mashed together, too. So, for instance, to name one city in the Danelaw, they took the Old English word for hill — “dun” — and then added the Old Norse ending “holme”. Over the years, “Dun Holme” gradually morphed into “Durham”. Today, that’s what the city and the county are both called. And when Upper Canada’s first Lieutenant Governor, John Graves Simcoe, was looking for names for the new counties he was creating in Canada, he chose to name them after counties back home in England. Including Durham. So a thousand years after the Vikings first named their city “Dun Holme”, we still call the land to the east of Toronto “Durham Region”.

Durham Region, in turn, is home to Whitby — which has another Old Norse suffix: “by”, which was the Viking word for “settlement”.

And some examples are even more clear-cut.

Sometime back around the year 1000, the Vikings are thought to have established a new trading post on the coast of Wales. They named it after their King — Sweyn Forkbeard — who may even have founded the city himself. They added on an Old Norse suffix — “ey” for “island” or “inlet” — so the name of the city was essentially the Viking word for “Sven’s Island”. Over the next few centuries, it became “Sweynesse”, “Sweyneshe”, “Sweyse” and, eventually, “Swansea”. And more than 800 years after the death of King Forkbeard, a man from Swansea moved to Toronto. He purchased the local bolt works company and renamed the business after his hometown. Eventually, the name was used to describe the whole area. Today, we still call the neighbourhood to the west of High Park “Swansea” in honour of a Viking King most of us have never even heard of.

But the most striking example might be this one:

According to one of the ancient Icelandic Sagas, there was once a Viking raider and poet by the name of Thorgils Skarthi The Hare-Lipped. Around the year 966, he decided to move across the North Sea for good and establish a new settlement on a harbour near the towering limestone cliffs of the north-east coast of England. He named the new town after himself, calling it Skarthi’s stronghold: Skarðaborg. He was eventually driven out by the Anglo-Saxons and the new town was burned down. But when it was rebuilt years later, the name stuck.

Centuries after that, when Governor Simcoe came to Toronto to build his own stronghold on the harbour he found here, his wife came with him. Elizabeth Simcoe was struck by the beauty of this place — including the towering white bluffs to the east of the new town. They reminded her of the same limestone cliffs where Thorgils Skarthi The Hare-Lipped had once built his stronghold. So she christened the bluffs here with the modern version of the same word he used in England. That was the same word we still use to describe the vast expanse of land above those bluffs — the whole eastern half of our city.

Scarborough. Skarðaborg. Skarthi’s Viking stronghold.


Photo: The Cuerdale Viking silver hoard at the British Museum

A version of this post originally appeared on the The Toronto Dreams Project Historical Ephemera Blog as part of the Dreams Project’s recent tour tracing the history of Toronto in the UK. You can find more sources, links and related stories there.