INTRODUCTION TO FAIR ISLE DIALECT - courtesy of Anne Sinclair.

Until 1469 when the northern isles were put in pawn to the Scottish crown the language spoken in Fair Isle was Norn.  By the 16th century Lowland Scots and English had become the speech of law, education and religion, and over subsequent centuries Norn was gradually superseded by the Scots tongue, but the resulting dialect is still shaped by the past.  Our mother tongue is now a rich blend of Scots and English, but with a strong influence from the Low Countries and Scandinavia in vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar.      


The following is a selection of Fair Isle dialect words relating to the sea & traditional Fair Isle fishing methods.

From ‘A to P, An old record of FAIR ISLE words with phonetics’. Copyright Betty M Best 1987.

Reproduced in our FIMETI website courtesy of Betty M Best.

(Fair Isle dialect words related to the sea.pdf - (including phonetic spelling) available for download.

(Artwork courtesy of Stewart Thomson)

aända     To keep a boat in one position against wind and tide; to row when fishing.
aändain   Rowing leisurely.
bool   Movement made on surface of water by a fish; plural bools.
boolin   Making a semi-circular movement in the water, as a fish
brakin da watter   Breaking the water as a fish with its tail when after food.
brigda   A sea monster credited with the power of hauling boats under. It was said to have two wings which came above the water, resembling the sail of a boat, and it was with these fin that boats were destroyed.
bucht   An old fishing line
cavil   To unhook fish off a line
clivvie   Sloping path at the head of a geo where boats can be secured
collie   An old-fashioned hanging lamp open at the top with a spout through which the wick hung; fish oil was used
crappin   Cod or ling livers with meal, kneaded into balls and boiled; when cooked in a fish head with gills in it is known as “Crappin-heids”, or if boiled in the “muggie” or stomach of the fish it is sometimes called a crappin-muggie. It is generally, however, called crappin.


  A line about 20 fathoms long with light floating head, used when fishing saithe
fish-brod   Pieces of boards nailed together, and fitted at the aft side of “fit-stap” to prevent the fish from getting into the “owsin-room”.
fish-staaf   Staff or stick of wood with large hook on end for lifting fish in over a boat’s gunwale also “clip”.
fitstap   Foot-stop or pall: the band farthest aft in a boat, to which the man on the aft taft or seat places his feet when rowing.
frist   frist
hoavie   Staw basket shaped like a büdie but smaller, generally used for limpet bait. also (?) trouk-hoavie used for carrying hosiery to passing ships, and “saut hoavie” used for holding salt.
huggi-staff   Staff with large hook of bent rod-iron for lifting fish into a boat.





Straw basket or creel.

Piltiks, young saithe or cole fish.

owse   To bale water out of a boat.
owsins   Water baled out of a  boat.

Photo: Kishie (straw basket) carrying traditional Fair Isle fisherman's keps to barter with the crew of the Tall Ship 'Sorlandet' in July 2011. Copyright Elena Mera-Long

The following is some of the text used in the musical score of 'GIVEN DAYS, SOUNDS OF FAIR ISLE' by composer Alastair Stout, premiered on Fair Isle on 23rd August, 2002....

Verses from "Gyaain ta da Eela" by Shetland poet Christine De Luca

Packin up wir proil, we'd mak fur hom,

blyde o kent lichts. We'd row

peerie wyes, owsin as we göd.

Abön wis, tirricks flitin

an a mird o maas laavin an divin,

plötin fur muggies.


We'd tak da boat on a flowin tide,

dicht an shoard her, dan rin hom prood

i da darkenin wi a fraacht o fish.

We'd aet wir supper

tae tales o uncan Odysseys

in idder voes.

Text and photographs Copyright Fair Isle Marine Environment and Tourism Initiative.  All rights reserved.

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