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Is 'The Orkneys' ever right?
And other musings on 'Orkney' usage
By Dr Peter Anderson

Some years ago, I participated in the Sinclair Symposium, an entertaining conference in Kirkwall which centred on the first Henry Sinclair, earl of Orkney, and his alleged visit to the New World 100 years before Columbus.

Among the comments which stuck in my mind was one which had nothing to do with the theme in hand.

Josh Gourley, the energetic and efficient organiser, took time to warn the conference participants - many of whom were not Orcadian - off using the unpardonable solecism 'The Orkneys' when referring to these islands.

Some months ago I was discussing with my cousin, Anne Brundle, a book I am working on about Orkney, when the issue came up - "'Orkney' or 'The Orkneys?'". Mischievously, I put the case in favour of the latter (which I shall rehearse in a minute) and was interested in how vociferous she was in denying the legitimacy of it.

Brian Smith, the Shetland archivist, had a similar experience in conversation with the normally very mild-mannered Ernest Marwick.

Speaking for myself I would never actually use the phrase, and yet - something stirred at the back of my mind that this was not the open-and-shut case some might imagine it to be.

The mangling of place-names by non-Orcadians is something we are all, almost, used to. One immensely distinguished archaeologist's pronunciation of Buckquoy has mildly exasperated her Orkney admirers for many years, with its stress on the second element, which is rhymed with Hoy; she has also been known to describe places as being 'in Mainland'. Another prominent archaeologist, despite repeated promptings, could only pronounce Orphir as if it were where the quinquereme of Nineveh came from.

We should perhaps distinguish two separate things here - pronunciation and usage.

With mispronunciations I have some sympathy. Not only are the saying and spelling of Orkney place-names highly unusual in themselves, but they are different from what appear to be similar things elsewhere. About a mile from where I am writing, on the Firth of Forth, lies the Castle of Blackness.

Locally Blackness is pronounced as if it were two words, and I was once mildly corrected for using an Orkney-style pronunciation, which treats it as one word, making it sound to the local like the state of being black.

There are numerous traps of this sort (the Orcadian's treatment of Hoy Sound as if it was all one word is another); in addition the sing-song tones of the Orkney accent can make it difficult for the incomer to produce a convincing imitation and some, particularly the English, are afraid of being thought affected or to be taking the mickey if they try too hard.

But usage is another matter.

Employing 'Mainland' without the definite article, referring to Scotland as 'the Mainland', talking about 'The Isle of Orkney', expressions like 'Stronsay Island', are cases in point.

The Ordnance Survey, that great bogeyman in this whole sphere, has recently taken to calling Sheets 5 and 7 of its 1:50,000 series 'The Northern Isles' and 'The Southern Isles'. Not only are both of these unidiomatic, but the 'The Northern Isles' is downright misleading, since the name is normally used generically to mean Orkney and Shetland taken together, as distinct from 'The Western Isles'.

These are questions of usage where there is little excuse for misuse. So what of 'the Orkneys'?

The earliest example of 'Orkneys' that a short survey has been able to find (courtesy of Brian Smith) dates from 1746. James MacKenzie (he of the Grievances) was paid by the anti-Mortonian lairds for extracting from the archives of Scotland . . .'a large collection of . . . useful monuments relating to . . . the weights and other affairs of the Orkneys'.

It also appears in Smollett's Humphrey Clinker of 1771, and Sir Walter Scott uses it, in his 1814 account of his visit to the islands. This interesting point is that, while Scott and Smollett did not know Orkney, or at any rate not well, the others - lairds Fea, Traill and Balfour, as well as Mackenzie - were Orkney men.

But it is in 1824 that we find the first instance of a highly distinctive usage, which persisted quite strongly into the century just past. John Lewis, a methodist preacher travelling in Shetland in 1824, speaks of 'Shetland and the Orkneys'. Lewis was of course unversed in Orkney and Shetland usage, but why render the one as singular and the other as plural? Surely he must have been imitating something he had heard.

I had encountered this form several times before I looked at it seriously (in fact it was this that led me to ask the question at the start of this article). Orkney has been designated with a plural from almost the earliest times. The Romans referred to them as Orcades - a plural. It has come down to French as Les Orcades. This, amazingly, is one of only a handful of Scottish placenames which have their own French version; L'Écosse, Édimbourg - I don't know of any more - and it is plural.

