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Messengers from the past

Here at the Centre for Nordic Studies we are looking forward to Friday the 21st of May. What happens then is that Dr. Berit Sandnes, from Lund University in Sweden, will hopefully come to Orkney. I say hopefully because we never know what Eyjafjallajökull may have in store for us still! But providing she can get here, she is going to treat us to a really interesting public talk about our Orkney place-names.

Berit is an old friend of mine; indeed it was she who introduced me to Orkney in the first place. She was a PhD student in my birth town of Trondheim then, writing a thesis on the place-names of Evie, Firth and Rendall. Many of you who read this column will have met her, cycling around the Mainland on a slightly too peedie bicycle, asking folk about names and the right Orkney pronunciations of them. Before she studied the place-names of Evie, Firth and Rendall, she wrote her MA thesis on the place-names of Harray, which she started working on back in 1994. So Berit has been coming back and fore to Orkney for a long time.

The talk we are being treated to this time, which of course is open to anyone, is called “Place names:  Messengers from the past ... and from across the North Sea.” What does she mean by that? The amazing thing about place-names is that you don’t really need to know what they mean in order to use them. So that way they can stay more or less unchanged for centuries, and here in Orkney that means that a great many place-names have survived the transition from Norn to Scots. But if you do know – or somehow manage to find out – what they mean, they can tell you a great deal about how the place was used in the past. The champion of place-name studies in Orkney was Dr. Hugh Marwick, who managed to trace a big collection of Orkney place-names back to their Old Norse roots.

I think it’s time for some examples. Let us take the name St. Margaret’s Hope. What was she hoping for? At a first glance, this name doesn’t make any sense. And what about all the other “hopes” - Longhope, Pan Hope (Flotta), Kirk Hope (South Walls),  Chalmers Hope (North of Lyness)and so on  – what is the deal with all this hoping? It all starts to make sense once we know that “Hope” comes from the Old Norse word “hóp”, meaning a shallow bay or a small land-locked bay or inlet connected with the sea. That also explains why Orcadians call St. Margaret’s Hope “The Hop”. That makes perfect sense: It’s just “the shallow bay”! Shallow bays were important to the Norse people who named them, because there they could land their ships and pull them ashore. A shallow bay is a good harbour.

Another name which doesn’t make much sense today is Holm. Normally, a holm is what in Standard English is called an islet, but the problem is that the district of Holm is not on a holm! So why is it called that? Here we have another name that tells us that this was a harbour back in Norse times. The name Holm comes from the Old Norse word “hofn”, later “hamn”, which indeed means “harbour”. The “l” is just a misunderstanding by some map-maker. In Scots, and traditionally in Orkney dialect as well, an “l” is often dropped, depending on what comes after it. “Call” is “ca”, “hold on” is “haad on”, the ball game in Kirkwall is called “The Ba”, and so on. So somebody must have heard people saying “Ham” and thought that it should be spelled “Holm” with a silent “l”. But, of course, the Orkney folk were right all along: “Ham” is very close to the Norwegian way of saying it: “hamn”. That is why Berit cycled around in Harray, Evie, Firth and Rendall to ask local people about pronunciations, because local people are always the best at knowing the right way of saying it. They know the pronunciation which has been passed on through many centuries despite misunderstandings by map-makers. By the way, the name Kirkwall has also had some extra “l”s stuck to it for the same reason. Some map-maker didn’t know that “wa” comes from Old Norse vágr, meaning “bay”, and thought that “-wall” would be the right way to spell it. People in the old days said “Kirkwa”, but nowadays the name is pronounced as it is spelled. There are several other “wall” names around Orkney too, such as North and South Walls. Another way of spelling names derived from Old Norse vágr is “-way”, such as in for example Scalloway in Shetland. Yet another spelling is “voe”, as in Hamnavoe – which everyone who has read this article so far should know means “harbour bay”.

Another messenger from the past is the name Toab in St. Andrews. This name comes from Old Norse “toll-hóp”, which was a harbour where ships had to pay toll. So even if we knew nothing about Toab’s past, we can read an important part of its history directly from the place-name!

There are currently two exciting research projects going on which are looking to find out more about Norse assembly sites, or “things”. Again, place-names can help us. In Rendall we have the place-name Tingwall, where “ting” comes from the Old Norse word for assembly. The big mound there, near the jetty, would have served as an assembly site for the people of the North-West Mainland, Gairsay, Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre – a kind of mixture of what we today would call a court, a parliament and a community council. Also on the narrow isthmus connecting Deerness with the East Mainland is another name which probably contains the element “thing”, namely Dingishowe.

The many “Pap-“ names in Orkney also call out to us with messages from the past. There is Papa Westray, locally known as Papay; there is Papa Stronsay and Steeven O’Papy and Papdale and Paplay. There are also lots of these “Pap-“ or “Pab-“ names in Shetland, Caithness and the Hebrides. These names tell us about ecclesiastical establishments of Celtic priests or monks who were there before the Vikings. The “Pap-“ names are the Vikings’ comment to what was going on there. I think it is nice that the Papa Stronsay monks of today chose Papa Stronsay, among all other places, as I like to imagine that what we are seeing today is a kind of reflection of the island’s ancient past. It is also very fitting that Papdale primary school is located at a former ecclesiastical site, as these were centres of study and learning.

In short, place-name studies is a really helpful tool to historians or anyone who wish to know more about the past. I am looking forward to seeing Berit again and hear the news of her latest research on place-names. Ah, it makes me nostalgic to think that it is ten years since she first took me to Orkney as part of a group of students. She introduced me to this paradise of beauty, history, culture and the friendliest people I have ever met, and it took me less than the six days we were here to completely fall in love with the place – and with a certain Orkney lad. I am looking forward to seeing which gems Berit will pull out of Orkney’s treasure chest of names this time, and I hope you will come as well. It is at Orkney College on Friday the 21st May at 7.30 and it’s free and open to everyone, so please come along.


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