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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Corbyn's supporters loved his principles. But he ditched them in the EU campaign

Jeremy Corbyn never wanted Remain to win, and every gutless performance showed that. Labour voters deserve better. 

“A good and decent man but he is not a leader. That is the problem.” This was just-sacked Hilary Benn’s verdict on Jeremy Corbyn, and he’s two-thirds right. Corbyn is not a leader, and if that wasn’t obvious before the referendum campaign, it should be now. If the Vice documentary didn’t convince you that Corbyn is a man who cannot lead – marked by both insubstantiality and intransigence, both appalling presentation and mortal vanity – then surely his botched efforts for Remain must have.

But so what. Even Corbyn’s greatest supporters don’t rate him as a statesman. They like him because he believes in something. Not just something (after all, Farage believes in something: he believes in a bleached white endless village fete with rifle-toting freemen at the gates) but the right things. Socialist things. Non-Blairite things. The things they believe in. And the one thing that the EU referendum campaign should absolutely put the lie to is any image of Corbyn as a politician of principle – or one who shares his party’s values.

He never supported Remain. He never wanted Remain to win, and every gutless performance showed that. Watching his big centrepiece speech, anyone not explicitly informed that Labour was pro-Remain would have come away with the impression that the EU was a corrupt conglomerate that we’re better off out of. He dedicated more time to attacking the institution he was supposed to be defending, than he did to taking apart his ostensive opposition. And that’s because Leave weren’t his opposition, not really. He has long wanted out of the EU, and he got out.

It is neither good nor decent to lead a bad campaign for a cause you don’t believe in. I don’t think a more committed Corbyn could have swung it for Remain – Labour voters were firmly for Remain, despite his feeble efforts – but giving a serious, passionate account of what what the EU has done for us would at least have established some opposition to the Ukip/Tory carve-up of the nation. Now, there is nothing. No sound, no fury and no party to speak for the half the nation that didn’t want out, or the stragglers who are belatedly realising what out is going to mean.

At a vigil for Jo Cox last Saturday, a Corbyn supporter told me that she hoped the Labour party would now unify behind its leader. It was a noble sentiment, but an entirely misplaced one when the person we are supposed to get behind was busily undermining the cause his members were working for. Corbyn supporters should know this: he has failed you, and will continue to fail you as long as he is party leader.

The longer he stays in office, the further Labour drifts from ever being able to exercise power. The further Labour drifts from power, the more utterly hopeless the prospects for all the things you hoped he would accomplish. He will never end austerity. He will never speak to the nation’s disenfranchised. He will achieve nothing beyond grinding Labour ever further into smallness and irrelevance.

Corbyn does not care about winning, because he does not understand the consequences of losing. That was true of the referendum, and it’s true of his attitude to politics in general. Corbyn isn’t an alternative to right-wing hegemony, he’s a relic – happy to sit in a glass case like a saint’s dead and holy hand, transported from one rapturous crowd of true believers to another, but somehow never able to pull off the miracles he’s credited with.

If you believe the Labour party needs to be more than a rest home for embittered idealists – if you believe the working class must have a political party – if you believe that the job of opposing the government cannot be left to Ukip – if you believe that Britain is better than racism and insularity, and will vote against those vicious principles when given a reason to; if you believe any of those things, then Corbyn must go. Not just because he’s ineffectual, but because he’s untrustworthy too.

Some politicians can get away with being liars. There is a kind of anti-politics that is its own exemplum, whose representatives tell voters that all politicians are on the make, and then prove it by being on the make themselves and posing as the only honest apples in the whole bad barrel. That’s good enough for the right-wing populists who will take us out of Europe but it is not, it never has been, what the Labour Party is. Labour needs better than Corbyn, and the country that needs Labour must not be failed again.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.