Around about 1985, when I was home on my own, an elderly tinker wife, carrying a pack, called at our house in Birsay.
I was completely surprised by this visit; I hadn't seen a travelling tinker wife since the late 1950s. I invited her in. She asked me my name and when I told her she remarked, ‘I kent yir mither fine boy, she was very good to us.'
I could well believe that since, as a child I could remember many calling and being invited inside for a cup of tea and a biscuit. She opened her pack, I bought a small thing from her and off she set on her way again.
As she opened the door she turned to me and said, ‘Thir's a big klok coman in the door boy.'
I looked down and sure enough there was an enormous black beetle just crossing the threshold.
This word came into Scots from Old English but I imagine that its use in Orkney and Shetland came from the Norse side of the family. Today the Faroese call such a beetle a ‘klukka'.
Subsequently I wondered by what route my visitor had acquired the word ‘klok'. Tinkers have been recorded in Orkney since the 17th century at least; they may have brought the word with them from Scotland.
On the other hand it may have been adopted in Orkney. She did after all refer to me as ‘boy' a characteristic of the tinker dialect but the word ‘boy' lacked the characteristic Orcadian vowel which turned it into ‘beuy'.
As he left she said, ‘Yi don't have a hound-dog boy; a lot o folk round here have hound-dogs.' I asked her to repeat what she had said since I wasn't sure I had heard her correctly. She had in fact said ‘hound-dog', meaning merely ‘dog' but I had never heard that word before and I haven't heard it since. It isn't recorded anywhere so it must be unique to the tinker dialect.
‘Klok, applied to a beetle, is one of many unusual words in our dialect which we apply to creepie-crawlies but I would imagine that it is very rarely used today.
The most common word used for a beetle is ‘gablo' but its name has been extended to cover almost any creeping thing. The word is Celtic, meaning ‘fork' and applied originally to the earwig which has a forked tail. Gaelic ‘gòblachan' is an earwig and ‘gobhal' is a fork. In the dialect of Orkney we call an earwig a ‘forky tail' but we also call it a ‘horny golach', which has come to us through Scots. ‘Golach' is a corruption of the Gaelic ‘gòblachan' form.
The most commonly used insect word in our dialect (and I use the word ‘insect' here in its broad sense) must surely be ‘slaitero'.
Every Orcadian knows what a ‘slaitero' is for there are millions of them in Orkney! The correct name is ‘woodlouse' but in an island with next to no wood, that would not be a very suitable name to use. The name ‘slaitero' seems to relate to the appearance of its back which looks like a slate roof.
I don't think that centipedes are anyone's favourite creepie-craalie but we do give it the friendly girl's name ‘Maggie hunder legs' or, as it is called by some, ‘Jenny hunder legs'. Others call it a ‘forty-feeter'; presumably they weren't very good at arithmetic at school.
The girl's name, Kirsty, is applied to the long legged spider which we find in the heather and which has a body in the shape of a little ball. Children who showed no fear of spiders would let it crawl over their hands and treat it in much the same way as children in Britain today treat the ladybird.
The old verse which Orkney children spoke went like this:
Kirsty, kirsty kringlick
Gae me nave a tinglick
Whit shall ye for supper hae
Deer, sheer, brett and smeer
Minchmeat sma or nane ava
Kirsty kringlick run awa.
It meant, ‘Kirsty, little ball, tickle the palm of my hand. What would you like for supper - meat, sour milk, bread and butter.....?'
The Daddy Longlegs was sometimes also erroneously called Kirs(t)y Kringlick because of its long legs. I was always brought up to call a spider a ‘speeder' but when I was collecting old words in the 1980s several old folk called them ‘ettercaps'. Today the Faroese call the spider by the similar name ‘eiturkoppur'. The name means ‘poison head' from the old belief that the spider, like some snakes, carries a poisonous bite.
On the subject of spiders, we must not forget the interesting old word ‘moosewab' for a spider's web. This name seemed originally to have applied not to the beautiful circular webs which we generally see but rather to the densely woven webs between stones in a farm building where the spider leaves a little hole just like a mouse hole and inside which he secretes himself waiting for his prey.
When Dr. Hugh Marwick was collecting old words in the 1920s he was given the word ‘myro' applied to the ant by a Birsay man. In the 1980s this word was still known and given to me also in the form ‘myroo' and ‘morrow'. An ants' nest was called a ‘myroo nest'. I wonder whether there are still elderly folk who know this word. The Faroese call the ant ‘meyra' and in the Norwegian language they are referred to as ‘maur'.
The little jumping creature which lives under stones and tangle on the beach and called the black sand hopper is known in dialect as the ‘sholtie', a similar word being applied to a Shetland pony! Orcadians also called the sand hopper ‘loopack' from the Norse word ‘hlaupa' to leap. I have never heard an Orkney name for the similar jumping insect which lives between dry stones in a dike. Can anyone help?
The most objectionable of creepie-craalies must be the ‘bobo' or the ‘poolie', old words for the louse. I think both words mean ‘little ball' because of their shape. Whatever their origin, a head infested with lice is not a pretty sight. Orcadians used fine old Norse words to describe such a sight - ‘skrullyan alive wi lice' or ‘skrithan wi lice'.
There was no recorded old word for the ‘mite' in the northern dialects but the reader can be assured that they were plentiful. Oatmeal had to be packed so hard in a girnel to prevent the free movement of mites that it was necessary to dig it out with a big scallop shell known as a ‘harpo'.
If the meal was not packed hard then it would soon be ‘kwackan wi mites' and unfit to eat. With everything more sanitised there is no longer scope for such words in our vocabulary.
8 December 2004