Walter Traill Dennison and John Firth – their contribution to the collection of words in the Orkney Dialect

Walter Traill Dennison and John Firth – their contribution to the collection of words in the Orkney Dialect

Author: Dr Tom Rendall

Walter Traill Dennison (1825 -1894) and John Firth (1838-1922) had a keen in interest in folklore and the heritage of Orkney and both writers also realised the value of the way people spoke using a dialect words interspersed with Standard Scottish English.

What I offer in this blog is a selection of their glossaries of words along with short articles setting out their interest in the local tongue and their rationale for collecting about 700 words each and including them in publications.

I have chosen some words rather than copy out the entire glossaries as I felt that this would be less akin to a dictionary and more a celebration of the dialect. It is important to point out that many of the words appear in both glossaries but Dennison had some that Firth did not include and, indeed Firth noted words that did not appear in Dennison’s work.

Walter Traill Dennison.

Walter Traill Dennison – Glossary of words in the Orkney dialect

Below is an abstract from Dennison’s preamble:

It would have been to the author a pleasant task to trace these old-world words, through all their varied and multiform windings, up to their original source in the Sanscrit language. To do this by dogmatic assertion, and hap-hazard guesses, might be an easy task; such guesses and assertions could be taken – as they often are – for scientific truth: but few as the words contained in the glossary are, to trace their etymology in a philosophical manner would require an amount of extensive and varied scholarship wholly beyond possible attainment by the author.

The two things attempted in this glossary are, to enable the reader to understand the meaning of the words, and to give some idea of the orthoepy of the Orkney dialect. The charming Orcadian patios is impossible to convey by representations to the eye -it can only reach the mind through the ear.

It was thought unnecessary to state the parts of speech to which the words belong, this being sufficiently obvious from the explanations.

In order to shew the pronunciation of the words, an orthography has been adopted, wherever this was possible, in accordance with the sound of letters in English. An English word, where it was thought necessary, has been given to shew the exact sound of the word explained.

Orcadian Sketch Book

Excerpts from the Glossary


Abble delicate,feeble

Alinerly solely,in particular

Anunder under


Beufsae clumsy,ungainly in shape

Boosam active,busy

Brullye great confusion and turmoil


Canteelmas idle/ill-natured gossip

Clashmacleevers idle tales

Cullye to cuddle or soothe by endearments


Dightan sheul a shovel for cleaning the byre

Dovened soft and sapless,withered up

Disjaskit having the appearance of neglect or disrepair


Eerison short prayer

Eggle to incite

Eum outrageously mad


Favillo a lumpish,lazy,clumsy person

Flawan telling fibs / spouting lies

Futh a large number/a great deal


Gafter a loud laugh

Gang wi go with/courted with

Glaickit light, giddy, rash

Glundy gluttonous


Habbergaws to blunder or make mistakes in reading

Harkin whispering

Henskly hurriedly or abruptly

Hosted coughed

Humelsho great confusion and turmoil


Ilty ill-nature / temperamental

Ime grime (on the outside of cooking utensils

Ims’d made/make haste (“imse theesel” – get going)


Jobbed pierced

Jund a heavy fall lor large piece of a sdubstance


Kemperman a champion

Klurty clumsy

Kniff nimble/smart

Kreest to press (verb) or pressure (noun)


Langersam weariness and lonely/longing for something

Leet to listen/appear not to know (“never leet thoo heard it)

Lippers ripples on the water

Lock quantity of anything/ a lot (“that is a lock of folk”)


Main patience,endurance

Menye company/party gathering for the night

Merky marrow

Mooran snowing heavily

Murgas turmoil/disturbance


Nebbid from “neb” – the beak of a fowl

Neud mirk extremely dark

Nouster landing place for boats


Old man’s milk mixture of milk,eggs,sugar and whisky

Oro things very small in size (plural)

Owsen oxen


Plunky a trick

Pone a petty oath

Preeve to taste or try

Prowley a sharp scolding (or corporal punishment)


Quack “in a quack2 – in a bit of a state

Quarkie cough / clear throat with a choking sound


Ranty exceedingly cheerful

Reuan nodding through sleep or tiredness

Riggan the backbone

Rullye a great rush


Sarro any uncommon/unpalatable mixture of food

Skatfu voracious/greedy and gluttonous

Skeet a covered taunt or insinuation

Skreevis a violent wind

Spragled sprawled

Spunder to gallop

Sturt stir/disturbance

Suck dirty/ confused mess


Tame stretched out (“i-tame”)

Tapsquare ready to take offence

Teedburro moving vapours over land or water

Toy a woman’s hat

Tray long,tedious and wearisome


Undeemin enormous/ large or numerous

Unstowly blustery/unsettled weather

Usmal dismal/dark(often applied to the human face)


Whiman insinuating

Wharon sufficient support

Wilk a periwinkle


Yark suspicious/afraid of

Yowling howling

John Firth in his Workshop

John Firth – Glossary of words in the Orkney dialect

We will now turn to John Firth who lived in the parish of Firth on the Mainland of Orkney, He was a joiner and millwright and was well respected in the community. Firth also had a keen interest in recording many of the activities such as threshing and farming as well as the traditions surrounding births, marriage and death. He was also interested in the dialect and below is an excerpt from his chapter on old Orkney words followed by some words from the glossary in his book Reminiscences of An Orkney Parish.

