Anyone visiting Shetland will very quickly notice that the islands have their own dialect. One of the ways you will come across this is through the names of Shetland’s wildlife. Some of these dialect names are so good at characterising the birds and animals concerned that they have even been adopted further afield. For example, many birdwatchers across the UK use the name ‘Bonxie’ for great skua because it really does perfectly sum them up. Have a look below at some more of my favourite names for wildlife in the Shetland dialect.
A Brief History of the Shetland Dialect
The Vikings colonised Shetland from the ninth century onwards. This led to Shetlanders speaking a variation of the Scandinavian languages called Norn. When the islands were transferred from Danish to Scottish rule in the 1400s, Lowland Scots and English slowly began to take over. The arrival of Scottish clerics and landgrabbers in the succeeding centuries led to it being all but wiped out outside of the home by the end of the eighteenth century.
However, although it was seen as an inferior language and actively discouraged by teachers and the church, many Shetlanders remained bilingual. They spoke Norn amongst themselves, and English to strangers. The dialect itself has evolved over to time to encompass elements of Norse, Scots and English. Following a cultural revival that started in the 1950s, Shetlanders are now rightly proud of their heritage and language.
Shetland dialect words for the wildlife found across the archipelago are often beautifully descriptive. They often sum up the characters of the creatures involved perfectly.
Great Skua – Bonxie
These hugely charismatic birds are a bit of a Marmite species. Some people love their boldness and bully boy swagger, while others hate them for the same reasons. Their Shetland name definitely sums up their character. They chase and harass other seabirds to make them give up their food, as well as killing smaller birds like puffins. Crucially, 60% of the breeding population of this summer visitor is in Scotland. There are concerns about the impact of avian flu on the species; colonies in Scotland suffered disastrously in 2021 and there are early signs of sickness in returning birds this spring, 2022. Hermaness on Unst is one of their moorland strongholds.
Common and Arctic Terns – Tirrick
Shetland dialect doesn’t distinguish between these two similar species. Both breed in Shetland in the summer months and can be seen (and heard!) around the islands. Tirrick very nicely describes the screeching call these swallows of the sea make. Both species form very noisy colonies and will attack any intruders who come near. Common terns mostly winter off the coast of West Africa. Arctic terns, though, have one of the longest migrations of any animal and winter much further south, nearer the Antarctic. They probably see more daylight than any other creature on Earth.
Puffin – Tammie Norie
The puffin is one of Shetland’s most popular birds. Another summer visitor, they nest in burrows in the cliffs at various sites around the islands. Sumburgh Head, at the southernmost point of Mainland is, one of the easiest to visit. With their brightly coloured beaks, ridiculously cute growling calls and confiding nature, it is easy to understand why so many people love them. Because they look slightly bumbling and stupid, the name tammie norie is also sometimes applied to a stupid or bashful man. In winter they head out to sea and lose their colourful bills.
Oystercatcher – Shalder
Oystercatchers live all year round on Shetland. These distinctive black and white waders with bright orange bills are unmistakeable. You will often see them on the shore looking for cockles and other shellfish, or in the fields looking for worms. The name oystercatcher is actually a misnomer as they don’t eat oysters. Their Shetland name comes from the Norse ‘sheld’ which means part-coloured. They are very vocal and seem to be perpetually getting themselves worked up about something real or imagined, not helped by the fact they often nest in daft places!
Eider – Dunter
The eider duck is another unmistakeable resident of the islands. Males are largely black and white during the breeding season, but with a rosy wash to their breasts and a greenish coloured nape. Females are a beautiful range of browns. Both have a very distinctive wedge-shaped bill, and their large size also means they are difficult to mistake for anything else. The males make a very entertaining ‘ooing’ noise at the start of the breeding season, often likened to Frankie Howerd in full flow! The word dunter comes from the Shetland word ‘dunt’ which means to bob up and down.
Black Guillemot – Tystie
Tystie is one of my favourite Shetland words. And, fittingly, black guillemots are one of my favourite Shetland birds. Unlike their relatives the razorbills (sea craas in dialect), common guillemots (longvies in dialect) and puffins, these members of the auk family stay all year round. However, they have very different plumage from summer to winter. In summer they are black with white wing patches. In winter they are mostly pale grey with black barring. They are often seen very close to shore around Shetland coasts and nest in much smaller colonies than other auks. They breed among rocks and sometimes under piers and jetties. Their Shetland name probably comes from the old Norse name for them.
Fulmar – Maalie
Fulmars return to their breeding cliffs earlier than any of Shetland’s other seabird migrants. Some will be back on their ledges in January and February, and they breed around the islands. Sometimes they will even use old crofts and walls if they haven’t managed to get a spot on the cliff. Superficially gull-like, they are actually related to albatrosses and petrels. Like other tube noses, they have prominent tubes on the bill which remove excess salt from the seawater they ingest. Just a short walk from Lerwick town centre is a sizeable colony on the Knab so you can easily see them. Remarkably, until the 1800s their only UK breeding colony was in St Kilda. Since then, they have expanded their range and now even breed as far south as the Isle of Wight. This may be due to increased fishing discards.
Gannet – Solan
Gannets are large seabirds that return to their breeding cliffs from February. Scotland hosts 40% of their population, with the largest colony on Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth. Adults are white with black wing tips and a yellow tint to the head. Youngsters are very dark in their first year and gain increasing amounts of white as they mature. When fishing, they are spectacular to watch; they will dive from height like an arrow, often reaching depths of up to 15 metres. They have a special plate at the base of the bill to reduce impact, but older gannets can go blind after years of diving. Hermaness and Noss are both amazing places to see them in Shetland. Two companies run boat trips underneath the cliffs at Noss and it is an experience not to be missed. The dialect name supposedly comes from a Norse word meaning cleft stick, which refers to the shape made by the black wing tips when the bird is perched.
Storm Petrel – Alamootie
This tiny bird, about the same size as a sparrow, risks being predated if it visits the nest during the day, so they wait until night-time to come back to land from offshore fishing trips during the summer. Many of their colonies are on remote islands, but Shetland is lucky enough to have a colony on the island of Mousa. Here they not only nest in the usual burrows under rocks and scree, but within the walls of Mousa’s well-preserved Iron Age broch. Between late May and mid-July, you can go on a guided trip with the Mousa Boat to experience the amazing sight and sound of the petrels returning to their nests during Shetland’s famous simmer dim. Despite being so small, storm petrels winter far at sea off southern Africa.
Otter – Draatsi
The otter is another Shetland favourite which many people come to see on the islands. Although they are the same species as those that live on English rivers (and which are mostly nocturnal), Scottish coastal otters behave quite differently. In Shetland they will often be active during daylight, with tides more important than time of day. Shetland has the densest population of otters in Europe, with about 1,000 across the archipelago. The Shetland name comes from the word drats. This means slowly or heavily and compares the way they move on land to their agility in water. The best time to look for them is about two hours either side of low tide. Shetland Nature offer special otter watching day trips which will teach you all you need to know about watching them without disturbing them.
The Shetland ForWirds group are passionate about promoting the Shetland dialect and a wealth of resources are available on their website.
The Shetland Community Wildlife Group is a citizen science project set up by UHI Shetland. They aim to get people from across the islands involved in collecting valuable data about Shetland’s wildlife. Their website has identification guides and other resources.
1 thought on “Wildlife in the Shetland Dialect”
A fascinating read, linguistics and natural history combined in a very elegant way