The Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme

Names around Scapa Flow

The majority of place-names in Orkney are of Norse origin, as this was the language spoken in the islands for around 900 years. Norse place-names typically consist of a generic element and a specific element put together. The generic element tells us what kind of a place we are talking about: is it, for example, an island, a bay, or a point? The specific tells us something more, which helps us specify exactly which island or bay or point we are talking about. Is it a flat island or a high island? Is it a sandy bay or a bay which is good for finding bits of wood? Is it a point where the cormorants gather, or is it a point near strong tidal currents? The specific typically comes first and the generic last, as for instance in “Stromness”, but you can sometimes encounter names that have it the other way around, too.

Norse place-names are often very descriptive, some would perhaps say unimaginative; but thinking of it from a sea-faring point of view, it is handy to have descriptive names by which to navigate. For instance, in the Pentland Firth, lies the island of Stroma. Just by hearing that name, Norse-speaking people would have known that there are strong currents around the island, as the name means “current-island”. Similarly, they would have known that a bay called Sandwick would be a good place to pull boats ashore, as the name means a “sandy bay”.

Not all place-names around Scapa Flow are Norse, though. One or two are possibly of Celtic origin (“Old Man of Hoy” and “Orkney”), and many are Scots or English names, originating after the Norse period (for example “Gibraltar Pier”). Orkney is an area where several languages have been in contact over the centuries, resulting in multilingual place-names. Some of these multilingual names combine Norse and Scots, such as “South Walls” (south bay) and “Hoxa Head” (haugs-eið head, hill isthmus head). Other names combine Gaelic and Scots, such as Cantick Head, where Cantick may come from the Gaelic ceann, meaning head or headland (Hugh Marwick).

Hoxa Head, South Ronaldsay.

The name Scapa Flow

Hugh Marwick’s Orkney Farm Names suggests that the name Scapa comes from the Old Norse skalp-eið. Eið is a common generic term in Orkney place-names, meaning isthmus. In this case, it is the isthmus separating the East and West Mainland, between Scapa and Kirkwall. “Skalp” could either mean a long hollow or depression in the terrain, or something that cleaves in two (ie, cleaving The Mainland), both being apt descriptions of the landscape there.


The Old Norse word for “island” is ey. In Orkney place-names we find this word as ey or ay or a or y. That is the reason why Orkney’s island names end in “ey”, “ay”, “a” or “y”.

Some islands are named after a visible characteristic:

Flotta  -Old Norse: Flatey - Meaning: Flat island. Flotta is indeed a very flat island, especially compared to its neighbour, Hoy.

Hoy - Old Norse: Háey - Meaning: High island. Hoy has the highest hill in Orkney: Ward Hill (481 metres), and also the highest cliff: St. John’s Head (346 metres). It stands out against the other Orkney islands as taller and hillier, which is what gave it its name, The High Island.

Burray - Old Norse: Borgarey - Meaning: Broch Island

Rysa - Old Norse: hrís-ey - Meaning: brushwood isle

 Some islands are named after animals:

Fara -  Meaning: Sheep island.

There are also two islets named Sow Skerry and Sour Skerry near Graemsay. It is tempting to interpret at least "Sow Skerry" as a name referring to sheep, deriving from Old Norse sauðr, which is another word for sheep. However, this interpretation is far from certain, and in the case of the neighbouring "Sour Skerry" a more likely interpretation is simply "South Skerry" - from the Old Norse Suðrsker, as it is located to the south of Graemesay.

Another name to do with sheep is Lamb Holm.

Cava - Old Norse: Kalfey - Meaning: Calf island

 Swona - Old Norse: Sviney - Meaning: Pig island

Cava. (c) Kevin Heath.

The naming of small islands after animals is also common in Norway, where there are several sheep-, lamb-, calf- horse- and pig-islands along the coast. It could refer to grazing or animals being kept on the islands. Sometimes an island is called “the calf” of a bigger island because it looks as if it is the bigger island’s baby, as for instance with “The Calf of Flotta”. An older name for The Mainland (Orkney’s biggest island) was Hrossey, meaning “horse island” (now the name of one of the Northlink ferries). The name Orkney itself has not been fully explained yet, but one theory is that it means “the island of the wild boar”, the boar being a totem animal for a tribe living here. However, the Viking settlers took it to mean “seal islands”, as orkn means “seal” in Old Norse. Seal Islands would be a very fitting name for Orkney indeed.

