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Essay| Shetland Norn by Simon Tait


Shetland is a quiet, self-possessed nation of 22,000 whose population still considers itself to be more Norse than British. They like celebrations, foys they call them, but the big one comes on the last Tuesday of January, a midwinter relief when male Shetlanders dress up as Vikings, process through the capital, Lerwick – or Lerook in the vernacular – with torches and set fire to a galley. The day after is the public holiday to allow the revellers to recover.

The name of Up Helly Aa, according to John Jamieson’s 1818 Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, is from the Old Norse word uppi meaning ‘the end of’, helly is ‘holy’ – the end of Christmas – and aa is ‘all’. So, given the abandon the festivities are consigned to at the depths of the near-Arctic climate, ‘the end of all that’s holy’ would be about right.

Thousands descend on Up Helly Aa in their vast tourist cruise ships, and welcoming as Shetlanders are, much of their chatter will be alien to even the English speaking visitors. Half of Shetland’s residents can still speak their ancestors’ tongue, once forbidden by the ruling Scots but still alive, unique and charming, in which the biggest insult is to call someone a soothmoother, one whose speech comes from beyond the islands. Our ‘ith’ has been largely lost to dialect, so that ‘they’ is day, ‘then’ is dan. ‘Their’ and ‘there’ have both become dare, but ‘you’ is du – the ‘y’ form having once been runic for ‘ith’ so that du comes from ‘thou’. Wat du daan da day, dan? is ‘What are you doing today, then?’

Shetland dialect has German, Old Scots, elements of Latin, even discernible traces of French, but at its base is their own Norn which reclines on Old Norse.

Norn, or Norrøna, is essentially a street language. Much as Shetlanders love their sagas and blood curdling yarns of whaling disasters and family tragedy it’s largely an oral tradition. Though I have a volume of dialect poetry that takes much from Norn. Despite its Old Norse base Norn relies heavily on onomatopoeia and where there isn’t a word to fit a particular situation, a new one emerges from the idiom. And there is its great charm.

Life is hard in this land where the sun only shines for half the year, when the men traditionally fished for whale in the winter months and worked the land where no trees can grow in the long hours of the seasons of simmerdim, while the women were spinning and weaving, plucking wool from the gorse bushes and cutting peat all year round. So it is not surprising that the dialect has, for instance, twelve different words for exhausted: you could emerge from the daily grind daddit, debaetless, depooperit, disjasket, forfochen, hurless, maegered, mankit, moyenless, ootmaagit, pooskered or even pyaagit, largely depending on which of the islands you hail from.

To help rescue this beguiling language Alistair Christie-Johnston and his wife Adaline, who live on the island of Yell, published a dictionary, Shetland Words, with the Shetland Times, compiled because he and his editor, Neil Anderson, feared that many of the intrinsic words were falling out of use and will be lost forever. At the end of the nineteenth century there were thought to be about 10,000 Shetland dialect words extant, by 1970 only about 15% of them were found; through ground knowledge and detective work Shetland Words has recorded about 4,000. The book, published in 2010, sold out and a second edition has just been published with 300 more words gleaned from the outer islands, difficult because the accents change from island to island so that the same word might sound quite different at Skerries to the north east, say, from how it will sound at Foula in the west.

The basis remains, and the survival of Norn is remarkable. It began to die as long ago as the sixteenth century when rule reverted from Norway to Scotland and Scots law was imposed with the indigenous language proscribed, but many beautiful words of Norn remain in the argot. Bonnhoga, for instance – from the Old Norse barn (child) and hagi (pasture) – which means spiritual home. Gauvenliss is the word for feeble or clumsy; a mouse is a bohonnin, which by some old irony comes from the Norse for watchdog; a pig is a pottisidna; a clergyman is a prestengolva (‘the one in the cassock’). A swee is a strong dram, an organic word, and a clock midder is a hen with chicks, but a hansel is a commemorative gift, from the Old Norse for the transference of a right; a cangle is a quarrel.

Modern life has made its incursions, but in a curious way that leaves a helpful distinction. The shower in your bathroom is pronounced ‘shower’, but a quick downfall of rain is still a shooer. Shetland also has its own, not always appealing, cuisine and words to go with it. It may not be a surprise to know that a dish of fish livers mixed with oatmeal, stuffed in a herring’s head and boiled is called krappit and is rarely eaten any more.

