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The Northern European link to language in Northern and Western Scotland

By Linden Alexander Pentecost

To the north of the Scottish mainland are two groups of islands, known as Orkney and Shetland. Not too long ago, these islands had their own Germanic language, or Germanic languages, referred to as Norn. Over the past few hundred years, the linguistic heritage of these islands became transformed into ‘Scots’, Orkney Scots and Shetlandic Scots or Shaetlann.

Because these island groups have been inhabited for many thousands of years, it is unclear to what extent Pictish, Old Irish, Old Norse and Norn were spoken across these islands. The Norse heritage in the place-names and in the Scots dialects is clear, but it would perhaps be wrong to say that these islands are ‘Norse’. On the other hand, some of the Scots dialect words on these islands do not have a clear Norse origin, for example the Shetlandic word feivl – which means ’snow falling in large flakes’, according to An etymological glossary of the Shetland & Orkney dialect, by Thomas Edmondston (1), page 31.

This word is extremely curious, especially as I later discovered in the book Shetland Folk-Lore by John Spence, that a variant of this word, spelled as Fivla was spoken to refer to trows of the female gender. In Shetland, a trow is not the same thing as a Scandinavian troll, although the etymologies are related. According to John Spence in (2):“The names Fivla and Tivla appear to have been favourite appellations given to trows of the feminine gender”. He goes on to say that “fivla is used in Unst for designating a light fall of snow”.

Shetlandic itself is a fascinating language, like Orkney Scots. Often writers of Shetlandic or Shaetlann will include some more Scandinavian-looking spellings, for example, the English sentence “she knows where Whalsey is” could be for example: – shö kens kwar Kwalsa is. This example shows a feature of Shetlandic that was shared with Shetland Norn, that in certain parts of the west of Shetland, the initial wh- in Scots and hv- in Old Norse, becomes [kw]. A similar change happens in Icelandic, Faroese, and in Western Norwegian dialects. Below are some further examples of Shetlandic phrases followed by the English.

du is in my haert – you are in my heart

da idders is bön upö da sands da day – the others have been on the sands today

dey ir spaekin Shaetlann – they are speaking Shetlandic

Indeed the heritage of these islands is very ancient, and it is unclear what languages were spoken in the past, and how they might relate to the historically attested languages. There are runic inscriptions on the Orkney Islands which show a form of language that is definitely ‘Old West Norse’. The later Norn language as attested and recorded seems in some cases to show features that are most West-Germanic in nature.

These are likely due to the influence of Scots, but it is also possible that some of these features are inherent within the Norn language. These features are somewhat less obvious in the reconstructed form of Norn known as Nynorn, this is a fantastic project which works with what I would describe as an archaic literary register for Norn, which does have real historic origins in certain examples of Norn.

Sometimes there are features in Shetlandic Norn which do show features that make it differ from North-Germanic languages in general. There are for example unintelligible sayings recorded by Edmonston and Jakobsen. The book Shetland Folk-Lore by John Spence, F.E.I.S. there is included an ’ancient spell’ for laying the wind at sea:

Robin cam ow’r da vaana wi’ da sköna
Twaabie, toobie, keelikim, koolikim
Pattrik alanks da Robin
Gude runk da gro.

The names Pattrik and Robin seem much more recent, but some parts of the spell are not intelligible. In this section of the book, the author is talking about the ‘Finns’ of Shetland mythology.

Whilst the Norse and Pictish elements of Shetlandic history are often discussed, the legends of ‘Finns’ are not. Whether you take this to literally mean ‘Finnish’ or not, the mythology according to John Spence in Shetland Folk-Lore, seems to describe the Finns as being a supernatural and magical people, connected in some way to the sea, and wearing some kind of seal-skin. I quote John Spence: “In Shetland folk-lore the Finns, both men and women, were supposed to possess a skin or garment like the covering of a selkie (seal)”.

The author later goes on to say that : “In old times there was an aversion to and superstitious dread of killing a selkie, lest should it be a metamorphic Finn”. Also according to John Spence in Shetland Folk-Lore: “The Finns were said to be the only beings who could safely ride the Neugle”. The Neugle is a water being or deity from the Northern Isles, with equine and sometimes serpentine features. Shetlandic mythology really is fascinating to me. Despite Orkney and Shetland both sharing the Norse and Norn heritages, the islands are uniquely different, and often the mythology and ancient relics of the two archapilagos show differences.

I think it very unlikely that a Uralic language was ever spoken in Shetland, and one could argue that the use of ’Finn’ for referring to a magical people actually originated in Norway, where ‘Finn’ was used to refer to the Finnish and Sámi speaking peoples in Scandinavia; these traditions and ideas could have then been brought to Shetland from Norway.

On the other hand, the oral literature does seem to suggest that the Finns were a people on Shetland itself, and with some names on Shetland being possibly pre-Indo-Eurpean, like ‘Unst’ and ‘Yell’ for example, it does make me wonder whether or not there was another seafaring people on Shetland, neither Norse nor Pictish.

South of the Orkney Islands is the Pentland Firth. Norn seems to have been spoken on the southern side of this firth too, in what is now known as Caithness on the mainland; although Caithness was mainly Gaelic-speaking in historic times, unlike Orkney and Shetland. The Norn of Caithness can be seen in coastal place-names, for example Thurso, Caithness Nynorn Þurså, which could either mean ‘Thor’s river’ of the river of the þurs, a kind of ancient giant being.

Between Orkney and Caithness is the island of Stroma, Caithness Nynorn Strouma ‘tidal-stream island’, in reference to the fast and dangerous tidal streams in the Pentland Firth. In Orkney Nynorn this might be written as Stroumej, compare Icelandic straumey, Norwegian Nynors: straumøy. It appears that [ou] or a variant thereof is a common manifestation of Old Norse au in Orkney, Caithness and Hebridean Norn. Take also for example the islands named ‘Soay’, which appears to show a sound like [ou] from the Old Norse word sauðr – ‘sheep’. In Faroese this sound is ey [ɛiː], e.g. seyður – ‘sheep’, streymur – ‘tidal stream, a current’.

Although it was likely much less spoken in the Hebrides, there is an Old Norse or Norn connection there too, for example on the Isle of Barra, the mountain named Heaval, spelled in Gaelic as Sheabhal shares the element -val or -bhal with Old Norse fell – ’mountain’. The name Barra itself, Gaelic Barraigh, at least contains the element -ey ‘island’ which can be considered as Norse.

The bar- element could be arguably Celtic, Norse, or in my opinion, pre-Celtic. Nearby the island of Vatersay may also mean ‘water island’. But this doesn’t have to mean that at all many Norse speakers were necessarily living on the islands, and the reason for that is that most of these Norse place-names are of landmarks visible from the sea, and so to some extent these names are ‘navigational’.

In terms of pre-Celtic names in the Hebridean islands, it seems quite possible that the name ‘Uist’ is not of Indo-European origin for example, also the names ‘Lewis/Leòdhas’ and ‘Harris/Na Hearadh, and Hiort (in St Kilda). I think that *hear- or *hir- may be elements of this ancient language.

(1) a glossary of the Orkney and Shetland dialect, by, page 31

(2) Shetland Folk-Lore, by John Spence, F.E.I.S.

Paul Moar, a Shetlandic speaker, helped to tweak one of the sentences which I wrote

I have worked on the reconstruction of Caithness and of Orkney Norn, but as an extension of the base-work done on Shetland and Orkney Nynorn by Andrei Melnikov, Dagfinn S. Højgaard and others. The Nynorn website can be viewed here:

Written in honour of the Finns and of all peoples of northern Scotland

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