Some islands are named after specific people:

Graemsay - Old Norse: Grimsey - Meaning: Grim’s island (Grim is a man’s name)

 South Ronaldsay - Old Norse: Rognvaldsey - Meaning: Rognvald’s island. We do not know which Rognvald the name refers to.

Several other Orkney islands (outside of the Scapa Flow area) also contain personal names, such as Rousay (after a man called Hrolfr) and Gairsay (after someone called Garek). We do not know who these people are, but a good guess would be that they were farmers owning estates on the islands.

Holms and skerries

Old Norse: holmi or holmr (both forms were used) - Meaning: islet

Holm of Houton with the tall ship Europa in the background.

A small island is called a “holm”. We encounter this word for instance in the names Lambholm (where the Italian Chapel is), Outer Holm and Inner Holm (near Stromness), and Glimps Holm (between Lambholm and Burray).

Even smaller are skerries, in Old Norse sker. Examples of Skerry names are Clett Skerry (near Lyness) and the Skerry of Cletts (Graemesay), Smoogro Skerry (Orphir), Sour Skerry and Sow Skerry (Graemsay). One skerry in Scapa Flow bears the name “The Barrel of Butter”. This is because the tax for the rights to hunt seals on The Barrel of Butter was a barrel of butter.


An important thing for seafarers would be to be able to find good harbours. Therefore, places which would provide a good harbour are named as such.

“Hope” names

Orcadians call St. Margaret’s Hope “The Hop”. This is because “hop” or “hope” names go back to the Old Norse word hóp, meaning “shallow bay” or “a small land-locked bay or inlet connected with the sea”. Other hop names are Longhope, Pan Hope (Flotta), Kirk Hope (South Walls), and Chalmers Hope (North of Lyness). We also have the same word in “Toab”: toll-hóp, a harbour where ships had to pay toll.

 St Margaret's Hope.


Pronounced “Ham”, this name derives from the Old Norse word hofn, later hamn, meaning “harbour”. The “l” here is a misunderstanding by the mapmakers, as this is not the same word as “holm” in the sense of “islet”.


Two modern names for two modern piers which lie near to each other in Flotta, are Sutherland Pier and Gibraltar Pier. The Sutherland Pier is named after the nearby Sutherland farm, home to the Sutherland family. The Gibraltar pier was built in the early 1940s, and was probably named by men who had been stationed at Gibraltar.


 North/South Walls: “Wall” is a word which means “bay”, but the “ll”s are a misunderstanding by mapmakers who were used to Scottish “l”s being dropped. The name goes back to Old Norse vágar, meaning “bays”. We have the same element in “Kirkwall” – Church bay.

At South Walls is also a tunship called Osmondwall. This goes back to the Old Norse name Ásmundar-vágr, the bay of a man named Ásmundr. This was where King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway forced Earl Sigurd the Stout of Orkney to adopt Christianity, according to the Orkneyinga Saga.

Another Old Norse word for “bay” is vík, found today as “wick” in many place-names. One of these “wick” names is Rackwick. The name tells us that this is a good bay for finding wood and things that have floated ashore. Other examples of wick names are: Scat Wick (Flotta) and Sandwick (South Ronaldsay)

Rackwick Bay, Hoy.


There are some names that tell us about fishing activities. Between Flotta and Switha there is a fishing mark called the Butter and Oo Hole. The story about this name (as told by Phyllis Gee) is that some people had been to Switha, where their sheep were grazing, to collect wool. Rowing back, they realised that the sea was full of fish. But having brought no bait, they had to use what was at hand, which was the wool and some butter left over from their packed lunch. They caught a lot of fish that day, and this is how the spot came to be known as the Butter and Oo Hole (Butter and Wool Hole).

In Flotta there are also the names Ling Geo and Sillock Geo. Ling could refer to the fish ling, and the word sillock means coal fish (saithe) in its first year. Another probable fishing name is Whiting Point in Fara.

 Landscape features:

The following are generic elements, which we may encounter in many place-names around Scapa Flow:

Ayre - Old Norse: Eyrr - Meaning: Sand spit. We see this, for example, in the name Little Ayre (Longhope).