The etymology of some words is mysterious until you know more of the island life. Wild thyme is taegirse, which translates as “toe grass” and makes no sense until you know that thyme here is used as a treatment for athlete’s foot. But Alistair Christie-Johnston and Neil Anderson were not content – tae after all is Scots and plants in Shetland tend to keep their Norn traces. They tracked the real derivation down to the Old Norse word for root fibre tág, plural taeger, which fits the tight network of the Shetland variety of creeping thyme. You have to be there.

It is an ancient language full of social history, and a glimpse into a lost age, Neil Anderson told me. He is a Shetlander of the old school who can give you the family name of a man he has never met simply because of the way he walks; in the same way, he can tell from which island a person comes from the words he uses. And he had an affirming experience in the Lerwick shop he runs when he offered a young man a foodbag. He didn’t know what he meant, but he did know the Shetland word, maetpockie.

By Simon Tait

Shetland Words: A Dictionary of the Shetland Dialect, A & A Christie-Johnston, The Shetland Times Ltd., 2010, 122pp, £14.99 (paperback)


Rock of Sages by Simon Tait


Since the Phoenicians stopped off here a thousand years before Christ, this place has been Fortress Gibraltar. It is the Fourth Pillar of Hercules, the southern-most point of Europe, fourteen miles from Africa; it has been fought over and captured by the Moors, the Spanish and the British; it was where Nelson’s body was first brought after Trafalgar; it has been the Royal Navy’s last victualling point before the Atlantic for three hundred years. Its population’s ancestors are British, Moroccan, Spanish, Genoan, even Indian.

But suddenly it’s Fortress Gibraltar no more – despite the best efforts of the Spanish government to challenge the Treaty of Utrecht of three centuries ago that gave the place to Queen Anne. Now it is, as its chief minister Fabian Picardo says, the British Community of Gibraltar, a cultured crossroads where everyone is welcome, no-one turned away. And the event which has made that point more resoundingly than any other has been the first ever Gibunco Gibraltar Literary Festival, held on the last weekend of October.

There is a governor, Vice-Admiral Sir Adrian Johns who was about to leave as the festival happened, but while Gibraltar is still a dominion he is largely a figurehead. He and I were here thirty-five years ago with the spring exercise fleet, when, he said, 70% of Gibraltar’s income came from the Ministry of Defence (the British Ministry of Defence). Now it’s 3.4%. But the place is still British, for all its cosmopolitanism. There is a permanent population of 30,000, 4,000 of them are school children, and each year five hundred of them are sent to British universities at Gibraltar’s expense.

Gibraltar is looking for international profile, which this new annual festival – there will certainly be at least two more – is the first gesture. It was unfortunate that Spain decided to up its fiddling with border controls at Algeciras, but as one resident said, while it means some may not come from Spain for the event, others would stay for it.

The festival was directed by Sally Dunsmore, who runs the Oxford Literary Festival, and there is more than a flavour of Oxford here. But, Dunsmore says, literary festivals labour under a slight misnomer, because what they offer goes beyond books.

I think people in Britain have been gagged and told what to think for too long, or been recipients of too much spin, and I think people are fascinated at meeting experts in their field, talking interestingly and in a scholarly way about an issue, hearing discussions and debates. And I think that works across the world.

‘The opportunity to bring that here was very exciting – on the very first day of a festival here I’m not sure the people of Gibraltar are sure what a literary festival means, but by coming as they have been they suddenly get it – they have the opportunity to ask questions, buy a book find out all about it.’

There are at least two sides to a literary festival. There’s the talks programme, the audience’s moment, and there’s the Green Room, as it’s called here. This is the capacious lounge with leather settees and constant running white Rioja where participants can talk about – whatever: in our case it was the Spanish Civil War, the Spanish, the literary life of Tangier (Gib’s alter ego in Morocco), crime writing in Gib, smuggling between here and everywhere else, the inspirational geology of the place, and generally stuff you probably wouldn’t talk about anywhere else.

The theme in general terms is Gibraltar the crucible, where cultures come but any intrinsic culture is elusive. Dunsmore has programmed several cooking elements into the weekend, because food a lingua franca, especially in the Medm and in Green Room we chat about that too.

