Our Place Names
The Norse Influence
Geology has heavily influenced Shetland’s placenames, both on land and at sea. From 800 AD incoming Norse settlers applied their highly descriptive names to almost every feature in the landscape. Today, around 95% of Shetland’s placenames relate to the Old Norse language.
Many names describe terrain: brecks and lees are slopes, hamar means steep rocky wall, kame describes a comb or ridge of hills, whilst dales are valleys. Red granophyre cliffs have been given Roe/Rö names from rauð [red]. Da Heads o Groken, Eshaness is named after the grey schist (grar-kinn means grey cheek, steep slope). Kleber names, like Clibberswick, Kleberg and Kleber Geo, point us to outcrops of talc-magnesite (steatite or soapstone). Eshaness and Aesha Head, both made up from very hard lavas and ash fall, both originate in eisa (intense fire, glowing embers) - the same root as the name Iceland.
Narrow inlets are called geos (gjá - a cleft or chasm), each carrying a descriptive name. High sea cliffs are neaps and noups (slope with a steep cliff face) and hella names point to large flat rocks. Sediments are reflected in leir (clay or mud) and sandr (sand) names. Mail or Meal comes straight from melr (sand). Over 150 beach names incorporate ayre (beach or narrow spit of sand, shingle or pebbles), whilst stack and skerry names often reflect shape, colour or associated wildlife. Places with wick, firth and voe names describe bays of different shape.
Fishing grounds carry names that reflect the seabed. A skor is a hollow in the seabed and a groin is a shallow bank in the sea. In the days before navigational aids, baas (sunken reefs) and fishing grounds were identified by lining up pairs of onshore landmarks – fishing meids. The place names vary depending on the fishermen’s knowledge of the land and their distance from it, sometimes resulting in distinctively different or more descriptive names. A tradition that “proper” names could bring bad luck when fishing, often led to new taboo names being created. These often described the appearance of the landmarks when seen from fishing grounds.