Local Caithness Bird Names
By Robert H. Walker
The following is a list of the local names for birds a
few of which I have heard myself, but most came from various written
Robert Innes Shearer writing in 1859 - 60; Harvie-Brown
in 1887; David Bruce in Horne's book the County of Caithness, 1907; Eric
Sinclair Mackay, Abrach, in 1914; and Pam Collett in the first Caithness
Book mentioned some.
"The Caithness Dictionary " by Iain Sutherland was a
major source. Also in a series of four lectures in early 1993 Iain did
discuss the likely origins of some of the words, and I have made use of my
notes on those lectures. I was also aided greatly by Jim Miller, another
well known Caithness writer and old school friend of mine. He has covered
bird names in his Caithness Dictionary.
I thought it would be interesting to see if I could find
the origins for the words, and I made use of three books.
"The Oxford Book of British Bird Names" by W. B. Lockwood OUP.
"The Concise Scots Dictionary " Editor Mairi Robinson Aberdeen University
"The Scots Thesaurus" Editor Iseabail Macleod Chambers.
As it can be seen many of the Caithness names are in
fact used elsewhere in Britain or are modified just by the Caithness
manner of speech. The various regional Caithness accents can also be seen
in the spelling of some of the words.
I think we have to be wary of Abrach's names as he
worked and lived in Wick, Orkney and Shetland, The Western Isles and
Glasgow. I suspect he has added words from all of these places to his
vocabulary. Also his manuscript was hand written, some of it copied by his
son after his death, and spellings were not always clear.
The Scots tongue is full of descriptive words about
birds. There are about seventy Scots words based on bird calls, such as
croup for croak, craik for a harsh cry, whaup for the curlew's call and
tweeter for twitter. Many of the words listed come from the Norn or Old
Norse which is often described as being from Orkney and Shetland, but of
course it was also spoken in Caithness, and Caithness names derived from
this language are more likely to have been formed in Caithness rather than
imported here from the Northern Isles.
If you are interested in the human names given to birds,
for example the Ross in Ross's Gull and Goose or Pallas in Pallas's
Warbler or Sandgrouse, then I recommend “Biographies for Bird Watchers” &
“Audubon to Xanthus” by Barbara and Richard Mearns
Names given to groups of birds rather than specific
I suspect that most local dialect names in general use would be of this
type. With no bird watching skills or binoculars few ordinary people could
identify individual birds, unless they were very close.
Jim Miller records Teetlin or Teetlag, and others add an adjective to this
to name a specific species such as Rock Pipit. It originated as Norn from
Old Norse, and is basically "Teet" from the call of the bird and -ling
meaning small. We have rock, gutter and shore teetlin for Rock Pipit and
teetlin on its own for meadow pipit.
A more common name is Lintie. This is simply the Scots
form of Linnet, but it is used for any small bird, but especially finches
and buntings, but sometimes it is used for insectivorous birds as in caper
lintie for Whitethroat.
In the following list there are many specific names for
small birds but I would have to doubt that many people would use all of
Scorrie is again Norn from the Old Norse Skari, which was onomatopoeic. I
think the alternative spelling Skorrie ties in better with the Norse
original. It has been in use since 1795. I have heard it said that this
was specifically for young Herring Gulls, but I doubt if the people could
tell the difference between young Common, Herring, Lesser and Greater
Black Backs, and possibly even the smaller gulls. So I would say it was a
general term for all young gulls, and indeed I have heard a flock of adult
and juveniles called "Scorries" more often than "Maas". Another name for a
young gull is Gray Wull, obviously from the mottled grey down they all
have. The name Grey Willie is an Inverness/Moray name for Herring Gulls.
Many people call geese Gainers; this is an old Scottish word derived from
our pronunciation of gander.
These are called Black Ducks, which is very descriptive. It is in fact a
very old English name. I suspect in Caithness they'd really be Black Deuks.
All of these, Hawks, Falcons, Buzzards, Kites and Harriers have been
called Hawks in Britain for a long long time. It derives from the Middle
English Hauk, which in turn came from Old English Hafoc. In Caithness the
word is often written Haak, but I don't think we can claim it as truly
unique to Caithness.
