The Orkney exception
Outside, it was wet. During Orkney’s summer, it is always wet, or threatening to be wet, or teasing you, briefly, with the joy of not being wet by throwing an hour of glittering sunshine over a landscape so surreally perfect it feels like walking through Tolkien’s Shire. Inside the Reel Café and bar, ‘home of folk legends the Wrigley Sisters’, it was warm: with steaming tourists, the peaty taste of local whisky and the lilting voice of a man reciting a poem, ‘Speech’ by Christina M Costie, which tells the story of an Orkney schoolboy being forced to speak English.
When I said “efter” instead o’ “after.”
Sheu gaed me the klipe ’cis I said “Liv,”
Instead o’ the palm o’ me haand,
An’ sheu haaled i’ me gansey an’ gaed me a rive,
When I couldno’ understand!
As with Shakespeare, the unfamiliar words and rhythms do not take long to settle beautifully into the ear. The Orcadian dialect is, like those whose families originate from the remote archipelago of 70-odd islands north of Caithness, a mash-up of Norse and Scots, delivered with an accent that sounds disconcertingly Welsh. It is also, according to South Ronaldsay’s Kathleen MacLeod, “special, precious and different”. But MacLeod, like many in the community, does not have high hopes that it will survive for long. “There are so many incomers, so few natural born Orcadian people. There’s so much influence wi’ all the youngsters now. I don’t think the prognosis is very good.”
Orcadians are officially – biologically, at least – more Scandinavian than British. When Viking settlers seized the islands from the mysterious native Picts early in the 9th century, they colonised not just its culture and its language but its DNA; a study into the genetic heritage of Orcadian men in 2010/11 showed that 60 percent still have Norse ancestry, via a distinctly Scandinavian Y-chromosome. Costie’s poem ends with the Orcadian schoolboy deciding to ‘head home’ to Bergen in Norway:
So A’m thowt an’ thowt aboot hid aa’,
An’ Aal hae the best o’ the bargain,
Aal tak me claes an’ me money box
An’ chuest ging hjem til Bergen!
After having been ruled for centuries by unscrupulous Norwegian earls, with a variant of old Norse called Norn embedded as the indigenous tongue, Orkney was pledged to Scotland by King Christian I of Norway in 1468. It was intended to be security against payment of the dowry of his daughter Margaret, who was betrothed to James III, but
the bankrupt Christian never paid up and the islands defaulted to the Scottish crown.
Under James III’s sovereignty, southern migrants flooded into the islands, and Scots became the chief language for trade, power and prestige. Norn was diluted and eventually died, with the last recorded usage in around the mid-19th century. However, many of its words, intonations and grammatical structures survive through Orcadian dialect, which is just one of the reasons that people like Tom Rendall – the man reciting poetry in the Reel Café, who is one of the dialect’s most passionate evangelists – are fighting to keep it alive.
“I was once asked to go and do a talk on my dialect research just outside Bergen in a small Lutheran church,” Rendall says. “The people gathered there were mainly from Norway, but I didn’t need to change my intonation or explain how I was speaking. It’s so similar, you see. They just understood me. It was very strange but kind
“When Viking settlers seized the islands from the mysterious native Picts, they colonised not just its culture and its language but its DNA”
Born in 1951 on a farm in the southern island of Sanday (population c 500), Rendall, whose gentle manner and genial appearance belie his inner fire, left school with no qualifications. Encouraged to take evening classes by the local headmaster and influenced by the writings of English sociolinguist guru Peter Trudgill, he worked his way through two degrees before embarking on a series of research projects throughout the islands. From 2009-2012 he ran the Scapa Flow Orkney Dialect Project, which resulted in a booklet and CD of interviews with cross-generational dialect speakers called ‘Voices Aroond The Flow’.
‘Voices Aroond The Flow’ provides a moving insight into the feelings and experiences of Orcadians aged 20 to 82. All of the interviewees emphasise the importance of the dialect – how it contributes to their sense of self and community and links them to a shared past – but there is also a strong vein of pragmatism running through the comments. These are sophisticated bilinguists, who can slide between dialects within the same sentence as the audience and situation demands (what linguists call ‘code-switching’), and are willing to work with the change a migratory modern world demands. “Weel I changed as I think I am well enough mannered, and wae need tae makk wirsels understood,” explains 67-year-old Hoy local Arthur Budge in the interviews. “All Orcadians are good at that, they ken when tae change.”
One thing everyone agrees on is the importance of the kids. As the lines from Christina Costie’s poem ‘Speech’ imply, most pre-war Orkney schoolchildren had to speak ‘proper English’ on risk of “the klipe o’ the palm o’ me hand”; but dialect was gradually accepted in the classroom, and by the ’90s publications such as ‘The Orkney Dictionary’ were being used to actively encourage it. “We have to keep it in the schools,” Rendall insists. “It has to be featured in the curriculum, in all the local academic establishments and educational systems, encouraging the young bairns and families.”
