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Musings Around Eddie's Noost

Written by Professor Viveka Velupillai.


If you go down Sundibanks and look right, you see a little böd right at the beach. That’s Eddie’s böd. Walk down to it and there’s Eddie’s Noost to the right of the böd as you stand with your back to the water. You can tell that it’s a winter noost, because it’s been cut deep into the broo and it’s a piece away from the tide line.

Actually two noosts: the smaller one on the left and the large winter noost on the right. Photograph ©V. Velupillai, 2020.

A noost is a shelter for a boat. The word derives from Old Norse naust meaning ‘boat shed’. It is a very old Indo-European compound, composed of the words for boat/ship (*neh2u-) + to stand (*sth2om) which evolved into the Proto-Germanic *naustą ‘ship shed/boat house’ and which still survives today in Western Norwegian dialects as naust(r) or nøst, and in Shetland dialect as noost.


A noost is typically an open, oblong, boat shaped hollow, either natural cut into the broo (‘hill slope/crest’), or sometimes even walled, located at the beachhead. It is the place into which the boat would be drawn and secured when not in use. It would have been either a fourareen or a sixareen that nestled in Eddie’s noost – most likely a fourareen – because those were the most common kinds of boats. A fourareen had four oars with two men rowing, each man on two oars; the term derives from Old Norse *feræringr, a derivation of fer- < fjórir ‘four’ + æringr < ár ‘oar’, that is, a four-oarer. In Swedish that would be en fyråra. A sixareen, a six-oarer, was a lot larger and had six oars with one man per oar. Both types had a square sail.

Tommy Isbister's fourareen 'Stavalu' on display at Burra History Group's maritime exhibition. Photo © M. Chivers, 2019.

Sixereen 'Far Haaf' under sail during Shetland Boat Week. Photograph ©Maurice Henderson, 2019.

It would mostly have been sixareens that would have been used for haaf fishing, because of the distances that typically needed to be covered to get to the fishing points. This took them out to the high, open seas, the haaf, another Norn descended lexicon, from Old Norse haf, which is still hav today in all the Scandinavian languages. During the stormy winter months, when the haaf, the deep sea, was too rough for them to go out to, the boats would need to be made faster, and be further removed from the tide line. That’s why the winter noosts are deeper and more visible. In fact, it is likely that, by now, it is mostly winter noosts that we still have solid physical traces of.


Linguistically speaking, it is not too remarkable that the maritime terminology of Shetland dialect is still predominantly Norn derived. These skills and traditions were ultimately brought here by the Norsemen, who started settling Shetland in the late 8th century and remained politically, culturally, and linguistically dominant until the mid-15th century. During these six and a half centuries the maritime technology would have evolved more or less parallel in the various regions of the Norse cultural sphere. It would therefore have been well established by the time Shetland was transferred to Scots rule in 1469. It should also be remembered that a political, administrative transfer does not necessarily mean a sudden cultural and linguistic transfer: depending on the degree of equality between the different groups, the shifts and blends may be more or less gradual. When it comes to Shetland, an archipelago that has been a place of contact for centuries due to its strategic location between trade routes, the shift to Scots was gradual. Shetland was already a multilingual place by the time it changed political hands, with travellers commenting on how easily Shetlanders could shift between Norn, Scots and the Low Germanic languages. While Scots gradually became the language of power and status, Norn continued to be spoken for another 250 year in a bilingual setting. It would become the more informal of the two registers, while Scots more typically would be the register used in formal settings. It is fair to assume that there would have been a number of bilingual households.


Skills such as boat building and maintenance, fishing, rowing and sailing and everything around maritime traditions, tend to be transmitted in informal settings. It is usually an older person who passes on his knowledge to a younger person or a small group of younger persons. It is in such informal settings that a more informal register would more typically be used. And these kinds of skills tend to be conservative: the way we learned it from our masters is how we tend to pass it on to our pupils. The maritime heritage of Shetland had been tried, tested and honed for the Shetland conditions for many centuries by the time Shetland became Scots: it was likely that it would be passed on with only very gradual terminological change in these local, informal one-to-one (or one-to-few) interactions.


