Genocide on Shetland

How the names on Fair Isle provide a glimpse of the island's history. But what happened to the indig

Scandinavians visiting Shetland often find something strangely familiar about the islands – something they can’t quite put their finger on at first. And then they realise: it’s the place names.

Reading maps and road signs they see words they recognise and understand – names that are the same as places back home. Lerwick, Sandwick, Tingwall: they are all so very Nordic. And with good reason.

The Vikings arrived in Shetland in the late 8th century, travelling from Western Norway in search of new places to live and farm. They would have found Shetland populated, though to what extent is not entirely clear. An indigenous population was certainly here, and had existed in the isles since around 5000 years before.

No-one is entirely sure what happened when the Vikings turned up. Peaceful integration is perhaps the least likely of the many suggestions put forward. But at the other end of the spectrum of theories is that of genocide: total genocide.

Certainly, the culture that existed here before the Norsemen came has completely disappeared. Archaeological evidence for two different communities living in parallel is also non-existent. And the language that was spoken (and beginning to be written) before the Vikings arrived has likewise vanished – the place names entirely replaced.

Over the following centuries, another language developed in the isles: Norn, a variant of Old Norse. From the same roots, the Icelandic and Faroese languages also grew. Norn remained the native language of Shetland and Orkney until ownership was transferred to the Scottish Crown in the 15th century, when things gradually began to change.

By the 18th century, Norn was all but dead and English had become the common language. Amongst themselves, however, Shetlanders spoke a dialect of Scots that retained thousands of Norn words. Still today, the dialect remains strong, and is the standard mode of speech between local people.

Where these words have remained most prevalent is in the intimate connection between people and their world: agricultural words, those relating to fishing and boats, words to describe the weather. But as lifestyles change, these words too begin to fall out of use.

It is perhaps in place names then that the original influence of Norn remains strongest. The fixing of words to maps has ensured the survival of these names, and a glimpse at any map of Shetland is enough to confirm that English has had very little to do with the naming of the landscape.

A booklet has just been published – The Coastal Names of Fair Isle – which offers a fascinating circumnavigation of this island and its names. The booklet was written by the late Jerry Eunson around 50 years ago, with the help of other islanders at the time.

For an island of just three miles by one mile, it is incredible to note that there are around 300 names in the book. Every significant rock or skerry is named – every distinguishable piece of land. It shows an astonishing intimacy with the coastline that is now fast disappearing.

Mysterious words like Klumpin, Skinners Glig, the Nizz and Scrovelskin are explained – their linguistic origins illuminated – and stories from their past are told, particularly of the many ships to have wrecked around the Fair Isle coast.

The days when these names were an integral part of everyday speech are gone. Nobody here fishes for a living any more. Nobody spends a part of each day collecting wood from the beaches. Nobody needs to know the best places to collect gulls eggs. But though some of them may not be often used, a book like this can serve to ensure that these names are not forgotten, and to connect us to a past that is truly not so far away.

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
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Four times Owen Smith has made sexist comments

The Labour MP for Pontypridd and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership rival has been accused of misogynist remarks. Again.

2016

Wanting to “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”

During a speech at a campaign event, Owen Smith blithely deployed some aggressive imagery about attacking the new Prime Minister. In doing so, he included the tired sexist trope beloved of the right wing press about Theresa May’s shoes – her “kitten heels” have long been a fascination of certain tabloids:

“I’ll be honest with you, it pained me that we didn’t have the strength and the power and the vitality to smash her back on her heels and argue that these our values, these are our people, this is our language that they are seeking to steal.”

When called out on his comments by Sky’s Sophy Ridge, Smith doubled down:

“They love a bit of rhetoric, don’t they? We need a bit more robust rhetoric in our politics, I’m very much in favour of that. You’ll be getting that from me, and I absolutely stand by those comments. It’s rhetoric, of course. I don’t literally want to smash Theresa May back, just to be clear. I’m not advocating violence in any way, shape or form.”

Your mole dug around to see whether this is a common phrase, but all it could find was “set back on one’s heels”, which simply means to be shocked by something. Nothing to do with “smashing”, and anyway, Smith, or somebody on his team, should be aware that invoking May’s “heels” is lazy sexism at best, and calling on your party to “smash” a woman (particularly when you’ve been in trouble for comments about violence against women before – see below) is more than casual misogyny.

Arguing that misogyny in Labour didn’t exist before Jeremy Corbyn

Smith recently told BBC News that the party’s nastier side only appeared nine months ago:

“I think Jeremy should take a little more responsibility for what’s going on in the Labour party. After all, we didn’t have this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism in the Labour party before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.”

Luckily for Smith, he had never experienced misogyny in his party until the moment it became politically useful to him… Or perhaps, not being the prime target, he simply wasn’t paying enough attention before then?

2015

Telling Leanne Wood she was only invited on TV because of her “gender”

Before a general election TV debate for ITV Wales last year, Smith was caught on camera telling the Plaid Cymru leader that she only appeared on Question Time because she is a woman:

Wood: “Have you ever done Question Time, Owen?”

Smith: “Nope, they keep putting you on instead.”

Wood: “I think with party balance there’d be other people they’d be putting on instead of you, wouldn’t they, rather than me?”

Smith: “I think it helps. I think your gender helps as well.”

Wood: “Yeah.”

2010

Comparing the Lib Dems’ experience of coalition to domestic violence

In a tasteless analogy, Smith wrote this for WalesHome in the first year of the Tory/Lib Dem coalition:

“The Lib Dem dowry of a maybe-referendum on AV [the alternative vote system] will seem neither adequate reward nor sufficient defence when the Tories confess their taste for domestic violence on our schools, hospitals and welfare provision.

“Surely, the Liberals will file for divorce as soon as the bruises start to show through the make-up?”

But never fear! He did eventually issue a non-apology for his offensive comments, with the classic use of “if”:

“I apologise if anyone has been offended by the metaphorical reference in this article, which I will now be editing. The reference was in a phrase describing today's Tory and Liberal cuts to domestic spending on schools and welfare as metaphorical ‘domestic violence’.”

***

A one-off sexist gaffe is bad enough in a wannabe future Labour leader. But your mole sniffs a worrying pattern in this list that suggests Smith doesn’t have a huge amount of respect for women, when it comes to political rhetoric at least. And it won’t do him any electoral favours either – it makes his condemnation of Corbynite nastiness ring rather hollow.

I'm a mole, innit.