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The islands' names

All of Orkney's major islands have names ending with the suffix - "ay", which derives from the Old Norse for "island".

These island names are usually descriptive, based either on the appearance or the situation of the place, or, in some cases, the name of its occupier or owner.

When it comes to the origin of names, we can separate the islands into two distinct groups. The first group contains those islands for which we know with certainty the origin of their names.

These are as follows:

Pronounced: "San-dee"
(Old Norse: Sandey)
A descriptive name - detailing the miles of sandy beaches to be found on Sanday.
Pronounced: "West-ree" or "Wast-ree"
(Old Norse: Vestrey)
"West Island"
Pronounced: "Pahpee"
(Old Norse: Papey)
"Island of the Papar (Priests)"
Papa Westray is first mentioned in the "Orkneyinga Saga" as "Papey in meiri" - "the greater island of the Priests/Monks", "Papa" being the word used by the Norsemen to identify the early Christian monks who arrived in approximately 800AD.
It is interesting to note that Orkney dialect still retains the original Norse pronunciation, although the spelling has changed.
Pronounced: "ay-dee"
(Old Norse: Eithey?)
"Isthmus Island"
So called because of the isthmus across the middle of the island.
Pronounced: "row (rhymes with cow) - see"
(Old Norse: Hrolfsay)
"Hrolf's Island"
Pronounced: "eye-n-halloh"
(Old Norse: Eyin Helga)
"Holy Island"
The infamous Hildaland of the finfolk
Pronounced: "ger-see"
(Old Norse: Gareksey)
"Garek's Island"
Pronounced: "wigh-uhr"
(Old Norse: Vigr)
A descriptive name based on the island's shape.
Pronounced: "shappin-see"
(Possibly from Old Norse: Hjalpandisey)
"Hyalpandi's Island"
This however is only one theory and there are some who have questioned its validity.

Shapinsay appears in written records only in 1375 where it is referred to as "Scalpandisay". This has led to the more probable idea that the name means "Judge's island".
Pronounced: "hoa-ee"
(Old Norse: Háey)
"High Island"
Another descriptive placename - Hoy having the highest hills in Orkney.
Pronounced: "sooth ronald-see"
(Old Norse: Rognvaldsey)
"Rognvald's Island"
Pronounced: "flott-a"
(Old Norse: Flatey)
"Flat Island"
Pronounced: "burr-ee"
(Old Norse: Borgarey)
"Broch Island"
Pronounced: "grem-see"
(Old Norse: Grimsey)
"Grim's Island"
Pronounced: "swone-a"
(Old Norse: Sviney)
"Swine Island"
Pronounced: "mainlind"
(Old Norse: meginland)
Orkney's main island is known as "the Mainland" but due to an early cartographic error the name still appears incorrectly on numerous maps as "Pomona".

The earliest references to the Mainland call the land mass as "Hrossey" which may mean either "Horse Island" or simply refer to the name of the man under whose jurisdiction the island fell.

The name fell into disuse and the island became "megin-land", later corrupted to "Mainland".

The second group of island names is more elusive and the etymology is still uncertain. These are:

Pronounced: "ay-gl-see"
(Old Norse: Egilsey)
On first glance this looks like "Egil's Island" but it has also been theorised that "Egils" was perhaps an early corruption of the gaelic word "eaglais" meaning "church".
Pronounced: "stroan-see"
(Old Norse: Strjónsey)
Another uncertainty - suggested in the past as "a good place for fishing"

However, I wonder if its more likely to be related to the Old Norse "strond" - beach.
Pronounced: see S. Ronaldsay above
The traditional local pronunciation is "Rinnalsay" so it is unlikely that the name is derived from "Rognvald" as is South Ronaldsay. It is usually explained as "St Ninian's Isle" originally "Rinansay" based on the fact that "Ringan" was a name Ninian was often known by.

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