Jim Miller lists Oolad for owl, but it is a general North Scottish word,
not just Caithness. It comes from the English Howlet, from the French verb
Huler to Hoot. It is often used without the "H" giving owlet or oolet. So
in the north oolet became oolad. Only the Tawny Owl hoots, but the name
still applies to all owls.
The names Picktornie and Pickternie are said to be Caithness words for
terns, but in fact they are Scots, in use since 1784. Basically, Pick
means pitch or black, and Ternie or tornie is just the diminutive of tern.
Terns have black heads.
Gulls and Auks
I have come across Pickeneyarr for these groups of sea birds. Pick again
meaning pitch or black and Yarr in Scots is snarling or growling, and so
descriptive of their calls.
There are three Caithness names for waders. Plover, which is used for all
small waders and is really a general British name. It was in use in the
14th century and came from the French "Plovier", which in turn came from
the Latin "Plovarius". This was an imitation of the clear far reaching
call "Plo". In Norse it was "lo". Later, the word plover became confused
with the French verb plovere" to rain" and this is probably why some
waders have names associated with rain. Eg. Rainy Bird for Golden Plover.
Then there is Stiltie, referring to their long legs. There is also the use
of the name Willie for many waders, Willie Beebs, Willie Weet Feet and
Poor Willie, but this is really from northern England. The name actually
comes from the wader's call. Stiltie could well be an original Caithness
Rooks, Ravens, Hooded and Carrion Crows were all called Crows or Craws in
Caithness. This is in fact a general thing throughout Scotland.
Names for individual species
Red Throated Diver
Jim Miller, Iain Sutherland and David Bruce all give the name Raingoose.
Jim Miller also gives the variant Ramgoose. This is a name from Shetland
as well as Caithness, and comes from the Norn, through the Old Norse, "Regn
Gas". This was derived from their eerie call which was believed to be a
portent of rain. Iain Sutherland in his lecture said that the use of goose
was unusual in Caithness as Geese were usually deuks or gainers. Perhaps
this is evidence that the name came to us from Shetland.
Abrach called them Duller or Dueler Geese, it was hard to tell from his
handwritten notes. I have never heard the term, but in Scots "Dule" means
mournful, and that would certainly describe their calls.
Black Throated Diver
Abrach also called these divers Duller or Dueler Geese, as said above in
Scots "Dule" means mournful. I suspect this came from his years in the
Western Isles where this diver was much more common than it was in
Great Northern Diver
Strangely Abrach called these Rain Geese, and the name can be applied to
all divers, and that is understandable as they would not be easy to tell
apart without good optics. See Red Throated Diver.
Jim Miller uses the name Ember Geese. This came to us from Old Norse via
Norn "Him-Brimi" meaning surf roarer. In modern Norwegian the bird is
called "Imbre". The name has nothing to do with its call; it arose because
the bird arrived off the coast of Norway just before Christmas in a period
known for its storms, when the surf roared. This time is known as "Imbredagar"
or "Ember Days", the Days of the Storms.
Iain Sutherland gives the name Crannie for this small grebe. Technically,
that means little Crane or Heron, neither of which seems a very apt
description. Crannie also means recess in Scots, and the bird is very
secretive, spending its time "recessed" into reeds, but that is pure
guesswork. It is not all that common in the county.
Jim Miller gives Malimak and Mallimak while Iain Sutherland has Mollimauk
and Abrach, Molly Moke. These are all versions of the standard British
name for the bird. It is derived from Dutch "Malle" meaning foolish, and "Moke"
meaning gull. So we have foolish gull, a reference to the fact that it was
easy to catch. It may be very common today but it has undergone a
spectacular population explosion since the turn of the century, and Abrach
spends some time deriding a local man who claimed it had been common near
Wick for years. This was in 1915.
Jim Miller says Lyre Skookie while David Bruce uses Skookie. The names
probably refer to all Shearwaters, but the Manx would be the one most
likely seen by fishermen. Lyre is an Orkney and Shetland word for the Manx
Shearwater, coming from the Norn. Originally from the Norse "Liri' which
means fat, Liri was also applied to the nestlings of the Manx Shearwater,
which are very fat. Skookie could have come from the Norn word Skooie
meaning Skua, which is used a lot in Shetland. The birds are similar when
seen in flight.
