The Place Names of Orkney

Orkney and Shetland have been populated for over 6000 years, and through the course of these Islands’ history the languages spoken there have changed many times. We have no records of the language used by the Neolithic people who lived in Skara Brae, nor of the Bronze Age people who occupied Jarlshof.

The name Orkney itself comes from Orkneyjar, which means Seal Islands.

From the early Iron Age Orkney and Shetland were inhabited by the Picts, but there is debate over the language they spoke. It is believed to have contained elements of Irish Gaelic, and several examples of carved Ogham script found in Orkney and Shetland supports this theory.

The interior of Skara Brae in Orkney
Skara Brae Neolithic Village in Sandwick, Orkney photo © Copyright Charles Tait

From 800AD, settlers from Norway arrived in the Northern Islands, and the language spoken in Orkney and Shetland changed to Old Norse, from which Norwegian, Faroese and Icelandic are derived. In Orkney and Shetland (and even in parts of Caithness), Old Norse evolved to Norn, which was spoken in Orkney and Shetland until the 17th century. Scots eventually took over, but there are many words in the Orkney and Shetland dialect that may be quite unfamiliar to people from the Scottish Mainland!

The Bu in Orphir, Orkney
The Bu in Orphir, Orkney photo © Copyright Charles Tait

It is Old Norse that has had the greatest influence on the vast majority of modern place names. Some pronunciations have changed over time, and some place names are often the result of mapmakers mishearing local accents! One example of this is the Broch of Gurness (pictured below), which was so named because of a misinterpretation of the name of the area, Aikerness, which means ‘Arable Land Point’.

The Broch of Gurness, Aikerness, Orkney
The Broch of Gurness, Aikerness, Orkney photo © Copyright Charles Tait

Orkney itself comes from Orkneyjar, which means ‘Seal Islands‘. The Orkney Mainland was once called Hrossey, and the NorthLink ship was given the same name. It means ‘Horse Island‘.

Seals at Burwick in Orkney
Seals at Burwick in Orkney photo © Copyright Charles Tait

The other NorthLink ship, Hjaltland, is the Old Norse name for Shetland. One theory behind this name is that the shape of the islands on a map resemble the hilt (hjalt) of a sword. Another theory is that the Picts referred to the earlier inhabitants of Shetland as Catts, and named it the Isle of Catts.

Viewing Shapinsay across the water from Helliar Holm in Orkney
Viewing Shapinsay across the water from Helliar Holm in Orkney photo © Copyright Charles Tait

Hamnavoe (Harbour Bay) is the old name for Stromness and now the name of the Stromness to Scrabster ferry. The NorthLink freight ship Hildasay (battle island) is the name of an uninhabited Shetland island and Helliar is named after the uninhabited island, Helliar Holm (cave island) pictured above, which lies off the coast of Shapinsay in Orkney.

Tresness in Sanday, Orkney
Tresness, Sanday, Orkney photo © Copyright Charles Tait
Orkney Island names and their meanings
AuskerryEast skerry.
BurrayBroch island.
CavaCalf isle.
CopinsayKolbein’s island.
DamsayTwin isle.
EdayIsthmus isle.
EgilsayEgil’s isle or Church isle.
EynhallowHoly isle.
FaraSheep isle.
FlottaFlat isle.
GraemsayGrim’s isle.
HoyHigh island.
North RonaldsayRingan’s isle.
Papa StronsaySmall island of the Priests.
Papa WestrayBig island of the Priests.
RousayRolf’s island.
SandaySandy isle.
ShapinsayHelping island (for ships).
South RonaldsayRognvald’s isle.
StronsayProfit island (good farming and fishing).
SwonaSweyn’s isle.
WestrayWest isle.
Stromness Waterfront, Orkney
Stromness Waterfront, Orkney photo © Copyright Billy Fox
Orkney area names and their meanings
BirsayIsland of the rampart.
BrodgarBridge farm.
DeernessAnimal point (the Mull of Deerness is shaped like an animal's head).
EvieEddy (referring to strong current in Eynhallow Sound).
FinstownNamed after David Phin, an Irish soldier.
HarrayInland district.
HolmHaven or good anchorage.
KirkwallChurch bay.
OrphirLand joined to an island at low water.
RendallValley of the Renna.
SandwickSandy bay.
St Margaret's HopeSt Margaret's bay.
St OlaNamed after the church of St. Olaf (built in 1035)
StennessStone point.
StromnessSteam point.
TankernessTannskari's point.
WallsLand of bays.
The Standing Stones of Stenness, Orkney
The Standing Stones of Stenness, Orkney photo © Copyright Charles Tait

Finally, as you travel around Orkney and Shetland you may spot house, farm and place names which use parts of Old Norse words. The list below should help you decipher their meaning; often the names used were quite descriptive!

ayregravel beach
berry, -berhill
-bister, -bist, -busterfarm, dwelling
bu , -byfarm
-clett , cleatstone built house
-dale , -dallvalley
ey, ay, aisland
-fell, -fea , -fioldhill
firth, -fordfjord, wide bay
-gillnarrow valley
ham, hamn-harbour
holmsmall island
hopeshallow bay
howe, hox-mound
kir-, kirk-church
langa- , -landlong
mel-sand bank, dunes
mous- , muss- , -momoor
-nessnose, point
noustboat beaching place
peerie, peediesmall
-quoycattle pen
seater, -setter, -sterout-pasture
-skaillhall, house
sten- , -stainstone
-ster, -stahomestead
strom-tide, stream
-toft , -taftsite of dwelling
-ton, -townenclosure
vel- , -wallvalley
voe, -wallbay
ward, wartbeacon
Magnus DixonBy Magnus Dixon
Orkney and Shetland enthusiast, family man, loves walks, likes animals, terrible at sports, dire taste in music, adores audiobooks and films, eats a little too much for his own good.

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Header image: The Standing Stones, the Watchstone and Stenness Loch in Orkney photo © Copyright Victoria Dixon