Thus is comes to be that the Shetland boat vocabulary has to a large extent kept inheriting its Norse terminology throughout the generations. For example, you’ll want a proper kæb or keb (‘thole pin’ from Old Norse keipr ‘rowlock’) securely placed at the right intervals on the rimwol (‘gunwale strake’ from Old Norse rim ‘rail’ + wale). The kæb is keip (‘rowlock’) in Norwegian and the rimwale is rim (‘the uppermost strake’) in Faeroese. For your sail you will have to have your stong (‘mast’) which derives from the Old Norse stǫng ‘pole’. In Swedish a pole is en stång.



The parts of a Shetland boat. Drawing ©M. Chivers, 2016.

The parts seen in cross-section. Drawing ©M. Chivers, 2016


You’d be wise to take along your auskerrie or owskerri in case you start taking in water. The owskerri, or scoop/bucket for bailing out water, is an Old Norse compound that has nothing to do with carrying: ausa ‘to bale’ + ker ‘tub’. This is an ausekar (ause + kar) in Norwegian and an öskar (ösa + kar) in Swedish. You’ll want to have your tully or tolli, your large, wooden handled sheath knife used to split fish. The word tully is a reduced form of Old Norse tálguknifr ‘carving knife’ (tálga ‘to cut, carve’ + knifr ‘knife’); in Swedish a carving knife is en täljkniv. And you’ll have your dorrow or dorro (a handline with several hooked lines attached to it) along for the shallow waters. The Old Norse dorg, which is the origin of dorrow, was a trailing fishing line, and the Norwegian dorg still is. If you were going further out you’d need your tomes or tombs too – your lighter fishing lines with which you attach hooks to your long lines for the deeper waters – which derives from Old Norse taumr ‘rein/string/cord’, and which became taum (‘fishing line’) in Western Norwegian but töm ‘rein’ in Swedish. You’ll also want to take your huggistaff (‘gaff’), your large hook with the stout handle, which you need for landing individual large fish. This is one of those neat Shetland dialect compounds that carries one element from each ancestor: huggi- comes from Old Norse hǫgg (‘a blow/stroke’), which is still hugg in Swedish, Norwegian and Danish, while -staff descends from the Old Scots staf ‘staff’.


When you’ve reached your fishing mead, one or a couple of you would need to be aandooin while the others deal with the actual hooking, sinking and pulling of the lines. To aandoo is to keep a boat in position by slowly rowing against the tide. The lexicon is Norn from Old Norse andøfa, with the same meaning, which is still found in Norwegian as andøva and in Swedish (especially the Western dialects) as andöva. The grammatical ending -in in andoo‑in, however, is Scots (cf. the English -ing).


Once safely back on shore and your boat in your noost you are wise not to leave your owskerri, tully, dorro, tome and huggistaff lying out and exposed to the elements. You’d be better off storing them in a little böd (‘hut/shed’), a term which is related to Scots buith, English booth, as well as Old Norse būð (now bod in Swedish), all of which mean ‘hut/shed’ and nicely encapsulates the intricately mixed linguistic history of contact, change and continuity in Shetland dialect.


Postscript: Eddie’s noost, which in actual fact is two noosts, one peerie and one fourareen sized, is not the original name for this noost. If you know an earlier name for this particular noost, please drop a line.


With special thanks to Roy, Eileen and Graham Mullay for all their help with Shetland dialect maritime vocabulary.


About the author

Viveka Velupillai is an Honorary Professor at the Department of English, University of Giessen, Germany. She specialises on global pattern of language structure (linguistic typology), contact languages and linguistics and language history. Her main focus is to document and describe grammar of Shetland dialect.

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