Iain Sutherland lists the name Assilag; this is a Scots word from the
Jim Miller and Abrach use the name Solan or Solan Goose. This is a Scots
name from Norse "Sula"; it was modified by the Gaelic speakers to describe
the birds on Ailsa Craig as "Sulan" Lowland Scots corrupted this further
Iain Sutherland uses Scarf or Skarf, Jim Miller the diminutive Scarfie and
he and David Bruce also use Palmer Scarf. I tend to use Scarfie myself.
These are variants of a Scots word used in Orkney, Shetland and the
northern mainland. It is from the Gaelic "Sgarbh", which is pronounced
"Scarf". It came to Gaelic from the Norse. Other variants exist in other
places such as Scart and Scarfer.
Jim Miller uses Skarf again, and in my experience that is the name
commonly used. Iain Sutherland quotes Palmer or Paamer Scarf. Palmer is
Scots for a shabby pilgrim and these birds do look very shabby and sombre
when drying off their plumage. In the south of England they are called
Parsons, the same sort of thing. I was interested to note that in Scots,
Palmer also means to walk awkwardly, and that could also be applied to
these birds. I would imagine most people would not differentiate between
Cormorant and Shag, and would call both Scarfs or Scarfies.
Iain Sutherland gives the name Moss Bummer. There have been only a handful
of these birds ever seen in the county, so I suspect there is little
chance of it having been given a local name.
The Old English name was "Rara Dumbla", which was made up of "Reed or
Roar" and "Booming Call." Probably Reed. In the north this became Mire
Dromble, then into Lowland Scots as Moss or Mire Drummer, or even Mire
Drum and then somewhere to Moss Bummer. It is possible that someone has
mixed up the Scots for Snipe, namely Mire Snipe, with Mire Drummer; this
could happen because the Snipe drums as part of its breeding display. So
people could have called the Snipe a Moss Drummer, not realising that that
name had already been given to the Bittern.
Iain Sutherland says the Heron was called Lang Sannie, a nice name. There
is a similar name from the North East of England and elsewhere in
Scotland, Long or Lang Sandy. In his lectures Iain said it was named after
a lanky person called Sandy. However Sandy can mean yokel, or it could
refer to Herons often being seen beside water, standing on sand.
Both Abrach and Iain Sutherland give the name Clack or Claik Goose. We
have two possible explanations; Claik or Clack are Scots for Barnacle, so
the name could be easily explained. However according to Lockwood it
derives from the call of the bird, and has been used in Scotland since the
15th century. If it is simply the Scots name for Barnacle, it comes about
because, according to the theory of spontaneous generation, this bird
hatches out of barnacles, hence its name. It could even be that the
original name was from the call, and later was mistranslated into English
Iain also lists Rade Goose. Could it mean that they raid
crops? It is a rare goose in the county compared with say Greylag. It is
more likely to be from the Scots, Rout or Rood Goose meaning Brent Goose
or Ridlaik which was used for an unknown goose. Possibly even a corruption
of Rain Goose.
In his lectures Iain said that the names were neither from Norse or
Gaelic, and that he was again confused about the word goose being used, as
in Caithness geese were invariably Gainers or Deuks.
Iain Sutherland lists the name Clatter Geese. The bird is not at all
common in the county. The name is Scots, and derived from the call of the
bird. Many goose names were descriptive of their calls. Brent Geese were
also called Ware Geese in other parts of Britain.
Iain Sutherland has the word Skeelan Goose, while Abrach calls them Burrow
Duck or Sand Goose. Skeelan Goose comes from the general Scots names,
Skeeling Goose or Skeelduck, while Burrow Duck is a common British name
derived from their habit of nesting in rabbit burrows. The Sand Goose is
not so easy, it possibly comes from the fact that they usually nest in
burrows in the sandy soil of Links.
Abrach quotes Wild Duck and David Bruce Stock Duck. Wild Duck is of course
a name used throughout Britain, and in Caithness it was often used to
describe all ducks, not just Mallard. Stock Duck comes from the Norn, "Stokkond",
where "-ond" means duck. The meaning of "Stok" has been lost.
Iain Sutherland records the name Dookan Duek. This is a Scots term for any
diving or ducking duck. Ducks either dabble with just the upper body going
under the water, or they dive under to find food. The Pochard is one of
the diving ducks.
