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Shetland Archives

The Shetland Archives holds numerous books about the Shetland dialect, and also notes, word lists, papers and letters, many of which have never been published. Below are some examples

Search the Archives catalogue online at  or the home page of Shetland Museum and Archives.

Dialect in Shetland Archives: 14 examples

George Low’s Tour Thro’ Orkney and Schetland in 1774

The beginning of Shetland language studies. Low visited Shetland for six months and made the first attempt at Shetland language study. His book includes Shetland/Norn words and the ballad from Foula as recited by William Henry.

Hibbert’s Shetland Islands, published 1822

Samuel Hibbert’s account on a fishing trip to the haaf could be read and understood today by 95% of modern dialect speakers.

Thomas Irvine, Midbrake, Yell (born 1799)

The son of a small proprietor who was the last Norn speaker in Shetland. His notebook, dated 1800-1815, contains the first list of sea tabu words.

Rev Thomas Barclay (born 1790)

Son of an Unst Minister. He prepared a very long Shetland word list which is now in the National Library of Scotland. Also contributed to:

John Jamieson’s Scots Dictionary, published in 1820s

This book is invaluable as regards Shetland words. It is one of the earliest Scots dictionaries and quotes the source.

Thomas Edmondston – A Glossary of Shetland and Orkney Dialect, published 1866

The laird of Buness. He used word lists found among the papers of

William Alexander Grant, born 1828

The eccentric son of a merchant. Grant had met Louis Lucien Bonaparte, a French nobleman, when he visited Shetland in 1858, and gave him his original word list which now forms part of the Bonaparte collection in the Bilbao Archives, Spain.

Jakob Jakobsen

Nobody did more work studying and recording what he called ‘the remnants of Norn’ in Shetland. He arrived in 1893 and stayed here for nearly three years. Jakobsen could not have produced the work he did without the help of his Shetland assistants. He was a close friend of Haldane Burgess and correspondence regarding discussions on Shetland dialect and Jakobsen’s trips, some in Dano-Norwegian, is stored in the Archives. Another assistant was

Laurence Williamson, Mid Yell (born 1855 in Fetlar)

Laurence Williamson was good at writing down phrases and even complete (dated) conversations with named people, mainly in the period 1890s – 1905. He wrote with a sharp nib using a magnifying glass. When he died in the 1930s his house was found to be full to the brim with papers. Laurence Johnson became his literary executor and went through the house diligently collating these scraps of paper, with words written in minuscule writing. This very valuable collection was presented to the Shetland Library and is now in the Archives.

Catherine Stafford Spence (born 1823)

A daughter of Dr Spence of Greenfield, Lerwick, she became a teacher and brilliant linguist. Taught in India and New Zealand before returning to Shetland. She started a detailed translation of Jakob Jakobsen’s work which was never published.

Anna Horsbøl

Jakob Jakobsen’s sister. She made a sterling effort in translating everything he wrote. Shetland is indebted to her and it is a pity that she has not received the recognition she deserves.

Peter Jamieson and Walter Robertson

During the Second World War they collected Shetland dialect words, hoping to compile a comprehensive Shetland dialect wordbook. In 1941 the Shetland News printed their requests asking for submissions and Walter sent a printed manifesto to everybody he thought could assist. The book was never published; the work is now in the Archives.

Scottish National Dictionary, 1929 -

Many Shetlanders made contributions to it, and it is full of Shetland material from printed sources as well.

James Stout Angus (1830-1923)

He wrote the first Shetland dialect poems, considered by some to be the best examples of such work. He compiled A Glossary of the Shetland Dialect, published in 1914.

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