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Place Names of the Week - Personal names

Published: 25 November 2020

Several place-names reflect people who have lived at or been associated with places in the past. Here I focus on a few less obvious and particularly interesting ones. Islands named after men are Balti (Balti), Huney (Húni), Egilsay (Egill), Gluss Isle (Glúmr), Vementry (Vémundr), Vaila (Vali) and Trondra (Þrándr). We can only speculate on who they were, but a few individuals do feature in sagas and folktales. Girlsta is named after Geirhildr, daughter of Flóki of the Ravens, tragically drowned in the loch. Herma and Saxi are reputed to have been squabbling Unst giants who gave their names to Hermaness, Saxavord, Herman’s Ha, Saxa’s Baa and Saxa’s Kettle. Gotrum’s Hol is the sea cave in north Unst where the Danish sea king Guthrum was reputedly trapped on his way to invade Britain.

Fourareen and motor boat Sheila at Vementry 1932 (L G Scott, Shetland Museum & Archives, LS00664)


Determining the origin is often difficult; places can take their names from people, the landscape, vegetation or an animal. Swinister may mean the pasture of pigs (svín) but it could be the homestead of a man named Sveinn. Bressay is said to come from breiðøy (broad isle), but an early form Brwsøy suggests the man’s name Brúsi. Tresta may derive from the name Thrasi or tré (tree).

Tresta, Fetlar 1920s (J D Rattar, Shetland Museum & Archives, R02568)


Swinister, Sandwick – pig pasture or Sveinn’s homestead?


Hirdin corn at Benigarth, North Roe 1903-4 (J D Rattar, Shetland Museum & Archives, R00156)


Haroldswick, Otterswick, Hillswick and Gulberwick take their names from Norse settlers - Harald, Óttarr, Hildir and Gullbera. Staðir (farm) names include Baliasta (Bolli), Basta (Bassi), Oddsta (Oddr), Gunnista (Gunnar or Gunnhildr) and Gremista (Grímr or Gríma). There are several Ketill names, a man’s name common in both Norway and Iceland. Beini gives his name to Benigarth and Benston, and Gási to Gossabrough.  

Otterswick – Óttarr’s bay


Hildir settled at Hillswick (Davy Cooper)


Gulberwick, named after a woman called Gullbera


Working in the community, I have recorded many houses, yards, knowes, rigs, geos and skerries named after people. Some of my favourites are Madge and Agatha’s, Rasmie’s Wadey, Johnnie Sinclair’s Nose, Aald Ellie’s Paets and Jeelie’s Hoose. In Waas, Paraffin Jacks was a peerie house in the hill built for a homeless man, Bankhart’s Corner is where Scott of Melby’s factor overturned a gig after drinking and John Coutts Hol was a hole in the burn where he nearly met his end, whilst Job’s Rig and Baabie’s Rig are of unknown origin. Tammie Mockie’s Ha in Quarff is the sea cave where Thomas Malcolmson hid from the Press Gang in the late 18th century, whilst Daisy’s Noost takes its name from a boat rather than a person.

In Yell, Mistress Jamieson’s Geo is named after the schoolteacher found drowned there after going out for a walk, and Prior’s Hol is the bog the minister fell in whist walking from East to Mid Yell. Firsils was Thomas Fraser’s house outside the hill daek and Miller’s Pund was a peerie enclosure where Taamie Miller from the Stoal held sheep for ransom! 

If you have any similar stories behind the names of places please contact place-names@shetlandamenity.org 

Eileen Brooke-Freeman, Shetland Place Names Expert

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