John Firth with Daughters and Workers

‘For a period now extending to at least half a century, I have taken a profound and absorbing interest in the old words, phrases, rhymes and proverbs peculiar to our Orcadian vernacular and dialect, and although I am now considerably in years beyond the allotted span of threescore and ten, my enthusiasm and zeal in this, to me most fascinating pursuit is as keen and exacting as at any period of my lifetime.

‘It has invariably been my custom and practice, on hearing a word unfamiliar or new to me, particularly when coming from a person well advanced in years, to immediately, or as soon as favourable opportunity presented itself, jot it down. In this way I have accumulated a collection of about 700 words, which I have arranged into a kind of glossary, and for each word I have given its nearest English equivalent.

‘Some of the words are at the present day obsolete, but all were in common and frequent usage less than half a century ago.

In spite of the changes wrought in more recent generations, and amid the constant and ever-increasing additions and modifications, the old Orkney dialect, with its quaint and peculiar diction, is destined to no immediate or early extinction, and wherever Orcadians meet, in all parts of the world, its rich and beautiful accent and melodious tones awaken the most tender sentiments and emotions, and recall the most hallowed associations and cherished memories.’

Reminiscences of An Orkney Parish

Excerpts from the Glossary


Aar dislike / fear

Amis wel deserved punishment

Amsho mild form of oath

Atfares behavior

Atifore shame or regret at certain words or actions


Blide mate feast after a birth

Brigstones pavement at the door of a house (the brigs)

Broden impudent/pert

Buddo term of endearment

Burstin toasted bere, firmly ground


Caisie straw basket (carried on shoulders)

Camsho rude or ill-tempered

Claik to talk idly

Concordedly cooly,contentedly

Croilan failing in health


Daiskit stupid/slow

Demel to lift water with small can out of a larger one

Doon-fa sickness epilepsy

Dort to take offence

Druck o’ sweat a drench of perspiration

Dunder to make a loud noise


Eum mad or frenzied

Eun a disagreeable smell

Eetch a heavy kind of hoe


Fainfu glad or affectionate

Fang something valuable which is discovered

Feeflin working slowly or listlessly

Fimister excitement through fear

Fornent opposite


Gappas a blockhead / stupid person

Gee mood or notion

Glide went array (“squint”)

Gluff sudden fright

Grimleens twilight


Haedalt frivolous person

Heisk excited over a trifling matter

Hilderbogie a silly person

Hosted coughed

Howdie a midwife


Ill-hivered ill-tempered

Ill-vedyid intending to do evil

Iper stagnant muddy water


Jubish suspicious

Jaik a large tin mug


Kepsweevil to capsize

Kinlit unsteady wind

Kist a chest

Kleebo slight blow for correction

Klimsin parched with thirst


Laivagan gossiping

Leesom soft, pliable, agreeable

Lippen to expect

Loot to bend down

Lue lukewarm


Maenless impatient

Mirr tremor/vibration

Muggity fine rain/ very close atmosphere (also “muggity-feu”)


Nabal greedy, mean

Naevs fists

Naskan eating secretly

Niff clever or supple (fit)


Ootmoughted exhausted

Owse to boil out water

Oxter armpit

Oyce shallow arm of the sea which is dry at ebb tide


Pechan breathing fast

Pernickety over- particular / fastidious

Pleep low,whining tone

Piver to tremble or quiver


Quark cough with a choking sound


Ramesh/Ramse rash or hurried

Ravsie rough or course / disheveled

Rift to belch through the mouth

Rive to tear


Sabbid soaked through

Scurt armful

Shilpid sour,acid

Skeet a covered taunt, insinuation

Skrunt mean (shabby) person

Sluan lazy fellow

Stroup mouth of a teapot or kettle

Swack supple, strong (“fit”)


Tiftan throbbing with pain

Tontie childish

Trimsin restless

Trowie sickly,indisposed

Tullyo a (wordy) quarrel


Ununyafu slightly indisposed

Unkin strange / unknown


Vansom ill to please

Vonna strong stentorian voice

Voar spring / seed time


Waersay craving for “dainty” food/something to whet the appetite

Waff smell /odour

Wally large

Weel-faured good looking

Whess breathe loudly and rapidly (panting)


Yark space between thumb and forefinger

Yetlin a girdle

Yeuky itchy


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