Mimir's Well

Mimir’s Well is a column written for The Orcadian by members of the team at the Institute of Northern Studies. Mimir is a giant from Old Norse mythology, renowned for his wisdom. The source of Mimir’s wisdom was the water of a well by the root of Yggdrasil, the World Tree, known as Mimir’s Well. The god Odin wanted a share in Mimir’s wisdom too, which he got, but he had to leave one of his eyes to Mimir as a pledge. This is how Odin became the wisest of the gods.

The column Mimir’s Well will appear now and again, depending on what inspires us to write. Since we are a multidisciplinary team, the topics of the column will span widely, from history and archaeology via folklore and ethnology to literature and language. Hopefully it will inspire you, too

Hats off to author, whatever the weather

It is a wonderful feeling when a student that you have taught and supervised finds the courage, time and opportunity to take their learning a step further and write a book! This happens from time to time with our students here, and I am thrilled every time. This time, I would like to share with you the work done by John W. Scott.

John joined the Centre for Nordic Studies several years ago as a mature student, with a long career in medicine. Having an organised mind and admirable appreciation of detail, John also had a long standing interest in language. I initially got to know him when he joined the postgraduate module that I teach in Orkney and Shetland Tongues, to which he connected by video-conference every week from Shetland. Having excelled in this module, John then decided to pursue his interest in how people speak in Shetland for his MLitt dissertation. He set out on a very ambitious task: To compile a comparative dictionary of weather terminology from Orkney and Shetland.

John explained that he wanted to take on this enormous task because weather is a constant topic of conversation, in Shetland as well as in Orkney, and has a major influence on work and everyday life. Who hasn’t had their plans changed by the weather? He had also noticed, he said, that in Shetland there are at least 60 words for different kinds of wind, and 70 words for “commotion in the sea”!

I was very impressed when John submitted, as his MLitt dissertation, a collection of over 1300 headwords, complete with a comprehensive introduction and discussion. This was in 2015. It was always his ambition, I think, to share this work with the communities in Shetland and Orkney, and two years down the line he has achieved it: Orkney and Shetland Weather Words, A Comparative Dictionary has now been published by The Shetland Times, and is available to buy in bookshops. It collects, in one volume, words to do not only with weather as such, but also atmospherical conditions, light and dark, conditions at sea, etc., from a wide range of sources such as Jakobsen’s famous dictionary and many other dictionaries, word lists and collections.

There is a very popular group on Facebook called Orkney Reevlers. In this group, people enjoy sharing local words and asking each other how they pronounce them and to give definitions. Often it turns out, as expected, that one word has many local variations both in pronunciation and definitions. When compiling a dictionary, it is the lexicographer’s job to cut through the variation and decide what counts as “one” word, and what are “different” words, and to come up with a definition that encompasses the various meanings. This is what John Scott has done in his weather dictionary, which I hope many “reevlers” will enjoy.

Let me give you a taster of some of the words:

Broch, page 40: halo around the sun or moon.
While most brochs are solid, such as the Broch of Gurness, and located on or in the ground, the earthly broch has its celestial counterpart as a ring around the sun or moon. A moon-broch or sun-broch was seen as a portent of bad weather to come. The poet Chrissie Costie uses it to create an unearthly atmosphere in a poem about the mound-folk: “Dinna go doon tae the Howe at the loch,/When the win’ blaws high an’ the meun his a broch”, she warns, because it’s then that they dance in the fairy ring and you don’t want to risk being taken by the mound-folk.

Dimriv, page 55: Dawn, also as “dimmriv”: dawn in summer.
Any reader of Orkney and Shetland poetry will have heard of the “simmer dim”: the time in summer when it is, allegedly, not dark in the middle of the night. But I was happy to see not just this somewhat clichéd expression, but instead a whole range of compounds with “dim”. The “dim” itself is darkness, and as a verb, “dimm”, it means to grow darker, as in English “dim the lights”, and also the equivalent in Old Norse. From these, you can derive lots of words and expressions, such as “the head of the dim”: midnight; “dimm-hail”: successful haul of fish on a midsummer night; “dimmset”: nightfall in summer (the opposite of “dimriv”); “dimsk”: obscuring haze on the horizon or bank of fog in the distance. You can also sail on the Dim Riv: a replica Viking ship that takes passengers for trips in the Bressay Sound in summer. Dim Riv as a ship’s name made me think of the fantastic ship from C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books, the Dawn Treader.

Hotter, page 128: To shiver, e.g. with cold so that the teeth chatter.
This one caught my eye because if you are thinking in English, it seems to mean the opposite of what you expect! But if you are thinking in Norwegian, or any of the Scandinavian languages, it suddenly starts to make sense. There is an expression, still in common use, which is “hutre og fryse”, which is exactly what you are doing if you are “hotterin” in Shetland as well: visibly shivering with cold. The dictionary contains a lot of these Scandinavian derivations, but many of the Scandinavian words are not in common use anymore, and would be difficult to understand even for native speakers nowadays.

Tullimentan, page 293: When stars dance, jump, and sparkle in frosty weather.
I expect many people are familiar with this word from the Radio Orkney programme, Tullimentan. For myself, I first came across it when reading the poetry of Robert Rendall. In the poem Celestial Kinsmen, he describes how the “tullimentan stars” are looking down on an Orcadian farmer, Mansie o the Bu, and in this the big Taurus and the Plough in the stellar constellations are mirrored in the little farmer ploughing with his ox.

Mirrie Dancers, page 174: Northern Lights.
This one is well-known, and in Kirkwall a new chocolatier has recently opened under this name. There is some variation in spelling and pronunciation here. “Mirrie” is more typical of Shetland, whereas in Orkney it is more common to see and hear “Merry Dancers” — although I have also been told by reliable Orcadian speakers that “mirrie” is also an Orkney form. One of the people I discussed this with is Patricia Long, and she should know, because she is from Stenness and Merry Dancers is indeed the old nick-name for people from Stenness. A curious question is, of course, what “mirrie” or “merry” means. I have no doubt that one is derived from the other, but in which direction? “Merry” is at first glance more intuitively understandable: One can imagine the Northern Lights as people dancing and being merry. However, there is a good case for regarding “mirrie” as the more original form. The word “mirr” has its own entry in the weather dictionary, meaning to tremble, vibrate or quiver, to cause a tingling, and so on. There is a summer “mirr” when the atmosphere quivers in summer. This would also fit the behaviour of the “mirrie dancers”.

Other variations that John Scott has found, are Pretty Dancers, and even Pretty Dangers! Although the “dangers” seems to arise from a misreading of Angus’s dictionary, where he had written the word “dancers” in capital letters. There is also an unrelated other name, “streamers”, which is a very good description of how northern lights look when they are strong.

Wadder-ga, page 309: a low, threatening, storm-charged cloud.

This is one of many compounds with “wadder”, which means weather. As a compound, “wadder-ga” may be related to the Scots word “watergaw”, which was made famous in Hugh MacDiarmid’s poem The Watergaw. For MacDiarmid, it means a partial rainbow. It has been known as a sign of bad weather to come.

I remember when my son Magnus was three years old, and we were out on a trip to the beach at Newark in Deerness. It was October, the rainbow season, and he pointed to a big rainbow in green, yellow and red and said: “Look, an enormous slice of watermelon in the sky!” Haha. Perhaps “watermelon” will one day make it into a dictionary of modern weather terms?

All in all, I hope many people will enjoy the weather dictionary, and that it will provide us all with material to cheerfully prolong our conversations about the weather for many hours. Hats off to John W. Scott.

By Ragnhild Ljosland, originally published in The Orcadian, 5 October 2017.