Both Iain Sutherland and Abrach talk about the Dunter, although the word
is also used in Orkney and Shetland, and comes from the way the Eiders bob
up and down on the sea, Bobbing = Dunting. It is used elsewhere in
Long Tail Duck
Iain Sutherland quotes the lovely name Col Letter Duek. Iain says that the
name is derived from "col-letter" meaning thin taper or candle. He said
that the long tail feathers were so impregnated with oil they made good
tapers. Or maybe they just looked like tapers. The latter seems more
likely as I can't see many feathers becoming available for tapers, and I
can't see them burning for long. However there is another possible
interpretation. There is a Scots name based on the birds strange call,
"Coal and Candle Light", or sometimes pronounced Col-cannel-week. In some
places it has been shortened to Coldie. I rather suspect the name may come
from this Scottish name. It would go from Coal and Candle Light to Coal
Lighter and then Col Letter. It seems too much of a coincidence to have
this very similar Scots' name with a very different derivation.
Abrach uses three names, Smee, White Nun and Red Headed Smew. All of these
are standard British names. Smee from Norfolk, White Nun is in fact
English for the male and is based on the fine plumage. Red Headed Smew is
descriptive of the female. This is quite a rare bird in the county and so
is unlikely to have a Caithness name. The last two are quite commonly used
Red Breasted Merganser
Iain Sutherland records the name Earl Duek. This is a Scots name coming
from French. The French for merganser was Harle and in Scots it was used
as Harle or corrupted to Herald or Earl. These both come from Harle and
are not people confusing a Herald with an Earl.
Iain Sutherland lists Harnie Duek and Sawneb. Sawneb is straightforward
this group of ducks are known as saw bills, and Saw neb is a Scots word
for both Goosander and Red Breasted Merganser. Harnie could come from
Harle meaning merganser or Harn meaning Heron, either way again Scots in
origin. Herral Duek also means diving goose, another name given to the
Both Jim Miller and David Bruce call this a Flapper, David Bruce also uses
Blue Hawk while Iain Sutherland uses Blue and Broon Gled. Blue/grey is the
colour of the male while the female is brown, so that explains the colours
used in the names. Blue Hawk is English. Gled or Glede is Scots for hawk
or kite and comes from the Old Norse word Gleda meaning to glide. Flapper
is quite simply descriptive of this bird's slow flapping flight, quite
unusual in a raptor. The name is probably a Caithness one. This bird is
now much rarer than it was.
Iain Sutherland records Puttag which in his lectures he said came from
Gaelic, and he found the ending "-ag" unusual as it normally denotes a
diminutive. However the name could come from an English name used since
the 1400's to describe the Buzzard or Kite, "Puttock" which actually means
to hurl or swoop.
Iain Sutherland lists Eirn and Airn which are from the English "Erne" or
Old Norse "Orn". In Gaelic the Golden Eagle is "Iolaire", and the Sea
Iain Sutherland records Water Airn, which means Water Eagle. I am not sure
why we would have a common name for a bird that has always been very rare
in the county. Perhaps the name really applied to the Sea Eagle, which was
well known along our cliffs, and not the Osprey.
David Bruce calls it a Red Hawk which is very descriptive but which I
cannot find anywhere. Iain Sutherland lists Moosie Gled instead. In his
lectures he said that this came from Scots. It certainly could be Scots
and describes the bird's prey well. A mouse eating hawk.
Both Iain Sutherland and David Bruce call it a Muir Fowl while Jim Miller
says Myoor Hen or Moor hen. All of these are Scots. Myoor is Old Scots for
Mire. The Scots name for Red Grouse is Moor Fowl, and was in use going
back to 1500. From that to Muir Fowl is quite easy. I am not sure about
Moor Hen as this would be easily confused with the Moorhen.
Waur Cock according to Iain Sutherland. In Old English "weir" meant a pond
or pool, and the Water Rail was called a Weir Cock then Warcock. Could the
name have been picked up wrongly and given to the Black Grouse? Seems
unlikely. Some say it could be from the habit of the birds fighting at the
Lek, so really War Cock. However in Scots Waur means wary or waste, not
war. Ware day is also the first day of Spring, this is when the lek
begins. Were these birds seen as a sign of Spring? This bird used to be
very common here.
