What's in a Shetland Name?

by Allan Fraser -

Any visitor to Shetland using the OS series of maps or reading the road-signs could be forgiven for thinking they had landed in a province of Iceland or Scandinavia. Indeed Shetland did belong to Danish-Norse-Swedish Empire until it was mortgaged to Scotland in 1469.

Shetland had its own language, Norn, which had evolved from the Old Norse (Norroena) language brought by Viking settlers in about AD 800. This language completely replaced the (then) Pictish language and was the chief medium of oral and written communication from Viking times well into the Middle Ages, in fact Norn was spoken in Shetland through until the mid 1700's.

In time immigration from the south and the gradual change from the Norse Udal Laws to the repressive Scots Feudal system led to the replacement of the native Scandinavian idiom by Lowland Scottish, but not completely. Today Norn survives in the place-names of Shetland, although often the English spellings do not reflect pronunciation in Shetland dialect. Shetland dialect too has evolved and become diluted with time, particularly with the expansion of formal education that saw the dialect as inferior to be ridiculed and banned in its use in schools.

The place-names of Shetland given by our Scandinavian ancestors have been heavily influenced by the geomorphology and the geology of the islands, far too many in fact to be comprehensively covered by this article. Of his research into the Norn of Shetland Jackob Jakobsen wrote: “Every small hill, point rock, dale, cleft, brook, piece of field or meadow, etc., bears its own name, and these names, with comparatively few exceptions have been handed down in Norn dialect. The small Isle of Fetlar, scarcely four square miles in area, contains about two thousand place names, and the entire number of place-names of the isles no doubt exceeds five thousand”.

(N.B. in this article o.n. = Old Norse, n. = Norn, p. = local pronunciation).

It has been suggested that Shetland gets its name from the relative distribution of its 100 islands having the appearance of a downward pointing sword (n. Hjaltland, p. Yaltlaand, from o.n. hjalt - knob on the end of a sword or hjölt, the handgrip).

It seems that the majority of Shetland place-names are descriptive compound names with common endings such as: -land (o.n. land, p. laand); -ness (o.n. nes, n. p. nes - a headland); -voe (o.n. vágr, n.p. voe - a long narrow sheltered bay); -wick (o.n. vi k, p. week - an open bay with little shelter); -firth (o.n. fjörδr - a wide bay). A few examples of these are: Houlland (n. Hóland, from o.n. hár - high) high land and Braehoulland (o.n. breiδr) broad high land; Muness (n. Mjóanes, p. Mewness, from o.n. mjór - narrow) narrow ness; Leiraness (n. Leirnes, from o.n. leir - clay or mud); Sandvoe (from o.n. sandr - sand, p. Saandvoe); Lerwick (p. Lerweek) Shetland's capital is situated by a muddy bay; Collafirth (n. Kollafjörδr, from o.n. kollr - a round hill) is sheltered by round hills.

Norn also survives in the many farm and settlement names as compound names ending in -setter (o.n. setr - hill pasture), -sta (o.n. staδir - a farm) and -bister (o.n. bólstaδr - an area divided into farms). Mostly the compounded farm names indicate the name of an original owner but occasionally describe its relative position, the quality of the ground or the topography as in Scarvister (o.n. skarv - bare rocky ground) and Dalsetter (o.n. dalr - a valley). The settlement of Girlsta, originally Geirhildstaδir was named after Geirhildr the daughter of Hrafna-Flóki who used Shetland as his base before setting out to colonise Iceland. Geirhildr was drowned in the nearby Geirhildarvatn (n. vatn - lake or water, p. wat-er), now Girlsta Loch.

Lakes in Shetland generally owe their original names to the streams that flow from them. The addition of the Scots "burn" to the original Shetland stream names has evolved over time so now the original stream names are mostly preserved in the lake names e.g. Gossawater (from o.n gás - a goose and á - a river) the head waters of Gossa, now the Burn of Gossawater. Lake names ending in -water are still common in Shetland but the Scots term loch has gradually replaced water for the larger lakes (thanks to the OS) often making the name nonsensical, e.g. Loch of Gossawater. Today only two lakes remain with the ending vatn, Sandvatn and Virdavatn (o.n. varδa - a cairn on a hilltop) and just a few streams without the burn appendage e.g. Bretto (from o.n. brattr - steep and á - a river, n.p. o - a stream).

