Welcome to the home of Norn, the mysterious 6th Scandinavian language that was spoken in Shetland, Orkney and part of Scotland until the 18-19th centuries, when it was replaced with Scots English.
Like its close cousins, Faroese and Icelandic, Norn descended from Old Norse, the language of Scandinavian settlers who colonised various sparse populated or uninhabited territories in North Atlantic. The colonisers, or vikings, which is what they are usually called nowadays, came mostly from West Norway and it seems logical that they first called at Shetland and Orkney, the closest lands to Norway. The first Scandinavian settlements appeared on these archipelagoes around 800 A.D., which can be considered to be the startpoint of Norn.
Little is known about the development of Norn before its fragments started being recorded in the 17-18th century and nobody knows for sure when Norn developed into a language different from Old Norse. The latter is the language of the oldest Scandinavian records found in Shetland and Orkney - runic inscriptions from the 10-12th centuries. Primarily ruled by native Norse earls, Orkney and Shetland accepted the authority of the King of Norway in 1231 and the written language used at those times in official correspondance was still Old Norse, which showed very few local features, if any. This is not surprising, bearing in mind that local scribes used to go to Norway seeking training in the language. In 1380 Shetland and Orkney followed Norway into an alliance with Denmark when the Norwegian and Danish crowns united (Kalmar Union) and Danish started replacing Old Norse as the language of clerical records. Danish was used well into the 16th century and even longer - the last document written in Danish dates back to 1607 (Shetland). However, whatever written language was used, it is obvious that the spoken language of the original Norse population of the islands - namely Norn - never made it onto paper. Surviving old documents in Old Norse or Danish are not illustrative about Norn, and, as the scarce existing records show, it was quite different from both.
In the 14th century, the islands started experiencing a growing influence from Scotland and a few centuries later Scots English (or Scots, regarded by some as a separate language) started to compete with the local Scandinavian tongue. Orkney faced this influence to a greater extent, while Shetland, thanks to its relative remoteness, was more conservative and about one hundred years behind in accepting the changes that had already occured in its southern neighbour. The first step of "Scottisation" of the islands was eventually made clear in the 13th century when the line of Norse earls in Orkney ceased and was replaced first by Scottish earls of Angus and then Strathearn lines, apparently Gaelic speaking. Later on they were succeeded by the Sinclair earls, who spoke Scots (but still acted on behalf of the Norwegian king). The Sinclairs had a less formal influence in Shetland as well and in the 16th century, Scottish earls finally came to power in Shetland. The oldest preserved documents in Scots are from 1433 (Orkney) and 1525 (Shetland). The Danish king pawned Orkney (1468) and Shetland (1469) to Scotland, to which they have belonged since, being presently a part of United Kingdom. Scots thus became the official language of the islands, despite the dominance of Norn as the spoken language. This dominance was though quickly threatened by a flood of immigrants from Scotland who had started moving to Orkney around 1400 and later reached Shetland, although to a lesser extent. Scots was slowly but surely displacing the Scandinavian language in the official domain and business, leaving to Norn the lower social niche - the language of poor fishermen and crofters. The fate of Norn was finally decided in 1560, when the Reformation reached Scotland and the islands saw new Scots schools and Scots speaking clergymen. After that, the demise of Norn was just a matter of time:
Scholars call the old Norse language of Shetland 'Norn'. In Foula it was known as 'Da Dansk'. Tradition has it that the language died out in two generations. Grandparents refused to teach 'Dat auld dirt' to their grandchildren. A major trigger for this attitude was probably the teaching of the English Bible in a school established in the island in 1740 by the Scottish Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge.' (Quote taken from the Foula Heritage website).
