The fisherman Walter Sutherland of Skaw, Unst, died circa 1850. He is known to have been the last speaker of Norn – the lost Scandinavian language of Caithness, Orkney and Shetland.
The story of a lonely seafarer who lived at the head of Britain and still spoke “the language of the Vikings” is probably too good to be true.
At least that’s what scientists argue. Norn, it is said, has been replaced word for word, sentence for sentence over the centuries. Even today some of its sounds, perhaps its prosody and some of its vocabulary survive in the ‘Insular dialects’ of Scots.
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But it’s easier to imagine a language dying with a man. And so we speak of Mr. Sutherland, not of half a millennium of laborious, gradual changes.
Over the past few weeks – once again the Silly Season newspapers are filling up with gossip about the Norse heritage of the North Isles – I’ve been thinking of Walter. Why? Because it was only after the man’s death that Orkadians and Shetlanders really began to take an interest in their Scandinavian roots.
Pick up Helly Aa. This fabulously silly holiday – with its parades of fake Norse pirates and burning of longships – began a few decades after Walter’s death.
Yes, Shetlanders began to celebrate their Norse connections after their last real, living linguistic connection with their Norse neighbors had disappeared.
I suppose it’s fairly common knowledge that the mythologized history and traditions of the North Isles of Scotland are less Viking and more Victorian in origin. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Orkney and Shetland were not immune to 19th-century Nordic romance and nostalgia for a lost past. Some North Islanders still yearn for a culture they never knew.
Earlier this month, Orcadian councilors – they say they were puzzled by the hearing they were getting from “quiet” politicians – voted to deal with their constitutional future. There was even quip talk that the islands would “rejoin Norway”.
This move came with an intriguing claim. When I was asked about Norway, Orkney Islands Council President James Stockan said something that made me sit up and take notice. “There’s a great affinity there and a great deep cultural connection,” he told the BBC.
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Mr Stockan’s personal interest in the Nordic countries is long-standing and genuine. And I know where he’s from. Visiting the Faroe Islands or Iceland – more so than Norway, I have to admit – has always made me feel oddly at home. But is that affinity “deep,” as Mr Stockan said? Does Orkney have a ‘deep’ cultural relationship with Norway? I’m afraid the answer to these questions is obviously no.
How do we know? Well, I don’t think it’s easy to measure feelings of affinity, and I think I’m right in saying that no one in the Northern Isles has tried it yet.
But we can measure basic knowledge about Norway and its culture. How many people in the Orkneys can speak Norwegian? How many have skills beyond playing Duolingo or attending a few recreational evening classes? Very few, I guess.
Can you have a “deep cultural relationship” with a country whose language you don’t speak? Well, of course not.
That shouldn’t have to be said out loud. Without knowledge of a language, one cannot have meaningful cultural knowledge – and vice versa.
Anyone who tells you otherwise is simply wrong. Can you enjoy some subtitled drama or enjoy some treats in a place you’ve locked out? Secure. That’s something, but it’s not “deep”.
It is not just a few Shetlanders and Orcadians who express an affinity or closeness to Norway and other Scandinavians and/or Northerners. Many mainlanders do the same.
This was particularly the case with nationalists, who wanted to portray Scotland as having broader ties than just England and the Anglosphere. As in Orkney and Shetland, the ‘We’re more like Norwegians’ line is part of an attempt to create a distinctive brand.
It does not stand up to closer scrutiny. Because the mainlanders of Scotland, like the residents of the North Island, are not very familiar with Norway.
Now there were admirable if modest attempts to build understanding between Scotland and the nations to the east. It would probably be unfair to call this a bunch of people babbling around. But it’s not much more.
The SNP government in Edinburgh and island councils emphasizing their Nordic roots are talking well. But have they done anything to increase knowledge and understanding? No not true.
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There have been and are actions that governments could take at the local and national levels to create a population-wide understanding of some of our neighbours. Of course, these are not easy, which is why they have not been tried.
Orkney, for example, could encourage the teaching of Norwegian in schools. That would mean importing teachers – and paying them. This would also mean subsidized evening courses for the parents. And expensive school trips and exchange programs.
The Scottish Government could allow young people to study Scandinavian language and society at university. Or pay for research trips across the North Sea. It would take years to build capacity for area studies. But we have to start somewhere. I’m not proposing that we teach every kid in the country to sniff a little Norsk. I’m saying we need some to do that to build a cadre of people who can bridge the North Sea for us.
Walter Sutherland would probably have been able to converse with a Faroese, though perhaps not so easily. And it shouldn’t have been too difficult for him to learn Norwegian.
Old Walter is dead. But that doesn’t mean we can’t turn the superficial affinity many Scots have for the Nordic world into something more meaningful and useful.