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Place-name of the week – birds

Published: 04 June 2020

This week I’ve been watching sparrows and starlings feed their young through my home office window, and this made me consider the many birds that feature in place-names, particularly in coastal features. 

The Old Norse (ON) word for a bird or fowl was fugl.  Foula is the bird isle (Fugla-øy) and there are several Fugla, Fugli or Fogli stacks and taings. Fugla Skerry is in Papa Stour; Fuglabanks in Sandness; Foulawick, Delting; Foul Wick, Whalsay and Fugla Water in Yell and Lunnasting. You’ll find Fuglaness at Uyea, Toft and Burra, and Foulness in Sullom. Fitful Head takes its name from fitfugl – a web-footed bird.

The Skarf or Shag is reflected in many place names – particularly Skarfi Skerry, Skarvi Stack and Skarvataing. There are Skarvi/Skarfs Geos in Whalsay and Skerries, Quarff and the Ness of Burgi; Skarvi Loch is near Mangaster and Skarf Hellier in Cunningsburgh. The Swaabie or Great Black-backed Gull, from svartbakr, gives its name to Swarbacks Head and several Swaabi Stacks. Tysties or Black Guillemots are recorded in Tystie Stanes, Tystie Wick and several Tystie Geos. 

Place-names are a great pointer to where Ern (Sea Eagles) once perched or nested. There are Ern Stacks at Vatster and Graveland in Yell, Muckle Roe, Deepdale near Waas, Silwick, and two at Fladdabister.  Several other names reflect sites where the ern either perched or nested: Ern’s Hamar (rock), Ern’s Wart (lookout), Ern’s Knowe (small hill) and Ernsmør (moor). Hrafn (Raven) gives Ramnageo, Ramnabanks and Ramnavird. Historically Ravens bred at Ramnahol at the Burn of Lunklet; their distinctive call still being heard in early spring. The Scots version of the name, Corbie, appears in geo names in Vementry, Whalsay, Skerries, Ireland and Noss, Dunrossness, whilst other geos take their name from the smaller Craa (Crow).

In Shetland, the Red-throated Diver is known as the Raingös or Loom. The latter name comes from ON lómr and it appears in several place-names, usually incorporating the element shun. A shun (or sheen) is a small loch, pool or swamp, from tjorn: a small lake or tarn. Recent studies have shown that the smaller lochs are the most productive for the divers, therefore it is no surprise that there are more Loomishuns than Loomilochs or Loomiwaters. Similar names occur in Norway (Lomtjern), Faroe (Lömatjorn), Orkney (Loomi Shun) and Caithness (Loch Lomashion).

Aeðr (Eider Duck) gives names like Hedrataing, Edershun and Aywick. Geese names are Gossawater (Yell), Goster (Waas) and Gossameadow (Foula). Shalder place-names include Shalders Houll on Egilsay, Shalder Holms at Lunna, Shalders Geo in Gloup and Shalders Ayre and Ness at Scalloway.

Other birdie place-names include Tirrick Skerries (Arctic Tern), and Maalie Geo (Fulmer) and Hawks Geo. Leera Skerry and Stack takes their names from the Shearwater, Rittenhamar from ryta (Kittiwake) and Imber Skerry from the Great-northern Diver. Doo (Dove) names include Doos Cove, Doohol, Doos Lee and several Doo Geos, whilst Pigeon Hellier is a cave on Da Holm o Gloup. Hellir is Old Norse for a cave.

Have you seen the named birds at any of these places or do know other bird place-names? Please share your photos and stories by emailing placenames@shetlandamenity.org  

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

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