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Notes on Weather Words in the Orkney Dialect
By Hugh Marwick
(Originally published in Old Lore Miscellany for Orkney, Shetland,
Caithness and Sutherland 1921)

Sandwick Trees. Picture: Sigurd TowrieTo adopt a Stevensonian phrase, the climate of Orkney is one of the vilest under heaven. It is perennially swept by high winds, frequently reaching hurricane force, rarely and only for short intervals lulling to a calm.

For the most part also, they come rain-laden and the usual colour of the sky overhead is a dull grey that makes the grim insular landscape look grimmer and more sterile still.

This effect is intensified by the almost total absence of trees.

At the same latitude east in Norway, and west across in America, the winter cold is far more intense and yet tall trees flourish but, unless somehow protected, no tree seems able to brave the biting saline blasts of Orkney.

This superabundance of wind and rain is reflected in the Orcadian dialect by a plethora of descriptive terms and the reason is obvious. To a city-dweller climatic conditions are relatively negligible; his work is for the most part, thereby unaffected.

But to the farmer and the seaman they are all important.

The business of the farm, still more the business of the sea, is absolutely at the mercy of the elements. To a primitive people, climatic conditions are of still greater significance, for with them the business of life is almost exclusively conducted in the open air.

It is not astonishing, therefore, to find that our early forefathers carefully discriminated the various phenomena of sea and sky, and evolved terms, full of real meaning, which have come down to us, but have come in many cases shorn of much of their real significance.

These facts also serve perhaps to explain the personification of the weather.

It may be that our forefathers regarded the weather as a personal foe with whom they had to cope. At all events, the elder generation almost invariably used the idiom “he” instead of "it" as the appropriate pronoun. And even today one hears the phrases “he's blowan hard", "he's clearan up", almost as frequently as the more modern idioms.

And in the dialects of Western Norway, exactly the same procedure is followed.

There are over a score of words descriptive of rainfall and an equal number descriptive of wind. Exact discrimination is difficult - indeed impossible, but a rough classification may be attempted on the basis of the strength or intensity of the phenomena represented.

The wind

For a very light breeze the two words generally used are kuil, a word which also appears in English in the form cool, and grey. Both words are also employed as verbs to betoken an increase in strength; e.g. "It's beginnan to grey up," "It's greyan (or kuilan) up."

Then comes a group of five or six words, each of which signifies a considerably stronger breeze: a tirl, a gurl, a gussel or gushel, a hushle, a skolder, a skuther, and a guster or gouster.

The last of these is etymologically identical with the English word gust, but in Orkney it has a slightly different meaning and is applied to a sudden breeze which may last considerably longer than a mere gust. It is also interesting as retaining the Old Norse nominative suffix "r".

There is another word golder or galder, which is now very rare in Orkney though common in Shetland. Skolder is perhaps a corruption of the word and this form is now much more frequent in Orkney.

Between all those words it is hard to discriminate exactly, but they all imply two ideas in common, namely that of a wind which is pretty strong but does not reach the force of a gale, and, secondly, which lasts for a relatively short time though considerably longer than a mere gust.

A very strong wind is called a skreevar or a sweevy or sweevle. The latter is an example of a word which has changed its meaning very considerably, for it is derived from the Old Norse sveifla, to turn or spin round, so that it must originally have meant a whirlwind, as Jakobsen says it does yet in Shetland.

Stenness Loch. Picture Sigurd TowrieAn apparently greater departure from the original meaning is to be noticed in katrizper, which in Rackwick, Hoy, is applied to a very strong gale.

Yet, originally, the word must have been the equivalent of our "cats-paws" - coming evidently from the Old Norse kattar-rispur, cat's-scratches. Perhaps, however, "cat-scratches" betokened to our forefathers something very different from our "cats-paws."

In harvest time after the crop is built into stacks, one often hears the farmer longing for a yardsook - a very strong dry wind which would prevent his crop from "taking heat".

Sook is a very common word in Orkney for drought, or drying; see also sooked fish (half-dried fish); "it's makan a bonnie sook the day" (it's a drying day). Old Norse súgr, a drying wind.

Thus one is ready to suppose that a yard-sook simply means a wind that would dry the stackyard. Unless, however, this is a word of comparatively late origin - after yard had come in from Scots, yard-sook must be the Old Norse jorđ-súgr, the earth-drier.

Then again we have a small group of words to express various kinds of gusts. The commonest is flan, but this is generally used of a gust coming down a chimney. It is also used as a verb - "to flan doon"-"the wind was flannan doon a' the night."

It is at sea, however, that gusts are of most importance, and there are three words which, though common enough ashore, are usually associated with sudden squalls at sea: a bat, a swap, and for one of rather longer duration a skwither. Lastly, a whirlwind is often termed a kithy-wind.

