Kirkwall, Orkney

I’m in Kirkwall on the Orkney islands for a conference on maritime societies in the Viking and Medieval periods. It’s a lovely sunny evening, which is apparently a rare and precious occurrence around these parts. The dialect is also something to experience: the waitress at the fish & chips shop I’m in took my order and then asked “Ta se’ en?”. On the third try I managed to understand that she wondered if I wanted to sit in, that is, to eat my fresh skate on the premises. I do.

And now I’m outside on the dock, smelling the sea, hearing a blackbird and the occasional seagull. Hardly any cars here of a weekend evening, blissfully quiet. When no storm is howling, I suppose.

Kirkwall. That’s pure Norse, like most place names here. Means Greensward of the Church, Kyrkvallen in Swedish. (Though originally it was Kirkjuvagr, Church Bay.) It refers to St. Magnus Cathedral, a Romanesque sandstone edifice that I visited briefly upon arrival. A security guy from the airport gave me a ride into town and dropped me off outside.

Getting colder as the sun sinks. I should get moving!

Update 7 June: Whoops. Eating skate was a bad move. Says Wikipedia, “Common skate and white skate are assessed as Critically Endangered by IUCN (World Conservation Union) and the fish is listed by the Marine Conservation Society as a ‘fish to avoid’.”

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9 thoughts on “Kirkwall, Orkney

  1. “kirk” seems to be related to German “kirche” and Dutch “kerk” – both meaning church. It is also used in the US. We have a church here named Kirk of the Hill. Seems kind of strange for a Scottish word to have a German derivation. On secomd thought, maybe not. Is Scottish a derivative of English?
    From Wikipedia: ” Historically, as an ethnic group, they emerged from an amalgamation of Celtic (Picts, Gaels, Brythons) and Germanic (Angles, Norse) populations”
    I guess so.

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  2. I loved Kirkwall and St. Magnus, the Ring of Brodgar and the whole Orkney thing.
    I have to say it was much nicer there than I expected (mid-May). Skara Brae was amazing also – You really get the feel of a town there – over 5000 years old.

    One thing very surprising to me was that It seems like the Shetlands, Orkneys and such weren’t really the “end of the world” 1000 years ago – the more I travelled around there it seemed like these were actually a lot less isolated than some estate inland in Europe. Scandinavian, Celtic ships and boats would come around, with links to far away – the sea was the best highway around then and these were some of the best travellers.

    There is a monument to John Rae in St. Magnus too or I am misremembering? A personal hero of mine when I read about him.

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  3. Ah Kirkwall! Tried 3 times to get there but never got further north than Aberdeen…my maternal grandmother’s family migrated from Kirkwall to Otago, ANZ, in the 1860s,
    and I’d love to have checked the place out (and Orkney in general for archaeological wonders also.) They were Matches, farmers, fisherfolk & shopkeepers, and I have photos of a number of Matches’ gravestones-

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  4. Seems kind of strange for a Scottish word to have a German derivation.

    Kirk probably comes from those pesky Vikings that were wandering around over northern Britain – there are other works like bairn that have similar roots (and names like the delightful Grimsby). I’d guess “kirk” went from Germany to Scandinavia and thence to Scotland,.

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  5. Oh – “kirk-” in Kirkwall is Scandinavian alright. Both Norwegian and Swedish tend to use the form (though it’s “kyrk(o)-” in Swedish). If the Orkneys had stayed Norwegian the modern name would probably have been more like “Kirk(e)voll”. There are a couple of places named so in Norway and you also find the form in Kirkenes. Those lingering Norwegian place names you find in these parts are all there due to the area being Norwegian (later Danish) territory up until the 1460’s…

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  6. The same is true much further south; Yorkshire is full of streets called Kirkgate/Kyrkagatan and places with names like Kirkby Lonsdale. I grew up in Addingham, which is in Wharfedale, not far from – say – Harrogate, Swartha, and Starbotton.

    My girlfriend said, as we climbed down off Great Whernside into Starbotton through the snow just after New Year, that it looked a lot lik Norway…

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  7. Without in any way seeking to minimise the norse influence in Orkney, it should be pointed out that “kirk” is the common vernacular word for church in, so far as I am aware, all dialects of Scots as well as being quite common in Scots-English.

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  8. The OED has a very lengthy essay on the etymology of “church”, but interestingly it appears that the Old Norse _kirkia_ is actually derived from the Old English _circe_, which also leads to the Middle English _chiriche_ and hence the modern “church”.

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