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Place-name of the week – beaches

Published: 29 May 2020

Shetland Place Names - BeachesAs travel restrictions ease a little this weekend, many folk will probably drive to a nearby beach, but do you know what your favourite beach name means or how it got its name? Many Shetland beach names incorporate the word ayre from Old Norse eyrr: sand, gravel or pebbles jutting out into water, whilst others use sand or links. Ayre appears in over 150 Shetland place-names with similar names in Orkney, Norway (Oyre, Oyra), Faroe (Oyri) and Iceland (Eyri).

Ayres are often spits that cut off a sheltered stretch of water from the sea.  Shallow freshwater lochs (oyce) formed and sometimes silted up to become fertile stretches of land, resulting in special vegetation and wildlife. The loch often has the same name as the ayre e.g. Maggie Kettle’s Ayre and Loch at Sullom; Maggie was a lass who is said to have sailed across the voe in a kettle. Some ayres are tombolos - spits joining an island to the mainland. The Ayres of Swinister at Dales Voe, Delting is a triple ayre with tidal houb (hópr: small landlocked bay or lagoon) lying between the North Ayre and double South Ayre.

As for all coastal place names, names can reflect the shape (Bow Ayre), colour (Red Ayre), location (Back Sands) or associated nature (Shalders Ayre, Grotti Buckie). Named individuals include Tammie Laing (Yell), Geordie (Sandness), and Edwin (Scalloway).

Mail, Mel and Meal place-names in Unst, Fetlar, Burra, Bressay and Cunningsburgh come from melr meaning sand. Links come from Lowland Scots - flat sandy or pebbly stretches, usually close to the shore.  Ideal for golf, in Shetland many of these were used for playing da Ba, the early form of football played at Yule.

Often a single stretch of shoreline has multiple names. In Otterswick, Yell the west end of the beach is the Otterswick Beach whilst the sandy east end is Gilsa Sand. The St Ninian’s Isle tombolo is called da Sand o da Isle, but each side is called the North and South Sands.

Many of the Lerwick beaches were named after nearby residents or businessmen. Bain’s Beach besides the Queens Hotel (also called The Queens Beach) was named after James Bain, father of Gilbert Bain, who lived directly opposite. The Clydesdale Bank now stands on the site of Merran Moad’s Beach; Marion Mouat was a colourful character who liked to ‘borrow’ milk from her neighbours. Although the beach is long gone, the steps which once led to it still bear her name.  Other Lerwick beaches include Heddell’s Beach (now the Market Cross), Sinclair’s Beach (the post office) Burns Beach (now M&Co) Leog Beach, (in front of the Widows Homes) and the Tarry Beach, which took its name from the effluent which used to spill out onto it from the gas works next door.

Perhaps my all-time favourite beach name is in Fetlar. Have you been to Paradise, or which is your favourite beach and why?

Eileen Brooke-Freeman, Shetland Place Names expert, May 2020

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