10.2 Traditional trades in Orkney & Shetland

Kelp deposits being dumped by the ebb tide

Like with the Scots language itself, many Scottish trades have been influenced by our Scandinavian neighbours, and we see this in the language used in the workplace – extensively so, in the Northern Isles. Both Shetland and Orkney have had, and still maintain, strong links with aquaculture and agriculture.

Farming the land and the sea have both been vital sources of income and sustenance, and the two trades often go hand-in-hand and overlap for many of the inhabitants throughout the history of the isles up to modern times.

To further set the scene I will quote once more from Robert McColl Millar:

To the north of the Scottish mainland are the Orkney and Shetland archipelagos. Although these two island chains are often lumped together, there are many ecological, cultural and historical differences between them, although similarities, such as a shared Norse heritage, need also to be borne in mind. Orkney (population in 2011: somewhat over 21,000) lies close to the Scottish mainland and is largely based on ‘soft’ sedimentary rock.

This makes most of the islands well disposed towards agriculture. In addition to the Mainland, a number of larger islands – Hoy, South Ronaldsay, Shapinsay and Westray, for instance – act as internal centres. The main population centre is Kirkwall (population in 2011: somewhat over 7,000, not including suburban development in other parishes).

Shetland (population in 2011: somewhat over 23,000) lies about 150 kilometres north of the Scottish mainland and about twice as far from both the Faroe Islands and Norway. Unlike Orkney, the geological base of Shetland is ‘hard’ igneous and metamorphic rock; soils are thin. While local level, largely subsistence, agricultural production has, at least until very recently, been an absolute necessity, fishing was for a long time the primary means both of sustenance and, where possible, profit.

Again, unlike Orkney, the Shetland Mainland is by far the largest island; even large islands like Yell and Unst are dwarfed by it. The Mainland is rarely more than five kilometres wide; often it is far narrower than this. Lerwick, with a population of around 7,000 in 2011, is essentially the only urban area.

(p. 21)

One example from the Northern Isles which shows Scots, the language links to Scandinavia and the use of the language in a traditional trade is to look at crofting and the distribution of land. In his book, The Northern Isles: Orkney and Shetland, Alexander Fenton details the history of terms for grazing areas which have been used:

In the Faroe Islands, the grazing area beyond the dyke was known as uttangards jФrð, udmark, or more often hagi. An individual’s share in the hagi was normally proportional to his holding in the indmark or township land, but whereas the indmark units were definite, demarcated and demonstrable, those in the hagi were not. The Faroese and Old Norse word hagi was used in Shetland and survives in place names and some common nouns, though it has been replaced by the word scattald, in the sense of hill-grazing.

(Fenton, 1978, p. 33)

Whilst it is now more common for stone dykes to have been replaced by fences to separate land, it is not uncommon for crofters to still share common grazing areas. These “common grazings” are where an area of land is used by a number of crofters and others who hold a right to graze stock on that land.

Today there are over 1000 common grazings covering over 500,000 ha across Scotland. A decline in the number of crofters in Scotland, and the decline of the influence of crofting, is often seen as being directly related to the decline of a wealth of Scots vocabulary due to it being specifically related to the occupation. As the trades of old become modernised, so does the language.

Can you think of other instances or contexts in which technological progress has had a huge impact on how language is used and has changed?

The lifestyle of the average Scot in previous decades and centuries has, as with so much of life across the world, changed to such an extent that people today no longer require what was once common vocabulary. We see this in the fishing industry, the crofting industry, and one where the two meet: the kelp industry.

To quote again from Alexander Fenton, we can gain an understanding of the value and uses of seaweed, which was of great importance to the Scots of the past because of its availability and its natural qualities:

The types of seaweed preferred for kelp were the wracks, Fucus and Ascophyllum, known by such names as, for example, yellow, black and prickly tang. Cutting was done by means of hooks and sickles, whose blades were toothed like harvest hooks. Collecting could start as early as mid-November, when the winter gales had torn the red-ware loose and cast it ashore.

A two-pronged fork, with prongs at right angles to the shaft, was used. This was a pick (or prick) (Orkney) or a taricrook (Shetland), the first part of the latter name coming from Norwegian tare, Laminaria. With this implement, the kelpers worked urgently in the white, rushing surf, dragging the wet, heavy ware out of the sea’s grasp, before a change of wind should wash it away again.

