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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).

Bound Skerry lighthouse, Skerries (J D Rattar, Shetland Museum & Archives R01507)
Bound Skerry lighthouse, Skerries
(J D Rattar, Shetland Museum & Archives R01507)


Rocky Vee Skerries
Rocky Vee Skerries, north-west of Papa Stour
(J Peterson, 1934, Shetland Museum & Archives P02459)


Housay Skerry
Housay, Skerries
(J Peterson, 1952, Shetland Museum & Archives P05610)


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.

Skarfi Kerry
Skarfs frequent Skarfi Skerry, Fladdabister



Fogla Skerry
Fogla and Lyra Skerries, Papa Stour
(Shetland Museum & Archives SL03676)


otters and seals skerry
Otter and seals at Skerries o Keen, Fladdabister


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.

Black or Swarta Skerry
Black or Swarta Skerry, Otterswick with Skerries on the horizon


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 placenames@shetlandamenity.org.

Eileen Brooke-Freeman, Shetland Place Names Expert

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