'The Orkneys' ever right?
And other musings on 'Orkney' usage
By Dr Peter Anderson
Some years ago, I participated in
the Sinclair Symposium, an entertaining conference in Kirkwall which
centred on the first Henry Sinclair, earl of Orkney, and his
alleged visit to the New World 100 years before Columbus.
Among the comments which stuck in
my mind was one which had nothing to do with the theme in hand.
Josh Gourley, the energetic and efficient
organiser, took time to warn the conference participants - many
of whom were not Orcadian - off using the unpardonable solecism
'The Orkneys' when referring to these islands.
Some months ago I was discussing
with my cousin, Anne Brundle, a book I am working on about Orkney,
when the issue came up - "'Orkney' or 'The Orkneys?'".
Mischievously, I put the case in favour of the latter (which I shall
rehearse in a minute) and was interested in how vociferous she was
in denying the legitimacy of it.
Brian Smith, the Shetland archivist,
had a similar experience in conversation with the normally very
mild-mannered Ernest Marwick.
Speaking for myself I would never
actually use the phrase, and yet - something stirred at the back
of my mind that this was not the open-and-shut case some might imagine
it to be.
The mangling of place-names by non-Orcadians
is something we are all, almost, used to. One immensely distinguished
archaeologist's pronunciation of Buckquoy has mildly exasperated
her Orkney admirers for many years, with its stress on the second
element, which is rhymed with Hoy; she has also been known to describe
places as being 'in Mainland'. Another prominent archaeologist,
despite repeated promptings, could only pronounce Orphir as if it
were where the quinquereme of Nineveh came from.
We should perhaps distinguish two
separate things here - pronunciation and usage.
With mispronunciations I have some
sympathy. Not only are the saying and spelling of Orkney place-names
highly unusual in themselves, but they are different from what appear
to be similar things elsewhere. About a mile from where I am writing,
on the Firth of Forth, lies the Castle of Blackness.
Locally Blackness is pronounced as
if it were two words, and I was once mildly corrected for using
an Orkney-style pronunciation, which treats it as one word, making
it sound to the local like the state of being black.
There are numerous traps of this
sort (the Orcadian's treatment of Hoy Sound as if it was all one
word is another); in addition the sing-song tones of the Orkney
accent can make it difficult for the incomer to produce a convincing
imitation and some, particularly the English, are afraid of being
thought affected or to be taking the mickey if they try too hard.
But usage is another matter.
Employing 'Mainland' without the
definite article, referring to Scotland as 'the Mainland', talking
about 'The Isle of Orkney', expressions like 'Stronsay Island',
are cases in point.
The Ordnance Survey, that great bogeyman
in this whole sphere, has recently taken to calling Sheets 5 and
7 of its 1:50,000 series 'The Northern Isles' and 'The Southern
Isles'. Not only are both of these unidiomatic, but the 'The Northern
Isles' is downright misleading, since the name is normally used
generically to mean Orkney and Shetland taken together, as distinct
from 'The Western Isles'.
These are questions of usage where
there is little excuse for misuse. So what of 'the Orkneys'?
The earliest example of 'Orkneys'
that a short survey has been able to find (courtesy of Brian Smith)
dates from 1746. James MacKenzie (he of the Grievances)
was paid by the anti-Mortonian lairds for extracting from the archives
of Scotland . . .'a large collection of . . . useful monuments relating
to . . . the weights and other affairs of the Orkneys'.
It also appears in Smollett's Humphrey
Clinker of 1771, and Sir Walter Scott uses it, in his 1814 account
of his visit to the islands. This interesting point is that, while
Scott and Smollett did not know Orkney, or at any rate not well,
the others - lairds Fea, Traill and Balfour, as well as Mackenzie
- were Orkney men.
But it is in 1824 that we find the
first instance of a highly distinctive usage, which persisted quite
strongly into the century just past. John Lewis, a methodist preacher
travelling in Shetland in 1824, speaks of 'Shetland and the Orkneys'.
Lewis was of course unversed in Orkney and Shetland usage, but why
render the one as singular and the other as plural? Surely he must
have been imitating something he had heard.
I had encountered this form several
times before I looked at it seriously (in fact it was this that
led me to ask the question at the start of this article). Orkney
has been designated with a plural from almost the earliest times.
The Romans referred to them as Orcades - a plural. It has
come down to French as Les Orcades. This, amazingly, is
one of only a handful of Scottish placenames which have their own
French version; L'Écosse, Édimbourg - I don't know
of any more - and it is plural.
Old Norse is similar. When referring
to the islands, the saga uses the form Orkneyar - 'Orkneys', or
possibly 'Orkn-islands'. The Faeroes, in the Saga of King Sverri
of Norway are plural too. The king himself at one point thanks the
merchants of 'the Orkneys, Shetland, the Faereys or Iceland', and
this is a fair translation of the original. The Western Isles, in
Norse times known as the Suðreyar, are also plural.