But Norn did not give in easily as it is usually believed. Despite the fact that the islands' old Norse legislation was replaced with that of Scotland around 1600, Orcadians and Shetlanders maintained strong economic and family ties with Norway up till the 17-18th centuries. Hugh Marwick mentions that in 1613-1650 no less than 78 Orcadians moved to Bergen, Norway, hinting that the number of immigrants from Shetland was even higher. One of the first burgomasters of Bergen was the Orkney-born 'Little John'. Jakob Jakobsen recalls the name "Hjeltefjorden" ('the Shetland fjord') given to the northern entrance of the harbour of Bergen which was a casual mooring place for boats regularly coming from Shetland. However, the ties with Norway were constantly slackening until, ultimately, this link to one of the most relevant areas for usage of Norn became a matter of the past.
According to historical sources, most of Norn speakers of the 17-18th centuries, if not all, were bilingual. Orkney Norn, being in common usage in the 16th century, most likely declined in the 1600's and after 1700 only a very few people retained an ability to speak it. By 1773 Orkney Norn was believed to be practically extinct, although some of the local inhabitants were said to preserve a very limited memory of Norn (apparently just some odd words and phrases) around 1800. See the following testimonies by contemporaries:
1569, Dalrympe translation of Leslye's "History": 'of the Iles of Orchnay, sum ar Inglese, sum of the language of Norway'.
1582, George Buchanan, "History of Scotland": 'the old Gothic tongue (vetus gothica longua) was still used in Orkney'
1605, Sir Thomas Craig : 'in Orkney and Shetland, where in the previous century only Norse was spoken, English was the language used in churches and was well enough understood'.
1670, Mathew Mackaill (MacKaile), "A Short Relation of the Most Considerable Things in Orkney": 'It is very probably that the inhabitants of the Orcades of old did only speak Noords or rude Danish; but there are only three or four parishes (especially upon the Mainland or Pomona) wherein that language is spoken, and that chiefly when they are at their own houses, but all speak the Scots language, as the rest of the commons do'.
1700, Wallace: 'all speak English, after Scots way... some of the common People amongst themselves speak a language they call Norns; which they have derived to them, either from the Pights, or some others, who first planted this Country; for by the following Lord's Prayer in that Language, it has but little of the Danish or Norwegian language, to which I thought it should have had more affinity, considering how long time they were possessors of this Country'.
1701, Revd John Brand, "Description of Orkney, Zetland, etc.": 'They generally speak English, neither do I think they have so much of the Northern Accent, as in many places of the North of Scotland, yet several of the Isles have some Words and Phrases peculiar to themselves. There are also some who speak Norse especially in the Mainland, as in the parish of Hara there are a few yet living, who can speak no other thing, this Language not being quite extinct among them, since the Norwegians whose Language it is, had this Country in possession. And tho Caithness be near to Orkney, yet none in Orkney can speak Irish, tho the greatest part in Caithness can; Nor any in Caithness speak Norse tho some in Orkney yet can do it'.
1703, Martin, "Brief Description of the Isles of Orkney and Shetland": They generally speak the English tongue, and many among them retain the ancient Danish language, especially in the more Northern isles..
1750, Murdoch Mackenzie: 'The Language is English in the Scotch Dialect, with more of the Norwegian than any other Accent; these Islands having formerly been a Province of Norway, of which they still retain some of the Customs, and a little of the Language, which they call Noren, much the same with what is presently spoken in Iceland and the Faro Islands. Thirty or Forty years ago this (Norn) was the language of two parishes in Pomona Island; since which, by the Means of Charity-Schools, it is so much wore out, as to be understood by none by old People; and in thirty years more, it is probably, will not be understood there at all'.
1750, James Mackenzie, speaking of both Orkney and Shetland: 'The customs of the inhabitants, like the rest, were all Norwegian; their language the Norse, or that dialect of Gothic which is spoken in Norway, and disused only within this present age, by means of those English schools erected by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. Nor to this very time it is quite disused, being still retained by old people, and in vulgar use amongst them at this day.'
