An important aspect of oral history is the use of words and their pronunciation which have been addressed by Shapinsay School and by a series of workshops on the island which have fed into the ‘Shapinsay Speaks’ oral history project…..
Wur al Spaekin’ Orcadian!
We have been doing a bit of Orcadian each year in the school as and when it fitted in, but when it was suggested in a staff meeting that we do it each year in the autumn term I decided it would be a good idea to come up with some focussed project ideas. I started this term by having a discussion with both classes in the school about what the Orcadian dialect means to them. The response was that some were concerned that Orcadian is dying out and that they think it needs to be kept alive, they were all keen to explore common and forgotten Orcadian words.
After some discussion with the bairns we decided the best place to start would be by creating a word bank, which will hopefully make future projects a bit easier. After a bit more discussion we decided an interactive word bank with recorded voices would be the most fun way to do that. I don’t think any of us realised when we started the project just how big a project it would become. We started with both classes brain storming as many words as they could think of, the P1-3 have then turned their words into an Orcadian wordbook, we then asked for suggestions of words and were inundated with responses from folk in Shapinsay and further afield via the Shapinsay Facebook page.
We then collated all the words and P4-7 alphabetised them and began to add meanings to each one (with the help of Orcadian dictionaries), we then came up with a sentence which we thought showcased the way the word is used. Then began the process of recording, a mammoth task with over 160 words, meanings and phrases to be individually recorded!
Thankfully the Trust offered to loan us their oral history recorder, as the school recorder is somewhat antiquated, and Lynne kindly agreed to come in and show the bairns how to use it. The P4-7 bairns were asked whether they identified themselves as having an Orcadian accent or not, those who have an Orcadian accent have recorded the Orcadian words and those who don’t have recorded the meanings.
We then put an appeal out for Orcadian voices and Sheila Garson, Samantha Muir and Marjory Kent kindly agreed to loan us theirs. They came into school and had some sessions with the bairns recording the sentences. Annette Kirkpatrick, Steven Bews and Heather Robertson also loaned us their voices – Leanne Bews, Island resident and teacher at Shapinsay School.
What’s in a name?
As part of the ‘Shapinsay Speaks’ project we asked Sheila Garson, local historian and former Orkney Museum Curator to run a series of workshops on Shapinsay’s place names which were well attended by an enthusiastic group of participants. Sheila emphasised the importance of pronouncing the island’s names the Orcadian way and not adopting new alternatives with no historic basis. She encouraged those of us new to Shapinsay to be place name detectives and to help preserve this aspect of the island’s cultural heritage as the group poured over maps and reference books as part of the session. Below is what Sheila had to say about the sessions, described by many as ‘fascinating’ and even ‘awesome’!
I’ve been running a series of workshops on Shapinsay place names and its been great to see the interest and enthusiasm for this special part of our cultural heritage.
Many folk say the history of a country is stored in its language and place names are a special part of this. In Orkney we find the overwhelming influence of the Norwegian Vikings has given us our own unique dialect with the etymologies of many everyday words showing Old Norse origin. The Norse Vikings began settling here in the 8th and 9th centuries and Orkney was held by the Norwegian and later Danish Crown until 1468.
Although it is almost 600 years since we were part of the Norse world, place names remain one of the strongest linguistic link to our Viking past. Brian Smith, Shetland’s Archivist, estimates that in the region of 99% of place names in Orkney and Shetland can be identified as Norse, with few earlier place names surviving. This means that in Orkney over 10,000 place names are derived from or corruptions of, the original Old Norse names.
The Norse naming system was straight forward, usually describing what was visible in the landscape or how a place was used. It’s no surprise then that many surviving elements describing different kinds of buildings or settlement, types of land, topographic features and even the names of people. The sea was the road for the Viking settles and we find many of their Norse name elements surviving in costal features, skerries and holms. There are even names derived from their ship.
Often the written form of a place name does not correspond with local, Orcadian pronunciation. If you delve a bit deeper you will usually find this local pronunciation is much nearer the earlier form of the name, prior to spelling being standardized. This highlights why we should value the Orcadian pronunciation of island places as they often reveal the subtle nuances of meaning lost in the standard form.
Place names are a real window to the past and each one has a story to tell.
Another prompt for tales to be told about our island’s history has been the ‘Sew Shapinsay’ project which has involved over 30 island residents including pupils at Shapinsay school embroidering a map of our island. The project was kick started by contemporary embroiderer Deidre Nelson with two workshops and continued for nearly two years after that. It was even featured on a BBC Breakfast time TV report from Orkney. Here is a link to a video about the project https://vimeo.com/178032654