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.