Chapter 11: Mesolithic names in a drowned landscape.

Archaic Gaelic names dating to the Mesolithic can be recovered from the drowned landscape of Orkney. Orkney is still referred to in the singular but it is now 'the Orkneys', more than forty separate islands, some only a few feet above sea-level. It is a long time since it was a single extensive promontory attached to what is now Caithness. The traditional story is that the place-names, and settlements, of Orkney are no older than the Norwegian colonial period. It is true that the Norwegians reshaped the landscape, established seats of government, broke out new farms, but far from true that they created all the place-names.

From the point of view of Archaic Gaelic the names one finds in Orkney are of particular interest since they can be no older than the Mesolithic. Even then most Mesolithic names are probably lost under the sea. But the large-scale OS map of Orkney and Shetland shows a great many unusual names attached to coastal features which are sometimes no more than off-shore rocks or tiny headlands. These names are often unique. They are not, as one might expect, the names of adjoining farms but appear to be relict names representing older areas, once inland settlement land which has been lost to rising sea levels and coastal erosion. Given their location on a drowned coastline they are probably as old as the Mesolithic. In this case we might expect them to preserve elements of archaic Gaelic, representing the universal settlement language (USL). Their current form represents centuries of transcription by Norwegian and English-speaking clerks, the latter often capable of converting the original form to a spurious Norwegian form. There is of course no certainty that any of the interpretations offered below are correct but it is equally true that these names are difficult or impossible to interpret in terms of Norwegian, Welsh or English and that USL provides a coherent range of meaning appropriate to a pre-agricultural society.

Bargret, Yell, Shetland. G. barr ‘height, hill, (beacon hill)’; greigh or greidh ‘herd, flock’
Bugarth, Yell, Shetland. G. bó ‘of the cows’, garth ‘pen, enclosure’.
Djubabery, Sandness, Shetland. cf G. dubh ‘(deer)’; dubhan ‘snare’.
Frithillie, South Ronaldsay, Orkney. G. frith ‘deer forest’, ilidh ‘place’.
Gerdipaddle, Walls, Shetland. GRD ‘enclosure’ as in garth, garden, yard, etc. Paddle corresponds to the generic Pitillie, ‘farm, estate’, perhaps ‘hearth-place’.
Gorsendi, Hillswick, Shetland; Gorsender Geo, Sandness, Shetland; Gossendi Geo, Yell, Shetland. guas ‘danger, jeopardy, ( hunting)’ G. gos-sheabhag ‘goshawk’, còrsa ‘coast’, E. corsair ‘pirate, robber, (hunter)’, G. còs crevice, recess, cave, (hunting ambush)’. cf Glencorse, Midlothian. E. ghost
Harrabrough, South Ronaldsay, Orkney. G. carragh ‘rock, (beacon site)’, or carraid ‘conflict, (hunt)’, or ‘the sense of fatigue from watching a sick person’, since hunters spent the night waiting and watching for a signal. The brough is perhaps a later generic describing a built enclosure at this place.
Hoisteramera, Evie, Orkney. The initial aspirate maybe reconstructed as G. coistri for comh-strì (or strigh, strith) ‘strife, battle, (communal hunt)’, also found as E. host. The second element is the common USL root mar ‘to hunt’, found in G. meirghe ‘band, troop (of hunters)’. This was once a mustering point for hunters.
Humabery, Sandness, Shetland. The USL com ‘gathering’ word found in E. home, cow, cove (*comh) and in many other forms. The bery may be a later generic for a built enclosure.
Keenabonus, Cunningsburgh, Shetland. G.ceann ‘deer ambush, deer trap’.
Landberg, Fair Isle, Shetland (a promontory fort or stock pen or homestead, now much eroded). This looks like a Low German or Flemish name for the settlement but G. lann is an enclosure or stock pen and this may as well be a hybrid name for an immigrant feature. Cf Pallaberg (below).
Leenabretta, Yell, Shetland. LN ‘holding’ word;cf G. lìon ‘snare’, E. lien ‘hold’. Bretta is cognate with Bride, Briton, and G. biride ‘a breeding cow’ which suggests that it was once a holding pen for breeding stock or milk cows.
Lerradale, Hillswick, Shetland. G. léir ‘muster, gather; wound, steal, (hunt).’
Lokati, North Mavine, Shetland. G. locadh ‘hinderance, (trap)’.
Ockran, Hillswick, Shetland; Okraquoy, Cunningsburgh, Shetland. From G.òighridh ‘body of young men, (troop of hunters)’, we may deduce ‘muster place for hunters’.
Pallaberg, Unst, Shetland. The root pal exists in Gaelic place-names (Aberfeldy, Aberfoyle) and also much more widely in palace, palisade, Palatine, etc.
Sinians of Cutclaws, Rousay, Orkney. SN gathering word with locative suffix. Cutclaws might be G. cuidh ‘pen’, E. cot and Scots clavie ‘torch, beacon’.
Skinhoga, Sandness, Shetland G.sean ‘to gather’, cog ‘war, fight, (hunt)’.
Tuvvacuddies, Unst, Shetland. Perhaps G. tarbh ‘bull’, cuidh ‘pen’.
Whitehill, Yell, Shetland. G. cuith-ilidh ‘pen place, farm’.

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