Mist and rain

For varying degrees of mist and rain there is an even greater diversity of words and phrases.

Brodgar Mist. Picture Sigurd TowrieIt is again impossible to place them in exact gradation, but they may be placed in two or three groups more or less distinct.

Of these, by far the most numerous is the group applicable to what is known as a "Scotch mist”.

The plethora of words in this division is a telling and sinister indictment of the Orkney climate. Unnecessary words in any language invariably lapse; the persistence of these throughout thirty generations tells its own tale.

A driv, a rugg, a murr, a hagger, a dagg, a rav, a roostan hoger are all substantival expressions for one and the same thing - a light, drizzly, more or less steady rain.

To either, to eesk, to neist, to fiss are all used of the same phenomenon, but almost invariably in association with the word rain.

Thus we have regularly eeskan an' rainan, eitheran an' rainan etc.

Then come the adjectival terms for the same: drivvy, ruggy, murry, haggery, roosty, eesky, fissowy, muggry, rimy, durry, smuggry - each applied to a day or weather of this sort.

A very curious word - muggero-feu, or muggaty-feu, or mugga-fisty is also applied in this sense as a noun: e.g. "It's just a real m------ this day," i.e. a misty, drizzly sort of day.

A passing shower is termed a dister, or "a skub o' a shooer," and when the sky begins to clear it is said to be glettan. A glet, a lett, and a luffer are all terms for a period of intermission or a pause in the midst of wind or rain.

In some places the word rime is used in this sense: e.g. "Wait till it rimes a bit” (i.e. clears or fairs), while in Harray the word kalwart is used for the more usual luffer or glet. A wild, cold sort of rainy day is called an attry day, and it is said then to be aiteran an' rainan, while if the rain comes pouring down it is said to be rashan an' rainan, and the shower is often termed a perfect hellyie-fer.

Finally, wind-feeder is a word applied to a certain kind of rain, which is supposed to be a harbinger of wind.


Nowadays at least, Orkney is little troubled with snow, and the number of snow-terms is relatively small. The word itself is still pronounced snaa by the elder generation, and a thick snow-storm is called a moor o' snaa or, if very bad, a stark moor.

When it is accompanied by wind and the snowflakes are whirling and eddying about, the term kyirked stoor is sometimes applied. Smoor is used always instead of smother. The regular word for a snowdrift is a fann, and when the wind is strong and causing the snow to drift, it is called a yert-drift, i.e. an earth-drift (see yardsook above).

Any atmospheric phenomenon which is supposed to betoken the approach of snow is called a gamfer for snaa. Usually the gamfer is some appearance of the clouds.

A slight fall of snow is called a mere skutch, while a thaw is termed a tow, and a violent thaw which causes the burns to swell or overflow is called a tow-lowsing or an ice-lowsing.

The sky, stars and lights

I now pass to those words which are applied to the various phenomenon of sky and atmosphere. The sky itself is termed the lift, and frequently one hears the expression "There's no a star apae the lift".

Then too for the word "starlight" there is the more ancient and euphonious starnlight, while skyare moonlight is the wholly admirable term used for clear bright moonlight.

A halo about the moon is termed a broch and is held to betoken bad weather - a fairly sure prediction.

A sun-gaa, or mock rainbow, seems to be of similar omen. When the sky is for the greater part overcast and bright vivid clouds are prominent,the sky is said to be glamsy-like or skyelly or skyran. The last word simply means "very bright", and is almost the equivalent of the English word "glittering".

At other times- after thunder for example - the sky often assumes a curious sickly yellowish-green hue, which is termed a skyued or skyuimy colour.

Then, again, on a stormy night, the dark gloomy sky is called a buggy sky, and the night is dark and ugsome.

A curious relic of superstition lingers in the name for thunder. Our fathers evidently believed that, when it thundered, the deity was offended, for to this phenomenon they applied the names Guid's weather, i.e. God's weather or Fair-weather, evidently in some meagre hope of propitiation. The close, warm atmosphere usual in thundery weather is called muify.

The phenomena of phosphorescence are naturally remarkable enough to demand nomenclature and two or three words are employed. Meeracles is perhaps the commonest, but limro or glimro is also frequently used.

At certain seasons of the year, or in certain conditions of atmosphere, phosphorescence is attended with rather serious danger. A friend of mine told me this year that one night when driving home he found that his hair and whiskers were ablaze with phosphorescence. When he tried to rub his eyes matters were made worse and it was very difficult to see at all. His hair was all hanging with limro.

Perhaps this is an electric phenomenon and not due to phosphorescence at all.

Waulkmill. Picture Sigurd TowrieThe old idea was that when this happened you were bewitched by a being called "Tangi" - an evil spirit who wished to lure you astray or to your doom.

The very same idea is current in Iceland, I am told, and is there ascribed to the agency of the draugur, a being comparable with our trow.

