By Peder Gammeltoft
Northern Lights, Northern Words. Selected Papers from the FRLSU Conference, Kirkwall 2009, edited by Robert McColl Millar (2010)
Introduction: Only when living on an island does it become clear how important it is to know one‟s environment in detail. This is no less true for Orkney and Shetland. Being situated in the middle of the North Atlantic, two archipelagos whose land-mass consist solely of islands, holms and skerries, it goes without saying that such features are central, not only to local life and perception, but also to travellers from afar seeking shelter and safe passage. Island, holms and skerries appear to be fixed points in an ever changing watery environment – they appear to be constant and unchanging – also with regard to their names.
And indeed, several Scandinavian researchers have claimed that the names of islands constitute a body of names which, by virtue of constant usage and relevance over time, belong among the oldest layers of names. Archaeological remains on Shetland and Orkney bear witness to an occupation of these archipelagos spanning thousands of years, so there can be little doubt that these areas have been under continuous utilisation by human beings for a long time, quite a bit longer, in fact, than our linguistic knowledge can take us back into the history of these isles. So, there is nothing which prevents us from assuming that names of islands, holms and skerries may also here carry some of the oldest place-names to be found in the archipelagos. Since island-names are often descriptive in one way or another of the locality bearing the name, island-names should be able to provide an insight into the lives, strategies and needs of the people who eked out an existence in bygone days in Shetland and Orkney.