Rooted in the 9th century, for generations Orcadians have spoken with their unique dialect that for some outsiders, required a well-tuned ear to decipher.

While within its expanse of islands, communities developed individual accents, making the Orkney Islands a rich tapestry of language and voice.

But now there are concerns that Orkney’s treasured dialect – a merger of traditional Scots with the islands’ own adaptations of Old Norse words sprinkled through – is at a crucial point and may even be tottering on the brink of being lost.

A mixture of the modern world, dying traditions and an influx of migrants from mainland Scotland and England making their homes on the archipelago has raised fears that before long the native Orkney voice will become so diluted that it will only exist in small pockets.

Curiously for a way of speaking that spans 950 years, one of the few remaining places where the dialect is said to be thriving is within online social media groups, where users jot down their conversations and thoughts in Orkney dialect even though hearing it spoken is becoming increasingly rare.

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Still, it’s feared that without a conscious effort among islanders to use words that have been entwined with Orkney life for generations – such as ‘peedie’ meaning little, ‘bruck’ which means rubbish or nonsense and the use of thee and thou – they may eventually be silenced.

The concerns have emerged in a Gaan Nort (meaning going north), an oral history project which set out to capture the memories and experiences of people from the North Isles of Orkney, such as Westray, Papa Westray, Rousay, Sanday, Eday, and Stronsay.

The project, undertaken by the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) and led by Dr Tom Rendall, relief lecturer at UHI Orkney, saw a team of researchers interview with almost 90 people spanning topics such as the modernisation of farming, the challenges facing rural communities, the islands' knitting and craft heritage and the loss of the traditional way of life.

One element focused on the Orkney dialect, which has its foundations in the arrival of the Vikings in the 9th Century and evolved into Orkney Norn, the predominant language of the islands for around seven centuries.

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It revealed concerns among some that the dialect has already largely vanished from regular user among children and young people; now rarely spoken in schools or at home, there are worries that it is at risk of fading away completely within a generation.

One Westray participant in the project, Ailsa Seatter, told researchers there was a mixture of reasons behind the dialect being “immensely” diluted, ranging from the influence of American accents on television and on the internet to the lack of local teachers in schools familiar with Orkney dialect and vocabulary.

She added: “A lot o your classes noo will be a 50-50 split atween local bairns and bairns that hiv moved in. Also, I don’t think there’s many fok in Westray under the age o 35 tae 40 that yeuse ‘thee’ and ‘thoo’ any more, so they’re jeust no hearan it at home the sam.”

She said in recent years, where there might be three or four schoolchildren in her local school who would use the local dialect, there are now none.

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“I wad say if you coont a generation as bein 25 or 30 years, I wad say in aboot a generation, or a generation and a half, the use o thee and thoo will be gone, and wir wan o the few bits in Orkney that still use thee and thoo.”

Others highlighted how they had adapted and softened their Orcadian accent and dialect so they could be better understood by people coming to the islands.

Dr Rendall, who was raised on the Isle of Sanday and grew up speaking Orkney dialect, said: “The people responsible for our dialect are the Vikings; a lot of the words and placenames we have stem from them.

“It is part of our heritage.”

When I was younger on Sanday, a lot of the people spoke dialect, but if you were going to speak to a doctor or the minister, you had to speak ‘English'

Norn was derived from West Norse and was spoken widely across Orkney, Shetland and parts of north Scotland until the 15th century.

However, it was not written down; official documents tended to be written in Norwegian.

Norn was then gradually replaced by Scots, and is said to have gone extinct in the mid-19th century with the death of the last speaker, William Sutherland who lived on the island of Unst.

However, certain words and turns of speech within the Orkney dialect have their roots in Orkney Norn and Old Norse, such as the use of ‘whar’ meaning ‘who’ and ‘where’.

While there are dialectal differences in pronunciation and vocabulary found throughout the islands, with the most distinct between the mainland of Orkney and the north islands.

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Dr Rendall said he remembers the variety of different accents which were adopted by individual islands, so that people could be instantly identified as coming from certain places just by speaking a few words.

The movement of people now, however, with new islanders arriving often from hundreds of miles away has meant once distinctive accents have become increasingly rare.

While according to Dr Rendall, the shift away from only speaking in Orkney dialect has been going on for generations, with people like his grandparents being chastised at school for using it.

“When I was younger on Sanday, a lot of the people spoke dialect, but if you were going to speak to a doctor or the minister, you had to speak ‘English’,” he says.  

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“And although I was never told to ‘speak properly’ at school you were expected to speak in English.

“There was this feeling that you would never get on in life if you used the local vernacular and you had to speak in a ‘proper’ way.

“These days the use of words like ‘thee’ and ‘thoo’ seem to be falling out of use; people might think you’re a bit old fashioned if you use it.”

One potential issue is new arrivals settling on the islands feeling uncomfortable using the dialect for fear of offending locals.

“Quite a few people from England who are living in the North Islands say they can understand the dialect but don’t feel comfortable trying to use it,” he adds. “They feel it might be perceived as disrespectful to us or that people might think they are trying to make a mockery of it.”

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There are efforts to champion the use of the Orkney dialect – writer Alison Miller has recently completed a year as ‘Orkney Scriever’ working to raise its profile through a range of new work and community activities.

Dr Rendall, who plans to write a book around the oral history project, added that keeping the dialect alive was important to the islands.

“Just as Gaelic is important to people on the west coast, this is important to us in Orkney.

“It has an important role in society in Orkney, whether it will survive is a tricky question to answer. It depends on the convictions of others and the willingness to embrace it.

“It’s up to us to keep it going on.”

Further information about the Gaan Nort project is at