Iain Sutherland records the name Aiten. This could be from Scots, probably
from Oat Hen which describes it liking for arable land as a habitat.
However the Scots dictionary lists the name and says that the origin is
obscure but that it could have come from Aithehen, which means grey hen.
It certainly looks to be a general Scots word and not Caithness.
Iain Sutherland says this bird is called Naitral, which in his lecture he
said was a corruption of natural. In Scots naitral does mean natural or
native. Sadly the Pheasant is not native, it came here possibly with the
Romans, or more likely around 1300. I do not expect the local population
would have been aware of that.
Abrach calls this the Land Rail, but that is an old British name derived
from the Latin Rallus terrestris.
Abrach says Water Hen while Iain Sutherland says Watter Hen. This is the
old British name in use since 1508.
Iain Sutherland says Bell Kite and Bassind Duek. In Scots Bell means a
white spot on the face while Beld means bald. Kite is Scots for Coot. So
the first name could be Bald Coot or White Faced Coot. Bell Kite is in the
Scots dictionary as meaning Coot. Bassind means white faced, and the bird
does look and behave like a duck, so the latter name sounds like a good
Both Jim Miller and Iain Sutherland call this a Willie Beeb, Iain also
uses Cherlie Piper, and I have heard Seapies. Willie is a word from
northern England often used for waders; it is based on the bird's call. So
Willie Beeb is derived from the bird's call. Iain Sutherland says that in
the south the name changes to Willie Beem. In his lectures he explained
that Cherlie Piper was named after Bonnie Prince Charlie. Why? The name
could have come from the piping call. Seapies is in fact an old British
name, in use since 1552, a shortened form of Sea Magpies, from the black
and white plumage.
Jim Miller records the name Grayling and San Lairag, Abrach uses San
Lairag and Sand Lairag. Iain Sutherland uses the variant San Looag.
Grayling is based on the colour of the bird's plumage in winter. The
others are variants of the Scots Sand Laverock or Sand Lark.
Jim Miller says Rainy Bird while Iain Sutherland says Hill Plover Some say
that the bird's cry predicts rain, however the name Plover came from an
old French word, which later on was confused with the French for rain.
Many plovers are therefore associated with rain. Hill Plover describes the
Abrach incorrectly uses the names of the Oyster Catcher, Willie Beeb and
Sea Pies. He also lists Mussel Picker which is probably a corruption of
the old English name Mussel Cracker. He also uses Shochad along with Jim
Miller and Iain Sutherland. Shochad is the Caithness version of the Scots
Iain Sutherland uses the names Gray Plover and Sillar Plover. Gray Plover
is the Scots name for the Golden Plover in winter.
I have heard Willie Beets, which could just mean small wader. I am not
aware of them calling much.
Jim Miller records Plover's Page, which is Scots from the fact that the
little wader is often seen with Golden Plovers in the summer breeding
areas. According to the Scots dictionary the Caithness version is Pliver's
Page. Iain Sutherland uses Ebb Daaker. Ebb is a common Scots prefix
meaning tide, in Caithness the area of beach exposed as the tide goes out.
Iain Sutherland said it meant Ebb nodder in his lectures. However in Scots
Daak means to sleep and in Shetland Ebb means fore shore and the Dunlin
could be the Ebb Sleeper. Others thought that Daaker meant darter, which
could describe the movement of the bird on the shore. It is not easy to be
Jim Miller uses the names Horse Gowk and Mire Snipe while Iain Sutherland
uses Heather Blate. These are all interesting names. Horse Gowk is from
the Norn, from the Old Norse Hrossagaukr which means Horse Cuckoo. The
Snipe's drumming sounds like hoof beats while the bird's call was like a
horse's neigh. The bird then looked a bit like a cuckoo. Mire Snipe is
Scots from Old Norse Myrisnipa. Heather Blate is also from Scots and
probably means heather bleater, although Iain Sutherland points out that
in Scots blate also means timid or shy, which the bird is.
Bar Tailed Godwit
Iain Sutherland records the name Poor Willie and in his lectures said that
the origin is unknown. Willie is commonly used in wader names but why we'd
have a name for a fairly rare bird that would not be easy to tell from a
Redshank, without the expertise and binoculars, I am not sure.