Of the western islands in the Atlantic only Shetland - 'Hjaltland'
- is at one with Iceland in being singular.
Hjaltalin and Goudie (1873), Dasent
(1894) and Taylor (1938) translations of the Orkneyinga
Saga, following the original Old Norse, all use 'the Orkneys
and Shetland', as does Tudor's History.
Brøgger, in the original version
of his book Ancient Emigrants, uses the Norwegian equivalent. In
modern Norwegian, Orkney is Orknøyene, the form being known
as a definite plural, signifying both the plural and the definite
article. This is the form used by Knut Helle in his booklet of 1988
entitled (in the English text; the guilty translator is not identified)
The Orkneys in Norwegian History. This usage is in fact
a slight change from the Old Norse, and it is one which sets European
Scandinavia apart from the more conservative usage of the Faeroes
(if one may so term them).
The Faeroese for Faeroes - Føroyar
- means precisely that, Faeroes. The islanders never use the definite
article, though they are happy to accept that other languages do
- not only English, but that of their traditional guardians, the
Danes, who call them Foerøerne, the ending being 'the - s'
in English. This form is used in bi- and tri-lingual publications
in the islands. It is the Orcadians and Shetlanders who call them
'Faeroe', in defence to susceptibilities that they imagine are shared
by the Faeroese.
Interestingly, the first translator
of a major saga work into English, Samuel Laing, the eminent Orcadian
whose 1844 version of the Heimskringla is still in print,
uses 'Orkney' and the 'Orkney Islands' interchangeably. Without
having sight of the Old Norse original, I would guess that here
we have an Orcadian avoiding the 'Orkneys' translation of Orkneyjar
and substituting two other versions, interchanging them for elegant
So distinctive is this use of 'The
Orkneys and Shetland', that I am inclined to think that it was the
appearance of the saga translations which lent intellectual respectability
to it, and its appearance in erudite works.
Do not misunderstand me; I fully
accept that idiomatically, 'the Orkneys' was not, and is not, right.
I have perused literally hundreds of legal and other documents relating
to Orkney, particularly from the fifteenth to the early seventeenth
century, and I have never once encountered 'The Orkneys'. Documents
are invariably dated 'in the parish of X and the sheriffdom (or
bishopric or stewartry) of Orkney'.
'The Orkneys' is now, perhaps thankfully,
out of fashion, but the fact is that it was once in fashion, and
among Orcadians, and learned Orcadians at that.
The Orcadian Book of the Twentieth
Century notes that, though the phrase raises hackles today,
it was in common use in the paper in the early years of last century.
Hossack's Kirkwall in the Orkneys speaks for itself, as
does Mooney's Eynhallow: The Holy Island of the Orkneys.
From the late twelfth century, with
the end of the saga, until the early fifteenth century, much happened
in Orkney that we know little about. Particularly important was
the progress of Scots at the expense of the Orkney Norn, both in
the spoken language and in the rendering of place-names.
By the 1400s, place-names have plainly
lost their Old Norse inflections and become labels rather than descriptions,
their actual meaning being lost to view as Scotticisation progressed.
Unlike for example Jakobsen, I do not regard this as a matter for
regret, for it created something which is almost unique - shared
only with Shetland and Caithness: the Scots-Norse place-name.
The fact is however that the '-ar'
plural ending dropped off the term 'Orkney' and only in the nineteenth
century was an attempt made to put it back again, in the Scots/English
'-s' form. Ironically, since the 'ey' ending in Orkney actually
means island, the dropping of the plural reduces the name to something
like the irritating form 'Isle (or Island) of Orkney'.
In favour of 'The Orkneys' therefore,
history may be cited.
In the saga, the highly distinctive
use of the singular for Shetland and plural for Orkney and the Faeroes
is undeniable. 'The Shetlands' is never, ever, right and never has
been (though that has never stopped the ignorant from using it;
neither of course is Zetland, but that is another matter).
Why? Geography may be one reason.
Shetland is a larger and much more densely grouped archipelago,
more like a single 'land' than Orkney with its distinctive tripartite
division of the Mainland, the ring of South Isles and the scattered
North Isles; and the Faeroes, which has no mainland as such. Perhaps
in the end Orcadians, in their independence of mind, have sought
to bring their usage into line with that of their partners in the
Northern Isles, for whom their home has always been neither an island,
nor an archipelago, but a land.
It is curious however, when Orkney's
consciousness of its Norse heritage has scarcely been stronger,
that what is regarded as proper has turned against the usage of
the central text of that heritage.