1757, witnesses at the Court of Session: 'Thomas Balfour, merchant in Kirkwall, aged 33, depones that about 20 years ago, when the Deponent came first to the school of Kirkwall, he heard severals of the Country people from the Mainland speak Norn, or Norse, among themselves; but that English ewas the common Language. ... John Erskine, tacksman of Nether Scapa, aged 38, depones that he does not remember whether or not he heard the Norse language, or the language in Norway, commonly called Norn in Orkney, frequently spoke when the Deponent was a boy at school, but remembers the Language to have been spoke by some Country People, spontaneously, in the Deponent's company, and they had a pretty long Conversation in the Language; and that this happened within these two years. ... James Smith, writer in Stennes, aged 42, depones that he remembers the Norn or Norse Language to have been vulgarly spoke by a good many People in the Mainland of Orkney; and that he knows some People, particularly three or four in the parishes of Harray and Firth, who speak that Language pretty fluently, as far as he can judge, at this day. ... William Sinclair, tacksman of Rapness in Westray, aged 53, depones ... that when the Deponent was a Boy at the School of Kirkwall, he frequently heard the Country People speaking the Norn, at least, a Language resembling the Norse, or Language in Norway.'
1773, Revd George Low: 'The Language of these Islands was a dialect of the Norwegian, the same as is used in Iceland to this day. It was called here Norn (contracted I suppose for Norwegian) but is now so much worn out, that I believe there is scarce a single man in the country who can express himself on the most ordinary occasion in the language. Even the Songs... are now (except a few of the most trifling) altogether lost, tho this little more than half a century ago was the prevailing tongue of two parishes in the Mainland. They now altogether speak english, but with a great deal of the Norwegian accent, and even with some words of that language intermixed... and to this day there are many sounds in the English language which the Orkney people cannot master, but pronounce according to their old Norn dialect'.
1805, Revd George Barry, "History of Orkney": 'So late as 1756 or 1757, as a respectable native of this country was travelling from Kirkwall to Birsa, he heard two old men for an hour or more converse together in an unknown language; which, on enquiry, he found was the Norse language. ... For many years past it has been almost entirely forgotten, except in one parish in the heart of the Mainland (of Orkney), where the people are said, till of late, to have retained some acquaintance with it. ... Here it now exists only in a few vulgar and obsolete words, and in the names of men and places.'
1814, Sir Walter Scott, visited Orkney in 1814 (from a note to "The Pirate"): 'Mr. Baikie of Tankerness, a most respectable inhabitant of Kirkwall, and an Orkney proprietor, assured me of the following curious fact:- A clergyman, who was not long deceased, remembered well when some remnants of the Norse were still spoken in the island called North Ronaldsha. When Gray's Ode, enditled the "Fatal Sisters", was first published, or at least first reached that remote island, the reverend gentleman had the well-judged curiosity to read it to some of the old persons of the isle, as a poem which regarded the history of their own country. They listened with a great attention to the preliminary stanzas... But when they heard a verse or two more, they interrupted the reader, telling they knew the song well in the Norse language, and had often sung it to him when he asked them for an old song. They called it the Magicians, or the Enchantresses. It would have been singular news to the elegant translator, when executing his version from the text of Bartholine, to have learned that the Norse original was still preserved by tradition in a remote corner of the British dominions.' (The Norse song mentioned by Scott is known as Darraðaljóð and featured in the Saga of Njáll.)
Although Norn survived for a little longer on the Shetland Isles, it precisely mirrored the fate of Orkney Norn. Shetland Norn is said to still have been in common use around 1700, yet being widely replaced with Scots. Shetland Norn did most likely not survive into the 19th century except on the remotest islands, Foula in the west and Unst, Yell and Fetlar in the north, albeit spoken by limited number of people and already much worn out. In the 1890's the eldest inhabitants of the islands still could remember some phrases in Norn:
1605, Sir Thomas Craig: 'In Orkney and Shetland, where in the previous century only Norse spoken, English was the language used in churches and was well enough understood.'