The underlying geology of Shetland is often reflected in its place-names. The spectacular red granophyre cliffs of north-west Mainland are reflected in the names Muckle Roe, Little Roe and North Roe (n.p. røe, from o.n. Rauδøy or rauδr - red and øy - isle). Røebrekks and Røebregg (o.n. brekka - slope) are the red hills and the red hill respectively. Neep and noop (o.n. gnípa - high ground with a steep face) is a common name for high sea cliffs, hence Roeneap. Ronas Hill, Shetland's highest, (and its adjacent fjord, Ronas Voe) although of red granophyre, is a stony hill (from o.n. raun - stony ground, n.p. røni - a heap of stones, p. Røni's Hill).

The red granophyre cliffs meet grey schist at the Heads of Groken (from o.n. grar - grey and kinn - cheek or steep slope). Sea level rise since the last glacial period has left numerous shingle spits, bars, beaches and offshore rocks hence many occurrences of -ayre and stack (o.n. eyrr - sand, gravel or pebbles beside water, stakkr - a high sea rock ) e.g. Vallayre (from o.n. vaδill - a shallow part in water) and Groni Stack (from o.n. groenn - green). On the island of Bressay (from o.n breiδr - broad and øy - isle, p. Bressa) a flat sheet of rock slopes down to the sea at Muckle Hell (from o.n. mikl - large and hella - a flat rock).

The soft rock talc-magnesite, also known as steatite or soapstone, is referred to in Shetland as klebber, (from o.n. kle - a loom weight and berg - a rock) and has been exploited throughout Shetland's history. Neolithic potters ground down the rock to be used as an ingredient in pottery along with glacial clay, but the greatest exploitation of this material occurred in Norse times. Steatite was extensively quarried by Norse settlers to produce a whole range of functional and decorative objects from loom and fishing weights to cooking utensils to personal ornaments. Objects of Shetland steatite have been found in association with Norse settlements throughout Britain and Ireland suggesting a thriving export trade.

The force of the sea acting on joints and faults in the cliffs have collapsed these in many dozens of places, often to spectacular effect. The resultant narrow inlets known as geo's (from o.n. gjá - a cleft or chasm), almost all have their own descriptive name. Klebber Geo on north Mainland displays evidence of Viking workings as does Clibberswick (n. Klebergswik) on Unst where talc is still being quarried today. The Kirn o da Slettans (Scots churn and o.n. slétta - a level field) is a blow-hole in the flat cliff-tops of the volcanic province of Eshaness (o.n. esja - partly soft stone and partly a hard flaky stone). It is interesting to note that thick band of soft and heavily weathered material lies within the lava flows on Eshaness.

Anglicisation of Shetland's place names has gathered pace since the end of the 18th century. In many cases the OS have assumed that local pronunciations of place-names were in mis-pronounced English rather than a dialect of Norn leading to anglicised spellings on their maps. Sadly, the vogue in Shetland today is to invent pseudo Old Norse place-names for new settlements, roads etc, rather than keep alive existing dialect names. The sense of inferiority of Shetland's native tongue is still deeply ingrained in the Shetland psyche.

Mis-spelling has led to some amusing and contrary place-names (I will leave out the rude ones): Soond (n. sund - a channel) became Sound; Waas (o.n. vágr - a bay) became Walls; Moose-hol (n. Móshol, from o.n. mór - heath and hola - a hollow) became Mousehole; who would think twice about sailing into Giggleswick (p. gjigelsweek, from o.n. geigr - danger).

Written by Allen Fraser

For the last 10 years or so Allen has been leading field excursions in Shetland for the Open University Geological Society, the Geologists' Association and the Shetland Field Studies Group.

To learn more go to www.shetlandgeology.com