Shetland: A Unique Place with a Unique Language

Language and place are intimately connected. A community and its culture grows and evolves in and with its environment – its collective experiences, knowledge, history and identity are all embodied in its language. In short: language is the breath of a culture.

The Shetland archipelago is located in the middle of nowhere, smack in the crossroads of the North Sea and the north-western Atlantic Ocean. It has therefore always been a central place: the logical stop-over for any trade and migration routes in these waters throughout history.

The islands have been inhabited for at least 6,000 years and we know that early Neolithic settlers brought with them domesticated cattle and sheep. About a thousand years later the horse was brought too. But what languages these early settlers and their descendants spoke is impossible to know.

What we do know about the linguistic history of Shetland starts a few thousand years later: testimonies indicate that Picts had settled the islands around 400 AD, possibly a little earlier. Pictish has been much debated, but now data seems to indicate that it was a Celtic language of the same branch as Welsh. The fate of the Picts is a much discussed topic, because they left hardly any traces in Shetland or in its subsequent language, and there are hardly any historical testimonies about what may have happened to them.

At around the same time as the Picts settled Shetland, Germanic tribes moved into the British isles by invitation from the Roman legions who had been occupying the lands. These Germanic tribes were invited in order to control the indigenous peoples that the Romans had been colonising, namely the various Celtic speaking tribes. There were four main groups of Germanic tribes that came:

  • The Saxons (from what is now roughly north-western Germany), who ended up settling in what is now south and central England. These Saxon areas became the various -sex areas, such as Sussex, Wessex, Essex, etc.
  • The Jutes (from what is now northern Danish Jylland), who ended up settling in what is now Kent in south-eastern England.
  • The Frisians (from what is now roughly the Netherlands). The Frisians very soon got absorbed into the other tribes.
  • The Angles (from what is now southern Danish Jylland), who ended up settling in two areas: that which is now mid-eastern England and which was once called Mercia; and that which is now northern England and southern Scotland and which was once called Northumbria.

These tribes spoke very similar Germanic language varieties, similar enough to be mutually intelligible, but not identical. They evolved into four distinct Old English dialects: Saxon Old English, Kentish Old English, Mercian Old Englishand Northumbrian Old English. King Alfred the Great was Saxon and wanted to bring literature to his people by translating a lot of Latin material into the language of his people, Saxon Old English. This is why most of the Old English data that we have now is Saxon Old English. Northumbrian Old English evolved into what is now Scots, while Mercian Old English evolved into what is now English. In other words: Scots and English are close cousins, and neither has ever been a dialect of the other. They descend from two different versions of Old English. But most of the data we have is from a third version of Old English, the Saxon one.

At about 600 AD two things happened: the Germanic tribes, specifically the Northumbrian Angles, moved north, and Gaelic speaking tribes moved east from the island of Ireland to what is now the Scottish Highlands. These twin migration waves pushed the indigenous peoples of Scotland northeast until eventually they got absorbed into the new cultures. What this means is two things: first, neither Scots nor Gaelic are more or less indigenous to Scotland than the other, since they both moved in at the same time from other areas; and second, lowland Scotland and the Northern Isles were never Gaelic. The last known dominating Celtic culture in the Northern Isles are the Picts, but their language belonged to a different Celtic branch from Gaelic. This is why you should neither expect nor ask for kilts or bagpipes in Shetland: they were never part of the heritage here.

At around 800 the Norse speaking people started navigating the seas and settling in different areas in and around the North Sea. The earliest evidence of Norse settlement in Shetland is from ca 790, and Faroe comes shortly after that, ca 810. These settlers spoke Western Norse language varieties, while the Norsemen who would later settle eastern England and establish the Danelaw were speakers of Eastern Norse varieties. Again these different language varieties were very similar and mutually intelligible, but they were not identical.

Shetland, Orkney and Caithness became part of the Norwegian kingdom in 875 and with that Norse became the dominant language. It would evolve into Norn and would remain in Shetland until 1850, when the last known speaker, Walter Sutherland from Skaw in Unst, passed away.

Trade and contact was a constant for the islands, and by the early 15th century more and more settlers from mainland Scotland came to Shetland. They were tradesmen, clergymen, craftsmen and so on, and they tended to speak Lallans (Lowland Scots). At the same time the Hanseatic trade intensified and brought large numbers of Dutch and Low German speakers to the islands.