Summer work, cutting with the toothed sickle and gathering, was infinitely more pleasant.

(p. 64)

As with so many necessary tasks for those living in the Northern Isles, the option to work in good weather or bad was not a choice at all. The people of Shetland and Orkney were at the mercy of the elements not only in terms of having to work in all and any conditions, but also because the threat of extremely bad weather was a real possibility and regular occurrence which could render all their hard work worthless.

So much of the work required being outside and the gathering then drying of the collected seaweed was no different. Here Fenton details the different names and techniques used across six separate Orkney locations alone:

The gathered seaweed was spread out to dry on the grass or on stone foundations or steethes (Old Scots stede, place, site 1375) at the head of the beach. The heaps, which had to be turned sometimes to prevent fermentation, had various names. A beek was, in Stronsay, a pile of tangles for kelp making, laid in tiers at right angles to each other. Other Stronsay names are build (cf. Swedish dialectal bål, heap of stuff) and kes or kace, with kyest (Norwegian dialectal kas, kos, a heap, Old Norse kasa, to heap earth on, kǫs, a heap, kǫstr, a pile) in Rousay and kokk (cock) in Birsay.

When the tangles were being heaped up to dry the broad fronds were stripped off, a process called ‘to klokk tangles’. In Walls, each man’s tangle was heaped in a kossel (from Norwegian dialectal kǫs, heap), ‘a round place above high water mark, a hollow where each man’s seaweed is collected. On the Sanday shores, a mark-stone set up between the plots of ground used by kelpers for spreading their seaweed was a dull (Old Scots dule, boundary mark, 1563), or in North Ronaldsay a met (Old Scots met, measure, 1426).

(Fenton, 1978, pp. 64-5)

Activity 4

In this section you have come across a number of specific terms related to the kelp industry in Orkney and Shetland. In this activity you will test your memory of what these words mean. If you do not immediately remember a word, try not to look it up but work with the definitions we have provided first of all. Resort to looking it up only as a second step.

Using the following two lists, match each numbered item with the correct letter.

  1. prick, taricrook

  2. steethe

  3. beek, kace, kyest, kokk

  4. dull, met

  • a.a mark-stone set up between the plots of ground used by kelpers for spreading their seaweed

  • b.a pile of tangles for kelp making

  • c.two-pronged fork, with prongs at right angles to the shaft

  • d.stone foundation at the head of the beach

The correct answers are:
  • 1 = c
  • 2 = d
  • 3 = b
  • 4 = a

Whilst crofting is, in many ways, remarkably different from the flat greens of Orkney to the high, heather-clad hills of Shetland, both sets of islands share the issue of - and a passion for - getting the best out of the land with limited resources. The fact of there being a great deal more seaweed on the shores of the Orkney Isles than there is on Shetland’s is one reason why Orkney is today far greener than Shetland.

Both sets of isles used seaweed as a source of manure for the soil. The health of the land and the availability of fertilizer dictates the ability of farmers to grow crops and therefore the scale and variety of their food production.

Activity 5

As mentioned in other units, the Scots language of the Northern Isles has strong links to Old Norse. Now answer the following questions:

  • What is Old Norse?
  • Who spoke it and when?
  • Can you find any basic Old Norse vocabulary?
  • Are there any other interesting aspects of this language?

Look up the meaning and make notes – also checking what references you may have made to Old Norse when studying previous units in this course.

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Old Norse was a North Germanic language that was spoken by inhabitants of Scandinavia and Scandinavian settlements such asthe Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, as well as in parts of Russia, France, the British Isles and Ireland. It was the language of the Vikings or Norsemenand inhabitants of their overseas settlements from about the 9th to 14th centuries.

Old Norse shows close links with many of the Germanic languages today. For example, the German ja and nein, for yes and no are very similar to the Old Norse: and Nei. And the informal Old Norse greeting Hi is still used in English today.

Old Norse used a different alphabet from the Latin one. This Omniglot site [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] provides useful information on the famous Runic scipt, the Old Norse alphabet.

You can find interesting Viking quotes and phrases alongside references to their origins in this article.

10.1 McColl Millar’s Modern Scots

10.3 Crops and food production