Everyone is familiar with the tremulous movement in the atmosphere which is to be seen near the earth on any warm day after rain.

At least everyone must have seen a similar appearance above the funnel of a steamer or train or above any hot body.

It is really caused by the warmer layers of air rising up. Curiously enough, there is no English word for this phenomenon but Orkney is overstocked.

Teebro, teetboro, teetgong, brin and kringlos are all applied to this, but the last word is also applied to the "stars” one sees after having a blow on the nose. These words are all of Norse origin, but there is a curious German word sonnen-kringlein which is applied to similar phenomena.

To get kringlos afore the eyes is the Orcadian equivalent of seeing stars, and a man who is dizzy or dazed is said to be kringly-headed.


aitran - raining, of a cold bitter rain or drizzle. Old Norse eitr, poison; eitrkaldr, bitterly cold.

attry - of weather - bitter, stormy, cold, &c. See aitran.

bat - a gust of wind. Probably Norse bad, from bada, v., to crush or trample down, knead, &c. See also however, gaelic, bád, s.f. wind.

brin - (i) a cold dry parching wind that causes plants to wither. A derivative of Old Norse brenna, to burn; Norse brennkalde, a very severe cold. (2) shimmering of atmosphere. Norse brign or saabrign, id.

broch - a halo round sun or moon. So also in Scots. Probably a metaphorical use of Old Norse borg, a place of defence, the Orkney broch ; c.f. however Gaelic broth, lunar halo.

buggy - dark, lowering of sky. Probably same as Norse boke in bokevedr, cloudy warm weather.

dagg - fine rain, Scotch mist, drizzle. Old Norse dogg, Swedish dagg, dew. Norse dogg, (1) dew; (2) soft fine rain.

dister - a light passing shower, Norse dustra, to drizzle.

driv - a drizzle, with suggestion of being windblown. Norse driv, what is driven, e.g. snow or rain. Faeroese and Swedish dialect, both have driv as in Orkney.

eesk - to drizzle. Jakobsen regarded this as a derivative of Old Norse ísa, v., to cover with ice, and merged with it also the Norse hysja, v., to drizzle. Dr. Stefánsson, however, cites an Icelandic ískra or íjskra, v., to drizzle.

either - to drizzle. A modification of aitran; see above.

fizz - to drizzle. Old Norse fisa, pedere; Norse fisa, to blow, smoke, drift through air like smoke.

flan - a sudden gust. Old Norse flan, a rushing; flana, to rush heedlessly or blindly onwards.

gaa - a mock-sun. From a primitive *gizla; Norse gil, Isl. gýll or gill, a mock sun; Danish dialect, gall, German, galle wettergall, id.

gamfer - atmospheric omen. Norse gandferd, a troop of witches riding through air. Dr. Stefansson cites Icelandic gandför.

glamsy-of the sky- glittering and stormy-looking. Old Norse glansi, a glitter; Norse glansa, to shine or glitter.

glett - a pause or lull in a storm, a clearing up of the sky for a time. Norse glette, id.

glimro - phosphorescent glimmer. Danish glimre, glimmer, gleam. See also Swedish and German, glimmer, mica.

golder - a blustery noisy wind. Norse galdr, an uproar - of wind, people, &c.

grey - a light breeze. Norse graae or graaa, id.; Old Norse grŕđi, a breeze curling the waves.

gurl - a strong breeze. Norse grael, a blast or puff which ruffles the sea.

gussel - a strong wind of some duration. See also Norse gosa, a blast of wind and its cognate gusul, a great babbler or chatterer.

guster - a blasi of wind. Old Norse gustr, id.

hagger - a heavy drizzle. Rather obscure. Hints of origin may be seen in Old Norse agi, moisture, wet, and in Norse aga - det agar med regn, and age-vedr, doubtful weather - now cloudy, now clear.

hellyiefer - a downpour. Probably a combination of Old Norse hella, to pour and vedr, weather. See also helliskúr, hellidemba, &c, a downpour.

hushle - a strong gale. Derivative of Norse hosa, to whistle, rush forth, &c.

ice-lowsin - a thaw. Norse lausing, Isl. leysing, loosening, a thawing of ice or snow.

kithy-wind - a whirlwind. Probably a derivative of Norse gidda, to shake, shiver, sway, be in unsteady motion.

kringlos - spots of light or "stars" seen after a blow on the eye. Old Norse kringla, a disk, circle, orb.

kuil - a slight breeze. ON. kul, id.

kyirked - blowing in circles, eddying round. Norse kjergja, to run round in a circle as water or foam in a stream.

lett - = glett. Norse lette, a moderating or ceasing (of bad weather). Old Norse letta, to clear up.

lift-the sky. Old English lyft, id.

