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  Orkney Placenames

An introduction

"So the message is this: correct a wrong pronunciation when you hear it, demolish a false etymology when you can, and resist further attempts to anglicise these peculiar but splendid old names"
David Dorward - Scotland's Placenames

There is nothing that betrays Orkney's Norse heritage more than the islands' placenames.

In the eighth and ninth centuries AD, when the Norwegian settlers began arriving in Orkney, their placenames supplanted any original names. Because of this Orkney's placenames are now practically all Norse in origin. According to scholars there are over ten thousand of them, the majority of which are derivatives or corruptions of original Old Norse names. These old Norwegian words are found mingled with a few die-hard words of Celtic origin and a handful of later Scottish imports.

Placenames, even if used only for a short time, have a habit of sticking. This is certainly the case in Orkney.

Although the standardised spellings of many places in Orkney have been known to change over time, more often than not they retain their "correct" Orcadian pronunciation. Because of this, and also because of the whims of cartographers and historians throughout the centuries, to discern the root of any particular Orcadian placename it is usually best to listen to the way it is pronounced by an Orcadian, rather than go by its spelling on a map.

Our placenames have suffered greatly over the ages from the blundering of these map makers who knew nothing of Norn, the variant of Norse spoken in the islands.

Whenever they encountered a word that bore any resemblance to an English or Scottish word, it was common practice to immediately change it into what they assumed had to be its correct "English" form.

A classic example of this is Kirkwall. Originally pronounced "Kirkwaa", the name of the town derived from "Kirkvoe", which in turn came from "Kirkjuvagr" meaning "The Church Bay".

However, the early cartographers assumed that because the sound of the Orcadian -waa element was the same as the Scottish pronunciation of "wall" it had to mean the same. They promptly anglicised it and in one stroke "Kirkwaa" became "Kirkwall".

Unfortunately this distortion of placenames did not end with the early mapmakers but it is a process goes on today.

With many of the islands now housing more incomers than Orcadians, slowly but surely the ancient placenames of Orkney are being altered to suit these unfamiliar tongues.

The Origin of "Orkney"

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