On the trail of Hammer Mugly

Place-names – ah, the joys of interpreting place-names. The thing about place-names is that they can be a fantastic source for finding out more about the history of a place, but they can also be a fantastic source of confusion when two or more equally plausible interpretations are put forward. Sometimes, when one is trying to interpret a place-name, one goes through stages of first believing in one explanation and then being swung to the next, then perhaps one ends up going back to the first one in the end.

This happened to Hugh Marwick when trying to interpret the Shetland place-name Fitful Head. Marwick was trying to make up his mind whether he thought the name had something to do with a beacon, as the Old Norse word viti means beacon and there are other examples of the word viti turning into “fit” like in the name Fitty Hill that I mentioned in my last column. Hugh Marwick’s other alternative was that the name Fitful Head had something to do with birds. “Fugl” is the Norse word for bird, just like the English word “fowl” and the Shetland place-name Foula: The bird island. So that could explain the “ful”, while the “fit” could refer to sea-birds with webbed feet. “Head”, of course, has been added later, after the language shift to Scots, as a way of explaining that this place is a headland.

The name Fitful Head was made famous through Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Pirate, which presents a very fanciful image of Orkney and Shetland. In it is a character called Norna of Fitful Head: A gothic-romantic sorceress. Her first name Norna plays on the Old Norse mythological characters the Norns. These were three women called Urðr, Verðandi and Skuld. The names are usually translated as Past, Present and Future, but it has also been suggested that they should perhaps be taken in a more collective sense of fate or destiny.

The Norns are the goddesses of fate, weaving the threads of each human life into the big tapestry that is the world and its history. Interestingly, the name Urðr is possibly related to the English word weird. This word goes back to an Anglo-Saxon word meaning fate. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth there are three witches called The Weird Sisters, prophesising that Macbeth shall be king. I would say that although they also appear quite weird in the modern sense of the word, their name probably has more to do with their involvement with destiny. In modern literature, we find the Weird Sisters as a rock band in the Harry Potter novels by J. K. Rowling. But their roots go back to an ancient idea of the three witches, of which the Norns is one manifestation. We also find them in the Thomas Gray poem The Fatal Sisters – fatal as in decreed by fate, although that fate could certainly be deadly as well. The Fatal Sisters is an interpretation of an Old Norse poem called Darraðarljoð found in Njal’s Saga, a version of which was passed down in oral tradition in Orkney until the eighteenth century. Walter Scott cleverly used this whole mythological and literary tradition when he created the character Norna of Fitful Head, making her name sound like she takes fits and goes into trances when the name is really a place-name meaning something as mundane as either a place for a beacon or a place for sea-birds!

But to get back to the problem of interpreting place-names. Back in August, I wrote about the names Wart Holm and Knarston. I have since had some interesting correspondence which made me think a bit further about these names. First of all, Mr George S. Burgher wrote to me about the name Wart Holm. I had written that Mr Thomas Huser in his thesis on Westray place-names thought that Wart Holm meant beacon holm, and that it was used as a link between the beacons on Fitty Hill, Westray and Ward Hill, Eday. Mr Burgher in his letter pointed out that Wart Holm is very low above sea level and in a strong tidal area, so not very easily accessible for lighting a beacon in times of danger. This is a fair point, I thought, so I contacted Dr Berit Sandnes, who has done extensive studies on Orkney place-names. She says that she still thinks the word “wart” in Wart Holm is derived from the Old Norse varða, but that in addition to a beacon it can also mean a stone setting which is not meant to be lit. It just stands there as a marker, perhaps in this case as an aid to ship traffic. I thought that sounded plausible, however, Mr Burgher points out that Wart Holm is not mentioned as a navigational aid in the 1876 edition of the North Sea Pilot.

The second name which has been under discussion since my last column is the name Knarston. I said last time that Dr Barbara Crawford in her talk in August interpreted Knarston as a place where one would moor a special type of Norse cargo ship called a Knarr. That fits perfectly for Knarston by Scapa, but I failed to see how it could possibly fit Knarston in Harray. However, according to Mrs Sheila Spence, who wrote to me after my last column, there is no problem with applying the same interpretation to Knarston in Harray. She points out that names can migrate further inland when earlier coastal names are applied to farm buildings, as in the case of Knarston in Rousay. She further writes that there are many names in low lying areas around Dounby which are descriptive of the shore and the sea and that this “would suggest that in earlier centuries they could be reached by boat”.  Dr Barbara Crawford was copied into the correspondence, and she responded: “I am in no doubt that there were shallow waterways through that low-lying area 1000 years ago via which the shallow-keeled Viking ships would have been able to access Houseby loch, despite the differences in water levels today.” The precise water levels for the Norse period need to be established by archaeologists before we can reach a final conclusion on the Knarston name in Harray. Luckily there are some archaeologists on the case already: Plans for a project are currently being developed by the Centre for Nordic Studies in collaboration with others, so watch this space.

Barbara Crawford does not exclude the possibility that Knarston in Harray therefore could refer to “knarr” ships. However, one must also take other possibilities into account, such as the distinct possibility that “knar” could be a personal name, as this is a very common pattern in –ston names. In the article “Houseby, Harray and Knarston in the West Mainland of Orkney. Toponymic indicators of administrative authority?” Crawford asks: “Could the Harray Knarston have similarly been associated with a nearby stoð on one of the lochs where knarrs unloaded? The tunship of Hourston definitely lies between Knarston and Harray Loch, and Knarston does not actually adjoin the Loch of Sabiston / Houseby today, so it does not appear as if this could ever have been possible. The probability therefore remains that this Knarston is likely to derive from a personal name, as all the other staðir-names in the locality. Indeed, in the 1492 and 1500 Rentals it appears as Narstain / Nerstaith (...) indicating that it is likely derived from the personal name Narfi, and later acquired a k analogous to the other Knarstons, which are more likely to have derived from ON knorr.” So the case remains open.

Meantime, I am on a quest to find out more about Hammer Mugly in Rousay. In this case, it is easy to say what it means: Hammer means outcropping rock, while Mugly means “the big one”. So the big, outcropping rock. There is a place called Hammer Mugly near The Blosson in Rousay, but this is not the one I am looking for. I am looking for the site of the house where the story says that three princesses and a queen once lived. The three princesses are kidnapped by a giant, and the youngest one manages to rescue herself and her sisters by smuggling all three into a straw basket. Before that, she is helped by the hill-folk, including a little fellow called Peerie Fool. In return she has to guess his name. The story is recorded in several books, including one by Ernest Marwick. As I think I have mentioned before, I am currently working on a book about the writer Chrissie Costie, whose father came from Rousay. And she has a beautiful version of this fairy tale, where she locates the princesses’ house at Hammer Mugly – which she says is now “a bonnie green field apae Faraclay”. Well, I went to Faraclett and there are plenty of outcropping rocks on the slope up above the Yetnasteen – and the Yetnasteen itself proves that there was giant lore in the area. But so far I have not been able to establish for sure where this Hammer Mugly could be. I have been told that Faraclett has a field called just Mugly (“the big one”) nearer the sea, but I am still looking for a Hammer Mugly. If anyone knows more about Hammer Mugly, the story about Peerie Fool and the princesses and the giant, or about the Costie family in Rousay, I would be very happy if you would write to us at INS.