Old Norse is similar. When referring to the islands, the saga uses the form Orkneyar - 'Orkneys', or possibly 'Orkn-islands'. The Faeroes, in the Saga of King Sverri of Norway are plural too. The king himself at one point thanks the merchants of 'the Orkneys, Shetland, the Faereys or Iceland', and this is a fair translation of the original. The Western Isles, in Norse times known as the Suðreyar, are also plural. Of the western islands in the Atlantic only Shetland - 'Hjaltland' - is at one with Iceland in being singular.

Hjaltalin and Goudie (1873), Dasent (1894) and Taylor (1938) translations of the Orkneyinga Saga, following the original Old Norse, all use 'the Orkneys and Shetland', as does Tudor's History.

Brøgger, in the original version of his book Ancient Emigrants, uses the Norwegian equivalent. In modern Norwegian, Orkney is Orknøyene, the form being known as a definite plural, signifying both the plural and the definite article. This is the form used by Knut Helle in his booklet of 1988 entitled (in the English text; the guilty translator is not identified) The Orkneys in Norwegian History. This usage is in fact a slight change from the Old Norse, and it is one which sets European Scandinavia apart from the more conservative usage of the Faeroes (if one may so term them).

The Faeroese for Faeroes - Føroyar - means precisely that, Faeroes. The islanders never use the definite article, though they are happy to accept that other languages do - not only English, but that of their traditional guardians, the Danes, who call them Foerøerne, the ending being 'the - s' in English. This form is used in bi- and tri-lingual publications in the islands. It is the Orcadians and Shetlanders who call them 'Faeroe', in defence to susceptibilities that they imagine are shared by the Faeroese.

Interestingly, the first translator of a major saga work into English, Samuel Laing, the eminent Orcadian whose 1844 version of the Heimskringla is still in print, uses 'Orkney' and the 'Orkney Islands' interchangeably. Without having sight of the Old Norse original, I would guess that here we have an Orcadian avoiding the 'Orkneys' translation of Orkneyjar and substituting two other versions, interchanging them for elegant variation.

So distinctive is this use of 'The Orkneys and Shetland', that I am inclined to think that it was the appearance of the saga translations which lent intellectual respectability to it, and its appearance in erudite works.

Do not misunderstand me; I fully accept that idiomatically, 'the Orkneys' was not, and is not, right. I have perused literally hundreds of legal and other documents relating to Orkney, particularly from the fifteenth to the early seventeenth century, and I have never once encountered 'The Orkneys'. Documents are invariably dated 'in the parish of X and the sheriffdom (or bishopric or stewartry) of Orkney'.

'The Orkneys' is now, perhaps thankfully, out of fashion, but the fact is that it was once in fashion, and among Orcadians, and learned Orcadians at that.

The Orcadian Book of the Twentieth Century notes that, though the phrase raises hackles today, it was in common use in the paper in the early years of last century. Hossack's Kirkwall in the Orkneys speaks for itself, as does Mooney's Eynhallow: The Holy Island of the Orkneys.

From the late twelfth century, with the end of the saga, until the early fifteenth century, much happened in Orkney that we know little about. Particularly important was the progress of Scots at the expense of the Orkney Norn, both in the spoken language and in the rendering of place-names.

By the 1400s, place-names have plainly lost their Old Norse inflections and become labels rather than descriptions, their actual meaning being lost to view as Scotticisation progressed. Unlike for example Jakobsen, I do not regard this as a matter for regret, for it created something which is almost unique - shared only with Shetland and Caithness: the Scots-Norse place-name.

The fact is however that the '-ar' plural ending dropped off the term 'Orkney' and only in the nineteenth century was an attempt made to put it back again, in the Scots/English '-s' form. Ironically, since the 'ey' ending in Orkney actually means island, the dropping of the plural reduces the name to something like the irritating form 'Isle (or Island) of Orkney'.

In favour of 'The Orkneys' therefore, history may be cited.

In the saga, the highly distinctive use of the singular for Shetland and plural for Orkney and the Faeroes is undeniable. 'The Shetlands' is never, ever, right and never has been (though that has never stopped the ignorant from using it; neither of course is Zetland, but that is another matter).

Why? Geography may be one reason. Shetland is a larger and much more densely grouped archipelago, more like a single 'land' than Orkney with its distinctive tripartite division of the Mainland, the ring of South Isles and the scattered North Isles; and the Faeroes, which has no mainland as such. Perhaps in the end Orcadians, in their independence of mind, have sought to bring their usage into line with that of their partners in the Northern Isles, for whom their home has always been neither an island, nor an archipelago, but a land.

It is curious however, when Orkney's consciousness of its Norse heritage has scarcely been stronger, that what is regarded as proper has turned against the usage of the central text of that heritage.