A more subjective theme, though, that will carry through from year to year as the festival progresses is Voices from Gibraltar in which the director of the Garrison Library, Jennifer Ballantine Perera, will lead the quest to identify the quintessential Gibraltarian culture. Some locals are still not convinced: ‘We don’t need a festival this big,’ one senior Gibraltarian said, irritated at having to pay for tickets to the talks. ‘We’re only a village, after all, one mile by three’. I saw him at at least three of the events.

The festival was born barely a year before out of the Oxford Literary Festival through the director of Gibraltar House in London via the and tourism minister to the chief minister, pausing only to pick up substantial sponsorship.

‘We want to change the perception of Gibraltar,’ Picardo told me. ‘We don’t want this only to attract more tourists, we need it to enrich our own community, showing that Gibraltar takes its place internationally’, adding generously: ‘Culture is important to us and we hope that in future Spain will become part and partners.’

It seems unlikely, but economically Gibraltar is the success story that Spain famously is not, and Picardo can afford to be generous in his remarks. Another speaker was the American economist Mary-Jo Jacobi who had some stats: while the global growth forecast is 2.9%, Gibraltar’s is 7.8%. It’s the largest bunkering – refuelling – port in the Med, it has ten million tourists a year and three hundred days of sunshine, it is VAT exempt and no-one pays more than 25% tax. ‘This is a low-tax jurisdiction’ is how Jacobi defines Gibraltar’s status, ‘not a tax haven’ as Spain calls it.

And the team Dunsmore brought was no second: Peter Snow on the war of 1814; Robin Hanbury-Tenison on explorers; Joanne Harris on her Chocolat follow-ups; Madhur Jaffrey talking to Hardeep Singh Kohli about spices; Anthony Beevor giving the Gibraltar Lecture on the Spanish Civil War; Ben Okri on Africa and Europe; Norman Stone on Turkey; the crime writers Robert Daws, Thomas Mogford and Jason Webster; Ken Hom on lunch; Christopher Lloyd on his Wallbook children’s writing; Gavin Hewitt and Kate Ady, who both have books out, his on Europe and hers on women in the First World War. And so on, with Kevin Crossley-Holland, John Crace, D J Taylor, Rachel Hore.

This was a senior event lavishly supported by the government, and even more lavish funding from Gibunco, the shipping company that is the Rock’s biggest business. There was dinner in the magnificent St Michael’s Cave, a natural cavern with stalagmites making a half-lowered curtain; another dinner in the governor’s residence, The Convent (once a Franciscan Priory, but the governor’s since 1711), tours of the tunnels that thread through the rock dating from prehistoric times to the last world war.

The authors were loving it. ‘What usually happens,’ said Kevin Crossley-Holland, a literary festival veteran, in one of our Green Room chats, ‘is that you turn up, maybe get some lunch, do your talk and you’re back on the train, maybe to the next one. Here, we’ve got three days together, we can eat and drink together, listen to each other’s talks and relax in the kind of company we love. I’ll certainly come again if I’m asked.’

HQ for the event was the Garrison Library, built by officers at the end of the eighteenth century, complete with a ballroom, to give their minds some distraction from the dissipation that was the only other entertainment. It fell into private use and disrepair until the government acquired it a year and restored it. The ballroom was our Green Room where as many government ministers, gleeful about their new toy, seemed to be in evidence as participants.

One of the passing government members was John Cortes, the minister for the environment. We talked at the end of the weekend, when ticket sales, sponsorship, book sales and feedback from both participants and audiences have all exceeded expectation.

‘Gibraltar really wants to find its place in the world and to be a part of the global community, and if we’ve been trailing behind in anything it’s culture,’ Cortes said. ‘We’ve been bringing music festivals (jazz and pop) and sport, but a literary fest is something new.’

‘Sadly, most people know Gibraltar from the politics in relation to Spain, and we want the world to know more about us than that. I’m a natural scientist by profession and Gibraltar is made of limestone and sandstone, it has unique species of plants and wildlife, but it’s a crossroads of migration so it’s a microcosm of diversity that accepts and welcomes passage through, human and wildlife. We’re very small, geographically a peninsular but in many ways an island, very diverse having brought in so many cultures – my ancestry is mainly Genoese – and it’s gelled into this thing we call the Gibraltarian. This is a way of finding out who that is in the 21st century.’


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