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The origin of "Orkney"

The name "Orkney", as it comes to us today, is simply a corruption of the islands' Old Norse name - "Orkneyjar".

Pronounced "orc-nee-yahr", the name is generally taken to mean" Seal Islands" - the Norsemen's interpretation of the islands' older name. However, the Ork- element predates the Norse interpretation by centuries.

It is first mentioned by the Roman writer, Diodurus Siculus, in the first century BC, who referred to the islands as "the Orchades", a name echoed by the Roman geographer Pliny, who calls them "Orcades".

Pliny added that, across the Pentland Firth from Orkney, on the northern tip of the Scottish mainland, was "Cape Orcas" - a location that has been suggested is Duncansby Head in Caithness.

Away from the classical scribes, the old Gaelic name for Orkney, used by Irish historians, was "Insi Orc" and simply meant "Island of the Orcs". Here, the "orc" element, means "young pig", and is thought to refer to the wild boar. So, we have the "Islands of the Wild Boar".

This has led to the theory that, at one time, a predominant "tribe" in the islands - possibly Pictish - had the boar as some form of tribal totem. It is interesting to note that the early Norwegian settlers in Orkney referred to the chambered cairn Maeshowe as "Orkahaugr" — the mound of the Orcs.

When the Norsemen settled in Orkney, they interpreted the ancient "orc" element as "orkn", their word for seal. The added the suffix "-eyjar" meaning islands and the islands became known as "Orkneyjar" - the Seal Islands.

The name was shortened by later Scots speakers, who dropped the last syllable of the Norse name, leaving "Orkney".

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