1701, "Revd John Brand, Description of Orkney, Zetland, etc.": 'English is the common language among the inhabitants of Zetland, yet many of the People speak Norse, or corrupt Danish, especially such as live in the more Northern Isles; yea, so common is it in some places, that it is the first language that the children speak. The Norse hath continued ever since the Norwegians had these islands in possession, and in Orkney it is not quite extinct, though there be by far more of it in Zetland, which many do commonly use.'
1703, Martin, "Brief Description of the Isles of Orkney and Shetland": 'They generally speak the English tongue, and many among them retain the ancient Danish language, especially in the more Northern isles..'
1711, Sir Robert Sibbald: (remark about the parishioners of Cunningsburgh, on south Mainland of Shetland) 'All the inhabitants of the parish can speak the Gothick or Norwegian language, which they call Norn, now much worn out, and seldom speak other among themselves. Yet all of them speak the Scots tongue more promptly and more readily than generally they do in Scotland'.
1750, James Mackenzie, speaking of both Orkney and Shetland: 'their language the Norse, or that dialect of Gothic which is spoken in Norway, and disused only within this present age, by means of those English schools erected by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. Nor to this very time it is quite disused, being still retained by old people, and in vulgar use amongst them at this day.'
1774, Revd George Low, about Foula: 'The Norse Language is much worn out here, yet there are some who know a few words of it; it was the language of the last age, but will be entirely lost by the next... The best phrases are all gone, and nothing remains but a few names of things and two or three remnants of songs which one old man can repeat and that but indistinctly'.
1809, Arthur Edmonston (an author from Shetland), "A view of the ancient and resent state of the Zetland Islands": 'The old Norse has long been wearing out, and the change appears to have begun in the southern extremity and to have been gradually extended to the northern parts of the country. The island of Unst was its last abode, and not more than thirty years ago several individuals there could speak it fluently. It was preserved too, for a considerable length of time, in Foula; but at present there is scarcely a single person who can repeat even a few words of it.'
1837, Robert Dunn, "Ornithologist's Guide": 'The English language is commonly spoken... they have introduced into it a great many words from the Norwegian, Danish and Dutch languages, and this medley uttered by a native is exceednigly unpleasant to the ear and very difficult to understand.'
1894, Jakob Jakobsen: 'Even in 1600 the knowledge of English seems to have been very meagre in Shetland; for, according to the "Fasti Ecclesiæ Scotticanæ", Magnus, surnamed "Norsk", minister of Unst (the most northerly of the Islands), made a voyage to Norway to learn the language spoken there, because his congregation did not undersand any other language than Norse. <...> The Shetland Norn was still a living language in the middle of the 18th century <...> even rather late in the 18th century, Norn songs and ballads survived in the mouths of the common people. <...> In several parts of Shetland, especially Foula and the North Isles, the present generation of old people remember their grandparents speaking a language they could hardly understand, and which was called Norn or Norse. <...> As late as 1894, there were people in Foula who could repeat sentences in Norn, as I myself had the opportunity of hearing. The last man in Unst who is said to have been able to speak Norn, Walter Sutherland from Skaw, died about 1850. In Foula, on the other hand, men who were living very much later than the middle of the present century are said to have been able to speak Norn'.
There are witnesses that the memory of Norn was still not extinct as late as the middle 20th century. Some of today's old Foula residents remember an old woman from their childhood days who used to teach children various Norn expressions and we can roughly date that to the first half of the 20th century. In 1958 George (Dodie) Isbister in Foula was heard to utter a verse from The Eagle's Song (according to The Foula Heritage website). This is certainly the very latest one has heard of Norn.
