All of Orkney's
major islands have names ending with the suffix - "ay", which derives
from the Old Norse for "island".
These island names are usually descriptive,
based either on the appearance or the situation of the place, or,
in some cases, the name of its occupier or owner.
When it comes to the origin of names,
we can separate the islands into two distinct groups. The first
group contains those islands for which we know with certainty the
origin of their names.
(Old Norse: Sandey)
A descriptive name - detailing the miles of sandy beaches to
be found on Sanday.
Pronounced: "West-ree" or "Wast-ree"
(Old Norse: Vestrey)
| "West Island"
(Old Norse: Papey)
|"Island of the Papar (Priests)"
Papa Westray is first mentioned in the "Orkneyinga Saga"
as "Papey in meiri" - "the greater island of
the Priests/Monks", "Papa" being the word used
by the Norsemen to identify the early Christian monks who
arrived in approximately 800AD.
It is interesting to note that Orkney dialect
still retains the original Norse pronunciation, although the
spelling has changed.
(Old Norse: Eithey?)
| "Isthmus Island"
So called because of the isthmus across the middle of the island.
Pronounced: "row (rhymes with cow) - see"
(Old Norse: Hrolfsay)
| "Hrolf's Island"
(Old Norse: Eyin Helga)
| "Holy Island"
The infamous Hildaland
of the finfolk
(Old Norse: Gareksey)
| "Garek's Island"
(Old Norse: Vigr)
A descriptive name based on the island's shape.
(Possibly from Old Norse: Hjalpandisey)
This however is only one theory and there are some
who have questioned its validity.
Shapinsay appears in written records
only in 1375 where it is referred to as "Scalpandisay".
This has led to the more probable idea that the name means
(Old Norse: Háey)
| "High Island"
Another descriptive placename - Hoy having the highest
hills in Orkney.
Pronounced: "sooth ronald-see"
(Old Norse: Rognvaldsey)
| "Rognvald's Island"
(Old Norse: Flatey)
| "Flat Island"
(Old Norse: Borgarey)
| "Broch Island"
(Old Norse: Grimsey)
| "Grim's Island"
(Old Norse: Sviney)
| "Swine Island"
(Old Norse: meginland)
| Orkney's main island is known as
"the Mainland" but due to an early cartographic
error the name still appears incorrectly on numerous maps
The earliest references
to the Mainland call the land mass as "Hrossey"
which may mean either "Horse Island" or simply refer
to the name of the man under whose jurisdiction the island
The name fell into
disuse and the island became "megin-land", later
corrupted to "Mainland".
The second group of island names
is more elusive and the etymology is still uncertain. These are: