Place Name of the Week - Butter
Published: 03 March 2021
A recent enquiry reminded me of research into butter names I carried out along with my colleague Brian Smith a few years ago, which features in the heritage newsletter Unkans. Da Butter Stane a large stone in the hills between Weisdale and Aithsting, a merch-stane (boundary stone) visible from miles around.
It most likely got is name because it looks like a chunk of bog butter. Shetlanders paid rent, tax and tithe in butter until the eighteenth century, and often buried the butter in peat to help preserve it. An example is on display in the Shetland Museum & Archives.
Another Butter Stane is located on the north-west coast of Trondra, and there are two places on the westside called Da Butter Lispund, pronounced Butterleeshpint. One is a hill south of Kellister in Sandness, the other one of the Neean Skerries in Aithsting. These are so-named because they look like the tub a twelfth of the size of a standard barrel, which would have contained a lispund of butter, weighing around 9.9 kgs. Whilst no lispund tubs remain in Shetland, many survive in Norway and looking at images, we can clearly see the similarity of the features to a squat tub. The skerry at Da Banks o da Neean even has a lid. A parallel name is Da Soldian, an offshore rock with north of Bressay, derived from Old Norse sáld, a corn-measurement which also gave its name to a tub. Similar names at Gert in Dunrossness, Hoswick, Levenwick, Gilsbreck in Lunnasting, and Papa Stour, reflect the grain grown in the named fields.
Other butter place-names include Butter Knowe at Gluss and Butter Geos at Skaw, Whalsay, and St Ninian’s Isle. The latter most likely refer to places where butter from capsized boats came ashore. The older Old Norse term smjör also appears in place-names recorded by Farosese linguist Jakob Jakobsen - Da Smerrin-rigs at Midbrake, Yell and Da Smerr-meadow in Quarff; these refer to the fertility of the land rather than the shape. He also noted the phrase krump an smortek’ used in Fladdabister, meaning buttered cheese-cake!
If you know any other butter or smerr place-names, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Eileen Brooke-Freeman - Shetland Place Names Expert
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