Iain Sutherland says Tang Whaup which is also used in Orkney and Shetland;
it means Seaweed Curlew. Abrach says May Fowl which is probably from the
Scots and Ulster May or Mey Bird. He also, along with David Bruce, uses
Little Whaup, which is a Scots name for the bird, simply Little Curlew.
David Bruce also uses Half Curlew which means the same and is an old
English common name.
Iain Sutherland records Whaup which is simply Scots and is based on the
bird's call. He also lists Faap as does Jim Miller. These are Caithness
versions of Whaup, derived from they way the word was pronounced here. In
Caithness "wh" often gets replaced with an "f".
Jim Miller and others say Peter Redlegs or Reidleegs. While Jim and Iain
Sutherland say Wee-Weet, and I have heard Stiltie. The Redlegs are
descriptive, the Wee-weet from the call and Stiltie is used for any wader
with long legs. The Scots names listed are Pleep and Pellile so the ones
we have are no doubt Caithness.
Jim Miller says Wee-weet while Iain Sutherland says Stiltie. This shows
confusion with Redshank, a much more common bird.
Abrach says Little Greenshank. It is quite descriptive of the bird but its
origin is unknown. Given the rarity of the bird in the county it is
unlikely to be Caithness.
I have heard Willie Beets or Beebs and Iain Sutherland uses San Lairag,
which are all probably wrongly used in this case. Iain, Jim Miller and
David Bruce list Willie Weet Feet. A lovely name for a wader that dabbles
along in very shallow water, ie. with its feet wet. Willie is generally
used in Britain to denote a small wader such as a sandpiper. Abrach calls
the bird Summer Snipe which is commonly used in both Scotland and England.
Iain Sutherland records Skirl Craik which tend to mean a harsh screaming
call. Craik is harsh cry while Skirl means a scream. I have never noticed
this bird calling much, let alone screaming harshly.
Iain Sutherland refers to this bird by its old name of Richardson's Skua.
He gives it the local name of Blackfeet Maw, while Jim Miller calls it
Skooty Alan. I have also seen Scootie Alan. The Alan part of these names
is based on a well known name from Scotland for this bird, simply Alan or
Allan. The origin of the name is unknown. The Skooty part could come from
Shetland where the Norse word Skooie is used for skua. Both Jim Miller and
Iain Sutherland use variants of Dirty Alan, Dirten Alan and Dirdie Alan.
These are in fact Scots names and come from the English meaning of the
word dirty, ie crappy.
Early observers watching the skuas forcing other birds to empty the food
from their crops, which the skuas then ate, thought that the skuas were
eating the other bird's excrement, and hence the name. Arctic Skuas are
also called Dung Birds for that reason. Blackfeet Maw is quite descriptive
meaning a gull with black feet. They do indeed have black toes and
sometimes feet, but when would someone see this? I have never seen their
feet. So while possible, I wonder if we have a name based on pictures in a
book. Or a name that could be applied to all skuas.
Some people wrote down Dirten Alan but most use the Shetland name Bonxie,
this has been in use since 1774. It comes from the Norn Bunski, which came
from Bunke meaning dumpy body. The Bonxie is a very dumpy bird. This name
replaced the older Skooie which was being confused with the Arctic Skua
name Shooie. Skooie itself came from Old Norse "skufr" which also meant
"tassel", a sound similar to the call made by the attacking bird. Great
Skuas arrived in the northern isles in about 800 AD. Dirten Alan does not
really describe this bird's predation; it can make birds empty their crop
but its main method is to knock the bird into the sea, kill and eat it. I
have watched them even take Gannets in this way.
Black Headed Gull
Jim Miller and Iain Sutherland list Heidie Cra. This is based on Scots and
simply means Crow black head. David Bruce's Hoodie Heidie Cra is a
variant. Jim Miller also quotes Mire Cra which was used by Harvie-Brown,
the Cra meaning black and referring to the black head of the gull. Then we
have Jim's Pick Mire also used by Abrach. Again pick is northern Scots for
pitch or black. David Bruce also uses Peewit Gull, which is an old general
British name, based on their breeding behaviour being similar to the
Jim Miller uses Hill Ma, which is very descriptive of the bird's habitat
in the summer. Iain Sutherland notes that Hill Maa refers to any gull
nesting inland. I suspect that is quite likely, as stated before gull
identification is not that easy.