Orcadian under threat
But there is one big question hanging over this feelgood crusade: should Orcadian really be kept alive? Isn’t the expiration of outmoded dialects just natural evolution?
According to statistics from National Geographic’s Enduring Voices project to document the world’s endangered languages, one language dies every 14 days. It estimates that by 2100 more than half of the roughly 7,000 languages currently spoken on earth – many of which remain unrecorded – will have vanished. After all, Norn isn’t the British Isles’ only linguistic dodo; the Middle English variants Fingalian and Yola were once native to Fingal and Wexford.
Dr Gregory Anderson, director of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages and leader of Enduring Voices, dismisses the idea that preserving dialects is more to do with sentimentality than sense. “It has nothing to do with nostalgia,” he says. “There are all kinds of tangible socioeconomic and medical reasons for their survival and promotion.”
In fact, Anderson believes that the kind of seamless diglossia practised in Orkney makes for a healthier, happier life. “You are a better person if you have more than one language in your brain. There are all sorts of studies that support this, ranging from delayed onset of dementia to cognitive processing tests, which generally show that bilinguals process information faster and better. Think about the knock-on costs of an increasingly elderly population beset with mental deterioration, and it has fantastic social and economic as well as personal benefits.”
One of the most beguiling arguments in favour of dialects is that they do not just carry our history but our imagination. “Because the dialect is so unique it gives us an ability to express our feelings with more colour and richness and simplicity than English,” Rendall explains. “It brings out the emotions and experiences of people here much better.” To read the great Orcadian dialect writers – from Costie’s fellow poets Robert Rendall and Edwin Muir to the novelist George Mackay Brown – is to realise that they capture the wild yet humane spirit of these extraordinary islands, with their green fields, white nights and wild currents, in a way that is almost impossible to describe in English without resorting to clichés.
But as Rendall has warned, the dialect cannot just be read in books if it is to be truly preserved. “It is a living language, not an archaic artifact like one of Orkney’s Pictish stones. It needs to be kept, as one of my student colleagues said, not just in the minds but in the mouths.”
Playing politics with language
On 25th May, Alex Salmond, first minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), launched his campaign for an independent Scotland, and politicians started to take sides. In a move that reflected the complex allegiances of the UK’s northernmost isles, Liam McArthur, MSP for Orkney, along with Shetland MSP and fellow Liberal Democrat Tavish Scott, has made it clear that his constituents might prefer to remain British – or even become independent of both the UK and Scotland – if Salmond persuades the rest of Scotland to cut loose. Having made the case for Scottish self determination, the SNP have, through gritted teeth (and after initally claiming McArthur and Scott were “troublemakers”), had to recognise the rights of the Orkneys to decide their own political future.
“I think what Tavish Scott and myself were trying to put over,” McArthur explains, “was that there are aspects of this which are unique to the northern islands. It may make sense in theoretical terms to have things highly centralised across the nation, but the decisions that are spat out at the end of that process invariably don’t take on board the specific circumstances, needs and aspirations of island communities.” If you have rich natural resources of oil, wind and fish, not to mention some of the best-preserved Neolithic remains in Europe, the agendas of mainlanders can seem understandably suspect.
McArthur is also worried that centralisation could threaten Orkney’s rare cultural and linguistic microcosm. “What you’ve got at the moment,” he says, “is a Scottish government in danger of using some of the arguments around the way Scottish language and history are taught in schools as a political tool. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest this is entirely politically driven, but there’s a real sensitivity to some of the emphasis that ministers have been placing on the rollout of Gallic, for example. The traditions [in Orkney] are far more Nordic, and if there is to be support for indigenous language for educational and cultural reasons, that should be the area where that investment would be placed.”
For the SNP, the nightmare scenario would be the Orkneys deciding in a referendum to remain part of the UK if Scotland gained independence. As well as being a major political embarrassment, it would mean that Scotland could lose out on a substantial amount of North Sea oil and gas revenue, money which will be vital for fulfilling Salmond’s promises on public services. A canny move from the UK’s pro-union government might be to open up a political fault line over the Orkneys, binding them more closely to the Union, and putting the SNP on the back foot.
“If you have rich natural resources of oil, wind, tides and fish, not to mention some of the best-preserved Neolithic remains in Europe, the agendas of mainlanders can seem understandably suspect”
There are plenty of ways to bribe the 20,000 residents of the Orkneys without diverting too much money. Investment in ferry and air services, healthcare, sustainable energy and agriculture could all play their part. But the most powerful emotional tool might be to put money into the local dialect. If Westminster – or, indeed, Holyrood – started to show a serious interest in the preservation of Orcadian, they might find it paid huge political and economic dividends for years to come.
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