Old Norse: Ness - Meaning: Poin. Examples of Ness names around Scapa Flow are:

Quoy Ness (Flotta), quoy, meaning enclosure. Lyness (Hoy), where “ly” possibly derives from Old Norse hliðar, meaning slope, although Hugh Marwick (Orkney Farm Names) is “somewhat uncertain”. Saltness (south of Lyness) Crockness (south of Lyness). Possibly from Old Norse krókr, a curve or bend. Whaness (north of Lyness) Mo Ness (Hoy) Ve Ness (Orphir) Hackness (South Walls) South Ness (South Walls) and opposite: North Ness And in Graemsay, and also near Stromness, simply The Ness, illustrating that place-names do not always need a specific, but can allow a generic to stand alone.

Stromness: From the Old Norse straum-nes, where “straum” means “current” and “ness” means “point”. The full meaning of the name is therefore"point protruding into the tidal stream". This "rapid stream" is undoubtedly comprised of the turbulent waters of Hoy Sound.

Other points

Some points are named “point” rather than “ness”: Peat Point (Flotta), near Peat Bay. Whiting Point (Flotta) North Point (Fara) Point of Cletts (north of Lyness) Point of Oxan (Graemesay) Roo Point (Orphir)


Headlands often have the element “head” as part of their name. Examples are: Stanger Head (Flotta), possibly deriving from Old Norse Steins-garðr, meaning a stone dyke, plus “head”. Cantick Head (South Walls), possibly a doubling up of words meaning “headland” in both Gaelic and Scots/English.

Geo - Old Norse: gjá - Meaning: chasm or inlet

This is a very common element in coastal place-names all around Orkney. Examples of Geo names around Scapa Flow are: Roonie Geo (Flotta) Blue Geo (Flotta) Sea Geo (near Lyness) Hesti Geo (Scapa), and Green Hill of Hestigeo (South Walls), possibly Old Norse hestr: horse.


Old Norse: tangi - Meaning: tongue

Examples of Taing names are: Kirkie Taing, near the church in Flotta. Kirkie means church. There is also a Kirka Taing near the old church in Fara. Row Taing (Flotta). Row could possibly be the colour red, Old Norse rauð; however, the place-name is also pronounced “Row’s Taing”. Sands Taing (Flotta) Lurdy’s Taing (Flotta), named after the farm Lurdy nearby. The origin of the name Lurdy is, according to Hugh Marwick’s Orkney Farm Names, “obscure”. North Taing (Switha) Crowtaing (South Walls), origin of “crow” uncertain. There is also a Croo Taing in Graemsay. Scarrataing (Graemsay), from Old Norse skarfa-tangi: Cormorant point. A cormorant or a shag is called a skarfie in the Orkney dialect.

 Berry or –ber is a common element in place-names, meaning rock. (Old Norse: berg). Some examples of Berry names around Scapa Flow are: Seaberry (South Walls) and Ruberry (near Lyness).

Clett or klett is another name which means rock, in this case a solitary or isolated rock (Old Norse: klettr). It is often applied to rocks in the sea, but it is also found on land. Examples of Klett names around Scapa Flow are Clett Skerry and the Point of Cletts (near Lyness), and the Skerry of Cletts (Graemsay).

Clett of Crura, Windwick, South Ronaldsay.

A pinnacle rock is called a “stack”, “sea stack” or a “castle”.

The Old Man of Hoy: A very prominent and famous sea stack is The Old Man of Hoy. Dr. Hugh Marwick recons that the name “The Old Man” comes from Celtic allt maen, meaning cliff rock.

The shore:

Noust - A noust is a trench dug out at the edge of the beach for pulling up a boat. In modern Norwegian, the word naust means a boat shed, but in Orkney, nousts are generally not covered over. Old nousts are clearly visible in many places along the Orkney coast. Examples of Noust names are: Noust of Greeniber (Flotta) – The name Greeniber is likely to mean “green” (possibly from Old Norse grǿningr) and “berry” (rock).

Orphir: - From the Old Norse orfiri or orfjara - meaning "an outgoing" or "ebbing".

Sand: Some names describe sandy places. Many of these contain the word “sand”, which is also the same in Old Norse: sandr, so we often don’t know whether the name comes from Old Norse, or whether it is the Scots or English word sand we are dealing with. Sand names are for instance Sandwick (South Ronaldsay) and possibly Sands Taing (Flotta). At Longhope, there is a mansion house called Melsetter. According to Hugh Marwick’s Orkney Farm Names, the element mel could be an Old Norse word melr, meaning sand. However, another possibility is that it comes from meðal, meaning “mid”.

(c)  Dr Ragnhild Ljosland, Centre for Nordic Studies, Orkney College UHI Millennium Institute