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'Fleean Things'
By Gregor Lamb

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 Orkney!

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 today.

Dialect "mouch" is a variant of the Middle English word "moughte".

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!

Gregor Lamb
10 December 2004

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