In contrast to the many names we
have in our dialect for creepie-craalies,
we have very few words for winged insects, and most of these are
remembered by only a very few people.
The common word for a "fly" for instance
was "flee" but this will rarely be heard today since it would be
confused with English "flea". The Orkney pronunciation of "flea"
was 'flae" so formerly there was never any confusion. Although 'flee"
meaning "fly" has all but vanished, people still talk of a "kaily
flee" meaning a butterfly and the verb "tae flee", meaning "to fly"
is still used. The past tense of this verb is "fled" and, in the
1990s, I was very amused to hear an elderly man say that he "fled
tae Aberdeen." It momentarily brought a picture of persecution in
When I was young there was a constant
hum of blue-bottles in and around house no doubt because of the
nearby midden. As a little boy I remember rightly getting a good
lugget from my mother when she saw that I had caught a blue-bottle
in the window and I had cruelly pinned it to the window sill.
A general word for a bluebottle in
dialect is "bee", though they are no relation to bees. When collecting
old words in the 1980s I was given the word "fishy bee" for a bluebottle
but also from several sources the more interesting word "matlo"
or "fish matlo". The dung fly was referred to as the "sharny matlo".
Why should these flies be called
"matlo", a word which normally in English means "sailor"?
The blue-bottle is also called "matlo"
in Shetland but the use of the word is completely unknown on the
Scottish mainland. This gives us a hint that the origin of the word
lies in the Norse language and has nothing to do with sailors. In
Faroese the blue-bottle is a "maðkafluga" and our word "matlo"
is a corruption of the Norse form. It seems an impossible corruption
until we realise that in some instances an "f" in front of an "l"
in Norse is lost in Orkney Norn. For instance the Norse word "fles"
for a skerry frequently appears in coastal names as "less". On the
Holm of Papay there are two skerries with apparently weird names.
One is called Little Less and the other Big Less!
After that digression to skerries,
the "ð" and "k" of "maðkafluga" are run together to make
the sound "t" and the "g" towards the end of a word was frequently
not pronounced. The net result is that we are left with "matlo."
It was probably originally "matlu" but like the creepie-craalies
we referred to in an earlier article such as "bobo", "gablo", "myro"
and "slaetro", it acquired the common Orkney diminutive "o".
Another word which I collected in
the 1980s was "meeo". It is the old word for a "midge"; notice that
it too has acquired the Orkney diminutive "o". The name derives
from the Old Norse word, "mý", a midge. A tour of Iceland
would almost certainly bring the reader to beautiful Mývatn,
the lake in the north-east of Iceland. In late summer it is best
avoided however since its name means "midge lake". Today in Orkney
the midge is universally known as the "mudgeo", a variant of "midge"
but it retains its "o" diminutive.
I generally adopt a friendly approach
to most things in nature but I have little time for the horse fly
which is also known as the "horse matlo". If I knew its function
I might be more sympathetic but it has the less than endearing habit
of finding exposed parts of the skin, sneaking up quietly, drinking
blood and leaving a painful sore. We also call it a "bloody sooker"
for more reasons than one but it is most commonly referred to in
Orkney by its Norse name as a "klegg".
We have a wonderful variety of moths
in Orkney. One only has to leave the window open on a fine summer's
night and a house with a light inside will soon be invaded. Strange
to say our dialect is almost completely devoid of any reference
to moths. A century or more ago a clothes moth was called a "mouch",
the "ch" being pronounced as it is in "loch".
The word is preserved
in a little poem written by some goodly buddy in Orkney dreaming
of the Holy Land:
Jerusalem is a bonny piece
Nae mouch or moosewab there
Hid's streets are laid wi baeten gold
Oh gin I wis there!
Sadly we have a different picture of Jerusalem
Dialect "mouch" is a variant of the Middle English
A particularly interesting name for a moth is
"letter fly". In my experience it also applies only to the clothes
moth. When we were children we always tried to catch them because
we were told that if we did we would receive a letter in the post!
There seems in fact to be no connection between the "letter fly"
and "letters". Norwegian for a moth is "lett fly" where "lett" revers
to its quick movements. "Letter fly" must in fact be a Norse name!
Lastly let us consider some of the larval stages
of these "fleean things". Orcadians, like the northmen, did not
distinguish between caterpillars, worms, snakes and even dragons!
Maggots in dialect are called "worms". When my
mother discovered maggots in a piece of meat bought from a butcher,
my sister was asked to return it with the instructions, "Tell the
wife thit thir wir no worms in yir money"!
Orcadians and Norwegians believed that toothache
was caused by a maggot and when an old buddy said that they were
troubled with the worm it meant that they had toothache! The caterpillar
of the cabbage butterfly is called the "kaily worm" - though it
isn't a worm!
The great monster
of Orkney folklore, the Stoorworm, was a dragon that relished
the flesh of local maidens.
One of the most interesting caterpillars must
surely be the brown hairy larva of the tiger moth. The word "caterpillar"
must have originally applied only to this larva, since the derivation
of "caterpillar" is "hairy cat"! Today it is popularly known in
English as the "woolly bear".
Orcadians have two names for it, both
of which would be used only rarely today. It is called the "heathery
brottick" and the "oobit". "Brottick" is an extraordinary word.
It is one of only a handful of Gaelic words in our dialect, coming
from "brutag", a worm. "Oobit" has come to us through Scots, ultimately
from Middle English "wolbode", woolly body.
In South Ronaldsay, and perhaps elsewhere in Orkney,
it acquired a completely different meaning. If someone were described
as "wan oobit o a thing" it meant that they were completely useless!
10 December 2004