Historical Perspective

In Orkney today we speak a dialect of Scots but we have an accent which is all our own and we also have many words which people from the Mainland of Scotland would not recognise. The words we use and they way we use them are very similar to words and phrases in the Shetland dialect but they are not exactly alike, so we cannot call our dialect ‘Northern Islands Scots’. In fact if we are asked what language we speak, we say Orcadian. To understand how we came to speak this particular language, we must look at the history of Orkney.

The first people who lived in Orkney left behind many stone buildings and later some carved stones, but we do not know what language they spoke. It would have been a Pictish language, but even that does not help us much as no-one knows what language the Picts used. It might have been some form of Celtic (Gaelic) but it could have been something completely different. The only thing we know for certain is that their language disappeared when the Norse settlers came to Orkney.

The Norsemen brought their own language with them and for many centuries Norse was spoken throughout Orkney and Shetland. This was the language used in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, the Faeroes and Orkney and Shetland. When Orkney and Shetland were originally taken over by the Norsemen, the language used was the same over all these countries but gradually through the centuries each country developed its own form. In Orkney and Shetland our form became known as the Norn. Today, Norse has split up into Icelandic, Faeroese, Norwegian, Swedish and Danish and the Norn has almost disappeared – almost, but not completely as we shall see.

In 1468 Orkney was handed over to Scotland, followed by Shetland in 1469, and after that any records that were kept were written in Scots. Scots became the official language and was used for any legal documents and for trade. The Norn was still used at home of course among the greater part of the people in Orkney, but to deal with the officials sent from Scotland to govern Orkney and to trade with Scotland, people would have had to learn to speak Scots. It is thus not surprising that the Norn began to disappear and that Scots gradually replaced it everywhere. The Norn would have disappeared from the towns of Kirkwall and Stromness first until eventually it would have been spoken only in country districts and the Isles.

We can almost set an exact date for the end of the Norn: 1750. At this date we find the last references to it on the Mainland of Orkney. Perhaps it was a slightly later date in the further North Isles, as we find a reference in Barry’s History of Orkney to Norse ballads being sung in North Ronaldsay. Although we have these references to the Norn, we cannot tell exactly how it was spoken at that time as there are no written records. There are a few clues, however, as one or two people took the trouble to write down a little of it, but as they were not Norn speakers themselves we cannot rely on their spelling. Here is the Lord’s Prayer from Orkney which was written down at this time:

Favor i er i chimeri
Helleut ir i nam thite, gilla cosdum thite cumma,
Veya thine mota vara gort o yurn sinna gort i chimeri,
Ga vus da on da dalight brow vora,
Firgive vus sinna vora sin vee firgive sindara mutha vus
Lyv vus ye i tumtation,
Men delivra vus fro olt ilt, Amen.

At first sight this seems like a foreign language indeed, but if you look at it more closely and compare it with the Lord’s Prayer (in English) with which we are familiar it is possible to recognise many of the words. More can be recognised if we change v into w at the beginning of words. For example, in line 5, vee firgive becomes we forgive. Still more can be recognised if we forget about English and use Orcadian. In line 1, er is how we say English are. In line 4, ga becomes gae, which we use for English give.

The words are easy to understand. What is strange is the order of the words. Instead of ‘forgive
is wir sins’, we have ‘firgive vus sinna vora’. There is a clue here to the reason the Norn disappeared, if indeed it did disappear. If we can recognise the words but not the syntax, that is the order in which they are used, this ought to mean that the words used in the Lord’s Prayer as it is written above are Scots but the syntax is the Norn. This, however, is not so: the words are Norn also. A large number of the words used in Scots were used also in Norse as those languages were alike in many ways, and so, when Orcadians had to learn Scots, they would have found that they knew a great deal of it already and had only to change the syntax around to make themselves understood readily.

Because Orkney is so close to Scotland, some Orcadians would have been familiar with Scots long before 1468 and without doubt many people from the Mainland of Scotland would have settled in Orkney throughout the centuries bringing their language with them. With all of this contact it would seem likely that Scots would have had an influence on the Norn even if Orkney had not been handed over to Scotland.

As the words used in Scots and the Norn are so alike, it is impossible for us to tell, a lot of the time, if we are using a Scots word or a Norn word. It is a shared inheritance. We do have a lot of words and phrases, though, which are not used in Scots and we have hung on to them because they were useful, because they were words to do with everyday tasks in farming and fishing, or words for birds and flowers, or phrases which had no equivalent in Scots.

If Scots had been a completely different language to the Norn and none of the words had been the same, we would have lost most, if not all, of the Norn. This is what happened in many areas of Scotland which used to speak Gaelic. There is no mixture of Gaelic and Scots, but there is quite definitely a mixture of Scots and the Norn.

Over the last hundred years however there have been other changes to our language. English replaced Scots as the official language, the language to use in records and legal documents. Teachers insisted on English as ‘correct speech’ in schools:

Don’t say ‘noo’, say ‘now’,
Don’t say ‘ku’, say ‘cow’.
C.M.Costie, ‘Speech’.

Over the last hundred years also we have lost a great number of the words we once used. If we look at Dr. Hugh Marwick’s Orkney Norn, written 70 years ago, we can see this. Our language is still changing too. As we listen to the radio and watch television, we are influenced by English speakers, American, even Australian. The number of people speaking Orcadian on the radio or television is very small, especially since most Orcadians use English if they are broadcasting.

There is no doubt that we have lost a great deal of the Norn. We should not be surprised at this when we consider the facts that teachers once insisted on English and that we hear such different language on radio and television. The surprise lies in the fact that so much of it still exists. The Norn, and Orcadian, must be a very strong plant to have survived as it has done all these centuries and now, at the end of the twentieth century, we still have a language of our own, Orcadian. We have access to all the riches of the English language with a richness of our own to fall back on when English fails us. We are indeed fortunate.