Place Name of the Week - Skerries
Published: 04 December 2020
Skerries are small rocky islands, usually too small for habitation. They are often associated with shipwrecks and their isolation attracts bird colonies and seals. The word comes from the Old Norse word sker meaning an isolated rock in the sea. Examples occur throughout Scandinavia and the UK; particularly well known in the Britain are Skerries (Shetland), Sule Skerry (Orkney), Pentland Skerries (Scotland), and The Skerries (Anglesey).
By far the greatest number of skerries are in Orkney and Shetland. They vary in shape, size and number; some can be tidal, though permanently sunken reefs are baas. Not surprisingly, they have been the cause of many wrecks, particularly around Skerries and the treacherous Vee Skerries, north-west of Papa Stour. Looking across from Yell, Skerries appears stretched out and low on the horizon, like a string of skerries. The largest three island names derive from øy: island – Bruray (bridge isle), Housay (house isle) and Grunay (green isle). Looking across from Yell, they appear stretched out and low on the horizon - like a string of skerries.
Skerry place-names are usually descriptive and, like stacks, some reflect the wildlife that frequent the rocks, e.g. Skarfi Skerry (cormorant), Fugla Skerry (bird), Leera Skerry (Manx shearwater), Tirrick Skerry (tern), and Otter Skerry. Other skerry describe their shape or the colour - Round Skerry, Longa Skerry. Red Skerries, Hwita (white) Skerry, Silver Skerries, Gold Skerry and the very common Black or Swarta Skerry, from svartr meaning black or dark. While over 350 of our skerries include the word skerry in the name, others use other Old Norse terms such as Da Flaess, from fles, a flat skerry in the sea.
Skerries named after individuals are particularly interesting - Jeanie Skerry and Francis Skerry in Unst, Donald’s Skerry off North Roe, Taamie Coutt’s Skerry in Sandness, and Robert Irvine’s Skerries in West Yell and Uyea. Who these people were, and why they had a skerry named after them is often a mystery, but if you have any information about these or any other skerry place names, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eileen Brooke-Freeman, Shetland Place Names Expert
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