Development and Demise of Orkney Norn - a peace of Scandinavian Culture in Great Britain

Seminar Paper, 2005
9 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. General Introduction
1.1 Introduction: the Nordic cross in Great Britain
1.2 General facts about Orkney

2. History and Language
2.1 Pre-Norse Orkney
2.2 The Pictish-Norse transition
2.3 The Vikings and their language
2.4 Norn
2.5 “Scottization” – the demise of Orkney Norn

3. Language in Orkney today
3.1 The remnants of Norn
3.2 The Orcadian dialect
3.3 discussion/ outlook

4. Bibilography

1. General Introduction

1.1. Introduction: the Nordic cross in Great Britain

The unofficial flag of the Orkney Islands arouses astonishment in the watcher and gives him an idea of how Orcadians feel – being a Scandinavian, and being British. The flag shows the red Norwegian cross on a yellow background, symbolizing the Scottish Royal flag (cf. Towrie 1996-2005: FAQ). Scandinavian culture and self-image still constitute a part of identity in parts of Scotland – especially in Shetland and Orkney, collectively named the Northern Islands. Here, this cultural background has over centuries found expression through a Scandinavian language, called Norn, Icelandic norœnna, the Norwegian language (Fenton 1997: 617).

This term paper is to document the historical and cultural circumstances in which a Scandinavian language could develop in Northern Scotland, its nature and prevalence during its era, and finally, its demise and the remains of Norn in today’s language in Orkney. The paper attaches importance to the fact that it is on the one hand power constellations and politics that produce linguistic changes such as the death of a language, but on the other hand also requires “the active participation of its former speakers” (Barrett 2003: 98). The paper almost exclusively focuses on the development on the Orkney Islands, taking into consideration that history as well as the language itself differs to some extent on the Shetland Islands.

1.2 General facts about Orkney

Orkney[1] is an archipelago of about 70 islands lying ten kilometres off the north coast of Scotland in the North Sea. The 2001 census provided a total number of 19, 245 people inhabiting less than one third of the islands. The major part of the population lives in the two main towns Kirkwall, the administrative centre of Orkney, and Stromness, both being located on “Mainland”, the largest island of the archipelago. Of further importance are the islands Hoy and South Ronaldsay in the south of Scapa Flow, and some minor islands in the north such as Sanday or Westray. People are mainly employed in agriculture and tourism. Since the 1970s, North Sea oil contributes to the income of the Orcadians. Since the 1990s, however, flows from this industry have decreased (Leyden 2004: 11).

2. History and language

2.1 Pre-Norse Orkney

Today, there is no exact knowledge about the question when first human life came to Orkney. Nevertheless, there is evidence that the islands have provided human habitat for at least five and a half thousand years (Ritchie 1990: 36). Preserved constructions from these days such as the Ring of Brodgar, a large stone circle, and Maes Howe, a chambered tomb on Mainland, show that people in the Neolithic era were skilful stone-builders (Ritchie 1990: 39).

Identity and language of the Picts, a tribe that settled in mainland Scotland and the Northern Islands from around 300 BC to the Norse settlements, have remained subject to dispute until today. Thomson (2001: 6) says that”the name “Pict” first appears in 297 AD as a term used by the Romans collectively for the people north of the Antonine Wall. Picti referred to the members of the tribe as people who used to colour themselves, “the painted people”. Latest schools of thought argue that they were the legendary builders of the brochs, martial fortifications with a souterrain, in mainland Scotland and Orkney, mostly located close to the sea (Thomson 2001: 2). Little knowledge about the Picts was preserved; there were times when the Picts were not seen as human beings who really used to exist but as beings from a magical world (Thomson 2001: 1). It can be assumed that their language was “Brittonic or P-Celtic - it was similar to the language spoken in the Roman province of Britain and was allied to Gaulish” (Thomson 2001: 6).

As to language and culture, the Romans did not have any provable influence in Orkney, although certain Roman sources suggest this. The report of Tacitus, for example, tells that his father-in-law Agricola “discovered and subdued” Orkney in 84 AD. Modern scholars doubt that Roman forces ventured out that far north and ascribe these probable exaggerations to the symbolic value such a victory would have been, as Orkney is almost the northernmost part of Great Britain (Thomson 2001: 4, 5). The few artefacts of Roman origin which were found in Orkney suggest some extent of mutual trade took place, however there are many signs that support the notion that the Island was not “greatly Romanised” (Thomson 2001: 6).

2.2 The Pictish-Norse transition

Traditionally, scholars dated the earliest Norse raids to the 790s – Lindisfarne, for example, was seen as one of the first Viking targets in 793. Orkney and Shetland were, following some of these theories, used as a strategic foothold for these raids. Barrett (2003: 75, 76,) claims that both notions are unsustainable, as “more recent research bases on the assumption that the Northern Islands were settled at around 840”. What happened to the indigenous people, is disputed – conflicting schools of thought claim they were either exterminated, driven out or peacefully assimilated (Leyden 2004: 13). A combination of these theories is possible, too. Some Viking sources from these days even claim that the islands were not inhabited at all (Towrie 1996-2005: Viking Orkney).


[1] not: “the Orkneys”, cf. Towrie 1996-2005: FAQ

Excerpt out of 9 pages


Development and Demise of Orkney Norn - a peace of Scandinavian Culture in Great Britain
University of Potsdam  (Philosophisches Institut)
Proseminar The demise of Celtic languages and rise
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
466 KB
Development, Demise, Orkney, Norn, Scandinavian, Culture, Great, Britain, Proseminar, Celtic
Quote paper
Lars Dittmer (Author), 2005, Development and Demise of Orkney Norn - a peace of Scandinavian Culture in Great Britain, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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