Shetland became part of the Scottish kingdom in 1469, and with that the administrative language shifted to Scots. The lairds and lawmen that moved in were Scots speakers, but the locals were multilingual. Testimonies show that for the next 250 years or so Shetland was a bilingual community where locals spoke both Scots and Norn. Many were also proficient in Dutch or Low German due to the ongoing intense trade with speakers from these areas. In fact, the knitwear trade with the Dutch fishing fleet, starting in the 1580s, was so intense that it led to the formation of Lerwick, which is now the capital of Shetland.

What we have, then, is a multilingual community where Norn, Scots and Dutch/Low German are the dominant languages. This is still evident in the language of sheep and crofting, wool, spinning, knitting and weaving.

It is only in the early 18th century that English starts to gain a dominant role in Shetland. By now Scotland and England have unified to one crown, and it is English (not Scots) that has been steadily promoted. For example, King James VI of Scotland, who became James I of the United Kingdom, had the Bible translated into English (not Scots). Universal schooling was promoted, and the teaching language was English. By 1827 every parish in Shetland had a school, and the teaching language was English. Since then English has been promoted as the “proper” language in Shetland. Shetland is now a bilingual Shaetlan/English community: every Shaetlan speaker is bilingual (Shaetlan/English), even though not every Shetlander is a Shaetlan speaker.

However, Shaetlan, the language of the islands which pre-dates English, is no less “proper” than English. It is a unique language that was borne out of its unique history, and it embodies the unique culture of Shetland as it has been shaped throughout the millennia. The ‘autonym’ of the language – ie the name that the speakers themselves call their language – is Shaetlan. It is not and never has been a dialect of English. The speakers have, for some 200 years, been told that the way they speak is not only quirky but wrong, and that their language is, at best, a “dialect”. This is not at all linguistically justified. It could be argued to belong to the wider Scots family of language varieties, but due to its unique linguistic history it is, if anything, a highly divergent variety of Scots. A more apt label, if one is needed, is to classify Shaetlan as a ‘Scots/Norn Mixed Language’ with a lot of influence from Dutch and Low German. A Mixed Language is a language that has two or e few identifiable ancestors and which can show that it has blended the systems of each ancestor into a new, unique language. There are many known Mixed Languages in the world. Michif in Canada, for example, is a Cree/French Mixed Language, a blend of Cree and French that cannot be classified as a dialect of Cree nor of French. It has its own, unique, structure, and is a separate language in its own right.

Shaetlan is a highly structured language with a highly interesting grammar and vocabulary. Its ancestry is evident in both: the unique blend of Norn, Scots and Dutch/Low German that shaped Shaetlan is still evident in its lexicon, sounds and grammar. The following films will give you a glimpse of both the structure of the language and how intimately connected it is with its place.

For anyone who would like to delve deeper into this fascinating language, there is a lot of information available on our project website I Hear Dee (a slightly tongue in cheek expression in Shaetlan) about contemporary Shaetlan, its place on the linguistic map, its history and its structure. On our site you’ll also be able to freely access our primer of Shaetlan (the first bilingual grammatical description of Shaetlan and also the to date most detailed description), our interactive online dictionary Da Spaektionary, our Shaetlan Wirdle, and much more. Everything we put out is bilingual, with Shaetlan as the default and English as an option. Do come and browse our site!


Caain the Uradale rams

See Jakob, Jak and Cloud caa in (take in) the colourful Uradale rams on a beautiful spring day, and learn about the ancient sheepy words of Shaetlan and how they still connect Shetland culturally to Scandinavia.

Da muckle Sooth Lee caa

We’re caain in (taking in) the South Lee sheep while reflecting on the sustainability of the Native Shetland sheep breed and its relationship to the breeds around the western North Atlantic coasts.

Clippin Peerie Moutie’s mother

See Ronnie clip (shear) Peerie Moutie’s mother and learn about the clever features of the double coated fleeces that are found across the North Atlantic short-tailed sheep family of breeds.

Caain in Shaetlan

Come along with us on the big summer caa (herding) for da clippin (shearing), while musing on the Shaetlan language in a typological perspective. This film is entirely in Shaetlan with English translations.

For more films about wool, yarn, Shetland, and Shaetlan, please subscribe to the Uradale Farm YouTube channel. 

To learn more about the yarns produced by Uradale Farm, please visit the Uradale Yarn website