limro - phosphorescent gleam. See also glimro. This may however be a quite different word. See also Old Norse ljómi, a beam, ray; and dagr ljómar, day breaks.

luffer - = glett or lett. A difficult word. See also Shelandic lotter and Norse lotte, id. Prof. Torp is uncertain of origin.

meeracles - phosphorescence. Evidently a corruption on model of Eng. word of Old Norse morueldr or maurueldr, phosphorescence.

moor - blinding snow. See also Old Norse mor, a swarm, atom ; Mod. Isl. mor, dust; Norse myrra, a fog, and myreu, granulous - applied to snow.

muggero-fue - a misty drizzle. A difficult word. Probably a derivative of Old Norse and Norse mugga, soft drizzling mist, and Norse fuka, a penetrating foggy drizzle.

muggry - drizzly and misty. See last word.

muify - warm, sultry, close. Probably a corruption of Old Norse móđa, mist - the root significance of which (acc. to Falk and Torp) is warm vapour. See also Scots muith.

murr - a drizzle. Norse myrra, slight drizzle, fog.

neest - or neester - to drizzle. Jakobsen considered this a parallel form to the Danish fnusk-regn, drizzle.

rashan - in phrase - rashan and rainan, of a downpour. So in Scots. Of uncertain origin. May be an assimilation in sound to the English rash, of Old Norse rasa, to rage, be very violent (of a storm); or it may be merely an alliterative assimilation of the Scots. 'lashin and rainin.'

rav - a drizzle. Seems same word as Scots, raff, a flying shower. Jakobsen was uncertain of origin but compared it with Norse ravl, offal, off-scrapings, &c.

rimy - misty, drizzly a 'frosty rime'. Old Norse hrím, hoarfrost, rime.

roost - a fine drizzle, a 'fine roosty rain'. Norse rus and rusk, fine drizzle of rain or snow. The 't' in roost has apparently been added on analogy of Scots, roost. In the North Ronaldsay form roostanhoger, roostan may be a pres. participle of a verb 'to roost', or it may simply be the noun plus 'and'. With hoger, see also bagger.

rug - a close drizzle. Danish dialect, rug; Swedish dialect, rugg, id.

skolder - a strong dry gale. Probably Norse skaldra, to peal, rattle, clash; Old Norse skjalla, to clash, clatter; used of a gale bursting out.

skreever - A very strong gale. Probably a parallel form to Old Norse rifa, Norse riva, to tear, rend, &c.

skub - a light passing shower. Jakobsen says this word is related to skubb in Faeroese skubbutur. dirty coloured, etc.

skuther - or skwither - a sharp breeze of short duration. Probably two different words; the first a derivative of Old Norse skota, v., shoot forth, etc., and the second comes nearer the Norse skvetta, v., to fly away suddenly, ran away. See also Norse skvitra, v., to drizzle, spurt forth.

skare - or skyare - clear, bright - of moonlight. Old Norse skaerr, id.

skyelly - of clouds - bright, glittering, 'glamsy.' Probably Norse skjell, clear, visible, transparent.

skyran - glittering, very brilliant. Norse skir or skiren, clear, bright.

skyued - pale, greenish, sickly in colour. Old Norse skjóttr, piebald.

skyuimy - = skyued. Norse skjaamutt, adj., dark, spotted; Faeroese skjomutur, dirty-coloured, dirty grey.

smuggry - = muggry g.v. In Norse frequently we find parallel forms with and without initial ‘s’.

stark - applied to an intense blinding snowstorm - 'a s----- moor.' Norse sterk, violent, furious - applied to wind, tide, &c.

starnlight - starlight. Perhaps a Scots. borrowing seeing that 'light' is Eng. and not Norse.

swap - a sudden gust of wind. Old Norse svipr, a swoop ; Norse svipa, a wind gust on sea.

sweevle - a gust or short gale. Also in form sweevy. Norse svivla, a gust of wind. Old Norse sveifla.

Tangie - an imaginary goblin or 'sea-trow', which was pictured as covered with tang or seaweed.

teebro - = brin, q.v. Isl. tíd-brá, a mirage, &c.

teetgong - id. Teet is the Old Norse tíđ, quick, fast, as in tíđ-brá; gong may be = the Scots, gang (Old Norse gangr), but is more probably an assimilation in sound of the Norse gidn, which is applied to this same phenomenon. So also we have teetburn = tíđ-brign.

tirl - a short spell of bad weather. Derivative of Old Norse ţyrla, to whirl - as wind does to hay. See also Norse tirla, to blow softly.

tow-lowsin - a thaw. Tow = thaw. See ice-lowsin.

ugsome - threatening, awe-inspiring - of weather. Derivative of Old Norse uggr, apprehension; Norse ugg; 1, damp cold - causing shivering; 2, awe, respect.

See Also

See Also

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