But even after the complete demise of Norn, its remnants still live in the linguistic memory of Shetlanders and Orcadians. Their native Scots dialect has inherited a good deal of Scandinavian words (including pronouns, prepositions and particles), several grammatical traits and even intonation, which is said to be very reminiscient of Norwegian. Hugh Marwick and Gregor Lamb comment on the Orcadian accent with the following words:
The Orkney cadence is quite different from that of any part of the mainland of Scotland, and there is not the slightest possibility of confusing it with that of our nearest neighbour - Caithness. But on the other hand, a Norwegian in Orkney, listening to Orcadians talking among themselves at such a distance that only their tones were audible, might well imagine he was at home in Norway. It is one of the most remarkable things about speech that people of the same stock, living out of touch with each other, may become mutually unintelligible so far as vocabulary is concerned, and yet retain 'the tune they speak to' practically unchanged through centuries. Such has been the case in regard to Orkney and its motherland Norway. (Cited from "The Viking Legacy" (1971) by John Geipel, p. 105)
In Norwegian, the sentence 'I hope we can eat at eight o clock' is Jeg håper vi kann spise klokken åtte and it would be sounded with a similar lilt, going up and down just as in the Orkney dialect. ("Whit Like the Day? Understanding Orkney dialect." (2005) by Gregor Lamb, p. 96)
Compare it to what today's Shetlanders say about their experience of communicating with Norwegians:
I was in a queue to a theme park in Denmark, where I found the accent difficult, when I heard very familiar voices coming up behind me, I turned to address what I thought were Shetlanders, when I realised from their appearance that they were in fact Norwegians! (By "Rasmie")
I was in a fishing shop in Bergen with two fellow Shetlanders and while we were discussing what would be the best gear to catch olicks, the young lady assistant came over and asked where we were from, saying we were not speaking Norwegian but we sounded just like Norwegians. (By "Heimdal")
Unfortunately, Norn did not attract the attention of scholars until it was practically out of use. This can be explained by remoteness of Orkney and Shetland from Europe's scientific centres, lack of missionaries who described languages existing outside of the Christian world, but were hardly interested in visiting long baptised areas, and the immaturity of the linguistic science which was only making the first steps when Norn was already at its last gasp. The first written specimen of Norn came to the light of day in the early 18th century when the Lord's Prayer in Orkney Norn (recorded in the 1690's) was published by Wallace (1700). In the 1770's the Scottish clergyman, George Low, recorded in Foula the Shetlandic version of the Lord's Prayer, the "Ballad of Hildina" and a short list of words. The scientific study of Norn began in 1866 when T. Edmonston published "An Etymological Glossary of the Shetland and Orkney Dialect". In the late 19th century the Faroese linguist Jakob Jakobsen gathered in Shetland by far the most extensive collection of Norn material, including texts (short poems, lullabies, riddles and fragments of live conversation) and vocabulary (about 10 000 words of Scandinavian origin surviving in the local dialect of Scots), which were published in his classic "Etymologisk Ordbog over det norrøne Sprog på Shetland" (in Danish, 1908-1921, completed posthumously). Shortly later it was translated into English as "An Etymological Dictionary of the Norn Language in Shetland" (1928-1932). About the same time the Orcadian scholar Hugh Marwick published "Orkney Norn" (1929) which comprised a vocabulary of over 3000 words of Scandinavian origin picked up from Orkney Scots.
Most of the surviving specimens of Norn speech show signs of corruptedness and feature various elements coming from Scots. Several scholars of Norn (Jakob Jakobsen, Hugh Marwick) have asserted that the demise of Norn was a gradual process, with Scots words and grammar gradually penetrating Norn and turning it into what we would call 'Norn-Scots creole' which later became a highly Scandinavised variant of Scots that is spoken in Shetland and Orkney nowadays (Insular Scots). Others, including Michael Barnes, refute this hypothesis, pointing at the lack of typological parallels for such a "creolisation" and put forward the idea of Norn having been given up in favour of Scots due to the low social prestige of the former. The latter point is regarded by many as more convincing. Nevertheless, there is a good deal of texts quoted by Jakobsen where you cannot say for sure whether it is Norn or Scots (the alleged Norn-Scots creole?). Let us also mention the language of Manx, which prior to its decline was gradually losing Goidhelic pecularities becoming more and more corrupted - a typological parallel Barnes overlooked. This evidence makes the theory of Jakobsen and Marwick no less worthy of consideration than that of Barnes,.. so the truth, as often, may hide somewhere inbetween.