Atmospheric conditions, apparitions and portents of doom

This time, we dip our bucket of curiosity into Mimir’s Well and come out with one single word: Ganfer. Is it possible to write 1500 words about the word ganfer only? Oh yes! Because this is one of the most fascinating words in the Orkney dialect! And I can’t even pretend to have gotten to the bottom of all that can be said about this word, and readers will probably have many points to add about local pronunciations and usages of the word.

Orkney's Ganfer

The word is explained slightly differently in different dictionaries. The Orkney Dictionary by Margaret Flaws and Gregor Lamb has it in the form “gamfer” in the senses “1. close misty weather. A gamfer for snaa. 2. An appartition.” Although spelled differently, it is still the same word. The reason it has an “m” instead of an “n” is just that the “f” which follows is a labial (touching the lips), and so is an “m”, while an “n” doesn’t touch the lips. So it’s easier for our mouths to go from an “m” to an “f” than it is to go from an “n” to an “f”.

The Shetland Dictionary by John J. Graham has “ganfer: an apparition of a living person, regarded as a portent of that person’s death.”

Jakob Jakobsen’s dictionary of Shetland Norn actually has two entries for ganfer, which means that he regards it as two different words which just happen to sound the same.

Ganfer 1 refers to meteorological phenomena such as a mock sun, a broken rainbow, portending bad weather, cold mist indicating snow, and, interestingly, also a loud cracking sound in the atmosphere. This sudden crash may be followed by misfortune.

Ganfer 2 refers to a ghost or ghost-like person, or a person’s apparition seen before noon.

Hugh Marwick in his dictionary The Orkney Norn follows a similar arrangement as Jakobsen. He adds, however, that the word can also refer to “any supernatural phenomenon”.

Gregor Lamb, in Hid Kam Intae Words, rightly asks the question: “The real meaning of this word (...) is ghost (...) so how does it come to be used in Orkney applied to the weather?”

Well. I recently came across two very interesting articles which both try to answer that question. One is by the Swedish folklorist Bo Almquist and appears in the book Jakob Jakobsen in Shetland and the Faroes. The other is by Eldar Heide, an expert on Old Norse language and literature from the University of Bergen (his article is available on

In order to understand why the word “ganfer” can refer to both meteorological phenomena and supernatural phenomena, we need to know something about how the Norse belief system saw the human soul. The Norse believed that people didn’t just have one soul, but several. One of these was a “breath soul” and so the soul comes to be associated with various forms of wind. For instance, when a person dies, the soul may blow out a candle on its way past as it leaves the body. It was believed that people skilled in magic were able to send their soul forth on journeys – while they themselves were still alive, but in a trance. This type of magic was known as gandr. The primary meaning of gandr, says Eldar Heide, is of “soul or spirit sent forth”. Interestingly, Jakobsen’s Shetland dictionary not only holds the word “ganfer”, but also a word “gander”. Heide argues that “the old connection between soul or spirit and wind can explain why one meaning of Shetlandic gander is gust of wind.”

In Old Norse literature, you sometimes come across witch hunts riding across the sky. Such witch hunts are referred to as a “gand-reið” – a spirit ride. Jakobsen deduces that the word “ganfer” is probably another way of saying “gand-reið”, substituting the word for “ride” (“reið” ) with a word meaning “journey” (“ferð”). Seeing such a sight is a very bad omen. Sometimes you don’t even see it, but instead you may observe a range of accompanying phenomena. For instance, you might hear a loud bang in the atmosphere – hence the Shetland meaning of “ganfer” as a cracking sound. “The ride also had as a result drastic visible changes in the sky, such as the appearance of celestial rings of fire and streams of fire falling from the sky” writes Almquist. Although much more dramatic, this is reminiscent of the range of meteorological phenomena that are referred to by the word “ganfer” in Orkney and Shetland.

What about the ghost or apparition, then? In modern Norwegian, a word for ghost is “gjenferd” – which appears to mean, literally, “again-traveller”: Somebody who is walking about again after their death. However, in Orkney dialect, a “ganfer” may not only refer to a ghost, but a person’s double or an apparition of somebody who is not yet dead. It may be taken as a sign of their imminent death. Or, the way my husband uses it, it may be a sign of their imminent arrival. So it doesn’t seem to match the Norwegian word. The question is whether the “gjen-“ in the word “gjenferd” really is the word “again” or whether it could be the word “gand”, meaning “spirit sent forth”. In any case, the Norwegian “gjenferd” is most certainly someone who is dead already, whereas the Orcadian and Shetlandic “ganfer” is not necessarily dead (yet). Presently, I lean towards the explanation that it all has to do with the word “gand” in the sense of travelling spirits – that would unite the weather phenomena with the ghosts and the apparitions quite nicely. But I am of course open to other explanations if they are well argued.

Is it a bad omen to see a living person’s “ganfer” or alter ego? It most certainly was for þórðr Leysingjason in Njál’s Saga, who saw his own apparition covered in blood! Walter Traill Dennison has a dramatic story where a woman from Westray who was believed to be a witch was seen in her native island while she was actually in prison in Kirkwall. Her “ganfer” was carrying a rope in one hand and a cubbie full of ashes in the other, foretelling her execution by strangulation and burning. In Almquist’s article there is also a fascinating story told by Orkney storyteller Tom Muir about a North Ronaldsay man by name of Willie Thompson. “When just a little child Willie, who knew that his grandmother has been seriously ill in bed, thought that he saw her going past the window outside the house, and reported this to his mother in the words ‘Granny must be feeling better now.’ But the mother, who knew that granny was too ill to get out of bed, told her son that it was not the grandmother but her ganfer that he had seen.”

In these stories, the “ganfer” is foretelling the person’s imminent death. However, there seems to be another current usage of the word “ganfer” which foretells a person’s imminent arrival rather than their death. Such a belief exists in Scandinavia as well, the only difference being that this type of alter ego is not called a “ganfer” or “gjenferd” or anything of that derivation, but a “vård”. It is sometimes just a noise, as if there was somebody at the door, rather than a visual apparition.

Interestingly, seeing a “ganfer” may in Shetland sometimes be taken as a good omen – but only if it is seen before noon. Almquist explains that this variation in the belief in “ganfers” stems from a more general belief that the morning is associated with youth, vitality and health, while the evening is associated with approaching death. In Orkney, however, the belief in how the time of day at which the “ganfer” is seen affects the interpretation seems to be turned on its head: Walter Traill Dennison explains that when a person’s “ganfer” is seen in the forenoon, death will follow very soon, while if it is seen later in the day, it may be a while away yet. The earlier in the day the apparition is seen, the sooner the fulfilment of what it portends.

This is why the Orkney dialect is so fascinating: It is like an endless goldmine of interesting stuff! The ores of gold run through centuries and millennia and right up until the present day when an ordinary Orcadian might look up and say: There’s a gamfer for snow in the air the day.