Cracking the place-name puzzle

Aye, aye, everyone! I hope you have all had a good summer! Here at the Centre for Nordic Studies we have had a busy summer organising and enjoying our summer schools in Orkney and Shetland folklore and traditions and Orkney and Shetland writers and landscape. And now, after a peedie break, the Kiln Corner office is buzzing with life and bouncy ideas for new projects, talks, seminars and courses as the new term is about to start. I almost cannot believe that it is a year since we opened – it has gone by in a whizz!

A few days ago, however, I got an e-mail with some very sad news. I am sure that many of you remember Thomas Huser, the young man who studied Westray place-names a few years ago. He completed his Masters in 2008 with a dissertation on older place-names in Westray, a copy of which was presented to the Westray Heritage Centre. With the prospects of a promising career in front of him, he suddenly died in his sleep earlier this summer. Now his partner is very keen to see that his hard work is not just put away in a drawer and forgotten about. His dissertation is available online but so far it is only available in Norwegian. So I thought the least I could do would be to summarise some of his findings here in English.

As his starting point, Thomas Huser had Dr. Hugh Marwick’s estimate that 99% of the older Orkney place-names are of Norse origin. Mr. Huser wanted to check this figure, as he was interested in Orkney’s history of multilingualism. For several hundred years, Orkney was a multilingual community. Old Norse was transformed into the local language Norn by incorporating a variety of influences, Thomas Huser says. At the same time, Scots advanced through Scotland, finding its main popularity in the trading cities. Scots would have been heard in The City and Royal Burgh of Kirkwall centuries before Norn died out. And in addition to all this, there was Gaelic, spoken in nearby areas in mainland Scotland, which is bound to have had some influence on Orkney place-names too. In the light of all this, could it really be the case that as much as 99% of all Orkney place-names are of Norse origin?

The question may sound easy, but before he could start counting, Thomas Huser had to cross a number of obstacles. First of all, what is meant by “older”? In the end he chose to draw the line at the year 1800, as Norn had died out as a living language in the course of the previous century. Then, what is meant by a place-name being in “Norse” or “Scots” or any other language for that matter? This might seem straight-forward, but what about such names as “The Bu of Rapness”? Even though the elements “Bu” and “Rapness” may be Norse, the grammatical construction “Bu of ...” is clearly Scots. Several Norse name elements continued to be used in Scots as loan words. It is therefore not easy to know whether a name containing one of these elements was coined in Norse or Scots. Another point which Thomas Huser makes is that many names are linguistically mixed.

Rather than Marwick’s 99%, Thomas Huser arrives at a figure of minimum 36% and maximum 67%. That is, if we only count names that are certainly Norse, these make up 36% of the total. But if we add the names that are uncertain, and therefore may be Norse, we end up with 67%. The truth must lie somewhere in between. Conversely, Thomas Huser finds that at least 20% of the names are Scots, and if you add the ones that are uncertain or transferred from other locations, the maximum percentage of potentially Scots names is 63%.

Now to the fun part. Although Thomas Huser’s main agenda is to establish a figure which is more reliable than Hugh Marwick’s 99%, and his focus is not on giving name interpretations as such, he does offer some interpretations of Westray names. Here I have picked some which I find interesting for various reasons. One name that interests me because it sounds so giggly peculiar is “Wart Holm”. Is this where people went to be cured of warts through some ancient ritual which involves letting the tide flow over your affected body-part three times at mid-winter? No. The truth is that this is where they lit a beacon to signal danger, such as approaching enemy ships. “Varða” is Old Norse for beacon, and also for the person guarding the beacon. That is why we have a number of Ward Hills in Orkney. The beacon on Wart Holm could be seen from Fitty Hill in Westray and from Ward Hill in Eday, thus providing a link between the two. The name Fitty Hill contains another Norse word for beacon: “Viti”. A theory put forward by J. Storer Clouston is that the name Wideford Hill contains both these words for beacon.

Another Westray place-name which took my interest is Noltland. This name means “cattle-land”, from the Old Norse word “naut”, meaning cattle. The “l” has been put in there by someone who thought it was a case of Scots l-vocalisation, just like “l”s have been inserted in several “vágr” (bay) names such as Kirkwall and Pierowall. Pierowall, by the way, was known as Hofn (harbour) in Norse times, but when or why the name changed to Pierowall I don’t know.  Similarly, Kirkwall’s harbour The Peerie/Peedie Sea used to be known as The Oyce. But the name Peerie Sea has been in use since at least the 18th century, as the name is recorded in a legal document from 1788 according to Hossack’s “Kirkwall in the Orkneys”. Whether the name Pierowall simply means “the little bay” – although the bay is rather large – or if it has some entirely different meaning, Thomas Huser fails to tell us. Could it be a name for just a part of the “Hofn” bay? I trust keen readers of The Orcadian to enlighten me through the Postbag page in the near future.

A strange-looking name is Bloody Tuaks below Fitty Hill. “Tuaks” is easy enough: Thomas Huser suggests that it is the Norse word “þúfa”, hillock, with the Scots, originally Gaelic, diminutive ick/ack/ock. But where does the blood come from? This name is one of several “Bloody” names in Orkney.  Thomas Huser does not interpret the “Bloody” element, so here I will leave him in peace and instead offer an explanation suggested by Berit Sandnes: That “Blood” or “Bloody” doesn’t have anything to do with blood at all, but is the Norse adjective “blautr”, meaning “wet”. This could explain several “Blood –“ names in boggy locations, although I must point out that she was speaking of the element “Blood” in general, and not specifically about Bloody Tuaks in Westray.

I cannot resist mentioning some other name interpretations which have been offered to me lately. I was recently in Maeshowe with a tour group, and I was told by the tour guide that one of several theories about the name Maeshowe is that it means “the mound of the maidens”. Although some of the runic graffiti in there do mention beautiful women and one piece quite bluntly describes what one of these women was doing in there, I feel that it is not fair to hold womankind in general responsible for what some adolescent boys scribbled on the walls 860 years ago. No, a much more plausible – although admittedly more boring – explanation was offered by Berit Sandnes when she visited Orkney in May. She says that the name Maeshowe simply means “the mound in the meadow”. “Maes” comes from the word “Mað”, meaning “meadow”. Away with all frivolous maidens!

In the same breath, Berit said she had also solved the mystery of where the “d” in Brodgar comes from. Hugh Marwick gave the meaning as “Bridge-farm”, but this leaves us with a “d” which does not seem to belong anywhere. Berit then realised that the “d” belongs to the second element: Bro-dgar, where “dgar” is someone’s attempt to represent in writing the soft pronunciation of the “g” – “Brodyar”. It still means “Bridge farm”, though.

Finally, all the c. 70 people who were present when Barbara Crawford visited us on the 19th August were able to share her new and doubtlessly correct interpretation of the name Knarston. This is a lost farm near Scapa. The name was interpreted by Marwick as the farm belonging to someone called Knar. Barbara Crawford’s new interpretation is that it was the place where ships were landed. A Knarr is a type of Viking cargo ship, and as John Mowat pointed out to us at Barbara Crawford’s seminar, there are places in Norway named Knarrvik too. (Although Knarston in Harray must have some different explanation). I just love the feeling when things click into place like that! It is so satisfying when you arrive at the right name interpretation and it suddenly opens up a whole history book of how the place was used in old times. Fantastic!