Orkney - Origin of The Name

Origin of The Name

Pytheas of Massilia visited Britain probably sometime between 322 and 285 BC and described it as being triangular in shape, with a northern tip called Orcas. This may have referred to Dunnet Head, from which Orkney is visible. Writing in the 1st century AD, the Roman geographer Pomponius Mela called the islands Orcades, as did Tacitus in AD 98, claiming that his father-in-law Agricola had "discovered and subjugated the Orcades hitherto unknown" although both Mela and Pliny had previously referred to the islands. The element Orc- is usually interpreted as a Pictish tribal name meaning "young pig" or "young boar". The Old Irish name for the islands was Insi Orc ("island of the pigs"). The archipelago is known as Arcaibh in modern Scottish Gaelic, the -aibh representing a fossilized prepositional case ending.

With the arrival of Norwegian settlers from the late 9th century, orc was re-interpreted as Old Norse orkn "seal", with the added suffix ey "island". Thus the name became Orkneyjar (meaning "seal islands"), which was later shortened to Orkney in English.

Mainland Orkney was known to the Norse as Megenland (mainland) or Hrossey (horse island). The island is sometimes referred to as "Pomona" (or "Pomonia"), a name that stems from a sixteenth century mis-translation by George Buchanan and which has rarely been used locally.

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