Shetland is a quiet, self-possessed nation of 22,000 whose population still considers itself to be more Norse than British. They like celebrations, foys they call them, but the big one comes on the last Tuesday of January, a midwinter relief when male Shetlanders dress up as Vikings, process through the capital, Lerwick – or Lerook in the vernacular – with torches and set fire to a galley. The day after is the public holiday to allow the revellers to recover.

The name of Up Helly Aa, according to John Jamieson’s 1818 Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, is from the Old Norse word uppi meaning ‘the end of’, helly is ‘holy’ – the end of Christmas – and aa is ‘all’. So, given the abandon the festivities are consigned to at the depths of the near-Arctic climate, ‘the end of all that’s holy’ would be about right.

Thousands descend on Up Helly Aa in their vast tourist cruise ships, and welcoming as Shetlanders are, much of their chatter will be alien to even the English speaking visitors. Half of Shetland’s residents can still speak their ancestors’ tongue, once forbidden by the ruling Scots but still alive, unique and charming, in which the biggest insult is to call someone a soothmoother, one whose speech comes from beyond the islands. Our ‘ith’ has been largely lost to dialect, so that ‘they’ is day, ‘then’ is dan. ‘Their’ and ‘there’ have both become dare, but ‘you’ is du – the ‘y’ form having once been runic for ‘ith’ so that du comes from ‘thou’. Wat du daan da day, dan? is ‘What are you doing today, then?’

Shetland dialect has German, Old Scots, elements of Latin, even discernible traces of French, but at its base is their own Norn which reclines on Old Norse.

Norn, or Norrøna, is essentially a street language. Much as Shetlanders love their sagas and blood curdling yarns of whaling disasters and family tragedy it’s largely an oral tradition. Though I have a volume of dialect poetry that takes much from Norn. Despite its Old Norse base Norn relies heavily on onomatopoeia and where there isn’t a word to fit a particular situation, a new one emerges from the idiom. And there is its great charm.

Life is hard in this land where the sun only shines for half the year, when the men traditionally fished for whale in the winter months and worked the land where no trees can grow in the long hours of the seasons of simmerdim, while the women were spinning and weaving, plucking wool from the gorse bushes and cutting peat all year round. So it is not surprising that the dialect has, for instance, twelve different words for exhausted: you could emerge from the daily grind daddit, debaetless, depooperit, disjasket, forfochen, hurless, maegered, mankit, moyenless, ootmaagit, pooskered or even pyaagit, largely depending on which of the islands you hail from.

To help rescue this beguiling language Alistair Christie-Johnston and his wife Adaline, who live on the island of Yell, published a dictionary, Shetland Words, with the Shetland Times, compiled because he and his editor, Neil Anderson, feared that many of the intrinsic words were falling out of use and will be lost forever. At the end of the nineteenth century there were thought to be about 10,000 Shetland dialect words extant, by 1970 only about 15% of them were found; through ground knowledge and detective work Shetland Words has recorded about 4,000. The book, published in 2010, sold out and a second edition has just been published with 300 more words gleaned from the outer islands, difficult because the accents change from island to island so that the same word might sound quite different at Skerries to the north east, say, from how it will sound at Foula in the west.

The basis remains, and the survival of Norn is remarkable. It began to die as long ago as the sixteenth century when rule reverted from Norway to Scotland and Scots law was imposed with the indigenous language proscribed, but many beautiful words of Norn remain in the argot. Bonnhoga, for instance – from the Old Norse barn (child) and hagi (pasture) – which means spiritual home. Gauvenliss is the word for feeble or clumsy; a mouse is a bohonnin, which by some old irony comes from the Norse for watchdog; a pig is a pottisidna; a clergyman is a prestengolva (‘the one in the cassock’). A swee is a strong dram, an organic word, and a clock midder is a hen with chicks, but a hansel is a commemorative gift, from the Old Norse for the transference of a right; a cangle is a quarrel.

Modern life has made its incursions, but in a curious way that leaves a helpful distinction. The shower in your bathroom is pronounced ‘shower’, but a quick downfall of rain is still a shooer. Shetland also has its own, not always appealing, cuisine and words to go with it. It may not be a surprise to know that a dish of fish livers mixed with oatmeal, stuffed in a herring’s head and boiled is called krappit and is rarely eaten any more.

The etymology of some words is mysterious until you know more of the island life. Wild thyme is taegirse, which translates as “toe grass” and makes no sense until you know that thyme here is used as a treatment for athlete’s foot. But Alistair Christie-Johnston and Neil Anderson were not content – tae after all is Scots and plants in Shetland tend to keep their Norn traces. They tracked the real derivation down to the Old Norse word for root fibre tág, plural taeger, which fits the tight network of the Shetland variety of creeping thyme. You have to be there.

It is an ancient language full of social history, and a glimpse into a lost age, Neil Anderson told me. He is a Shetlander of the old school who can give you the family name of a man he has never met simply because of the way he walks; in the same way, he can tell from which island a person comes from the words he uses. And he had an affirming experience in the Lerwick shop he runs when he offered a young man a foodbag. He didn’t know what he meant, but he did know the Shetland word, maetpockie.

By Simon Tait

Shetland Words: A Dictionary of the Shetland Dialect, A & A Christie-Johnston, The Shetland Times Ltd., 2010, 122pp, £14.99 (paperback)


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