We have all of the writers using variants of Ma, Maa, Maw for adults and
Scorrie or Skorrie for immatures. Also David Bruce uses Blue Maw for the
immature and Iain Sutherland uses Grey Wull for the chick, although he
rightly points out that it can be applied to all gull chicks. Maa is from
northern Scotland not just Caithness and comes from the Old Norse Mar or
Ma "to Mew". In Old English any gull was called a Mew. It is interesting
to note that when the English heard the word Ma or Maw they thought it was
spelt Mall because Scots say Ca instead of Call and Ba instead of Ball.
Scorrie/Skorrie is from the Norn, which in turn comes from the Old Norse
Skari which means immature gull, it was derived from their calls. To be
honest I hear people calling all ages and species of gull Skorries.
Abrach called this gull the Burgomaster and I thought it a pet name of his
until I came across it in Vesey's book "The Gyr Falcon Adventure" written
in the 1930's. I suppose it could mean that it was the senior of the
gulls, it is certainly one of the biggest.
Greater Black Back Gull
Iain Sutherland records the name of Farsach which must come from the
Gaelic Farspach, this word could have come to Wick with the herring
gutters who came from the Western Isles. Jim Miller and David Bruce use
the name Gow Ma or Gow Maw. It is odd that the word Goo or Gow is Scots
for gull, so we have Gull gull. To be honest I hear most Caithness folk
call them Black Backs, and that is used for both Greater and Lesser.
Apart from one writer incorrectly using Jenny Grey, the Kittiwake has two
groups of names. Kittifacky, Kittifake, Kitty Facky and Kittag and then
the shortened versions of Facky, Feikie and Faky. All of the authors use
one or more of these names. Feikie is a Wick spelling. Caithness often
changes "wh" to "f". "Wh" is a separate consonant from "w" in Scots, but
not in English. So they are all Caithness versions of Kittiwake.
Common Tern and Arctic Tern
I would doubt that the common person could tell these species apart unless
they were very close, and this shows up in the names. Kirinew or Kirimew
is listed by Jim Miller and David Bruce and is in fact an old name for all
terns, the kirr being the call and mew for gull.
Pickintarn and Picktarnie are used by Jim Miller for both terns and by
Abrach for the Common Tern. Iain Sutherland says it is a name for all
terns. It is in fact general Scots for at least the Common and Arctic
Tern, and has been in use since 1784. Pick being pitch or black and tarn
meaning tern. The "-ie" is the diminutive. Jim Miller and David Bruce also
use Rittag and Rittock. These names are used in Shetland and Orkney and
come through the Old Norse, Rippock and Rittock but actually mean
Kittiwake, so they are wrongly used for Terns. Rittag would appear to be a
Caithness version. Then David Bruce also uses Gull Teaser which is in fact
a North East name for the Arctic Skua, so is possibly another example of
incorrect usage of a local name.
Abrach calls these Timmags. I can find no reference to this name anywhere
and it may be one of his own invention. Myself and some friends christened
young Kittiwakes "Joes" in the 1960's and I still occasionally here the
name used. The "-ags" is a diminutive.
Here the writers use one or more from Awpie, Oakie, Aupie or Apie. In his
lectures Iain Sutherland says that these are simple corruptions of Auk.
Jim Miller has heard Palmer Scarf being applied to this bird as well as to
the Cormorant and Shag. According to the Scots dictionary the Caithness
name is Sea Hen!
Jim Miller uses Oakie here which shows the easy confusion between the
auks. Others use Borrie, Bursie, Burrie or Borray. The only Scots
connection with these names has to do with either jostling or locking a
door. I cannot see how the latter matches and the former would suit the
Guillemot more. So the origin of this Caithness name is uncertain.
This bird has the greatest number of names used by the authors, ten at
least. David Bruce uses Greenland Dove and Sea Turtle, while Abrach uses
Sea Pigeon. These three are all based on old seamen's names for the bird
dating back to 1678. They noticed how closely the birds came together
during breeding and likened them to Turtle Doves. David Bruce also uses an
old British name dating back to 1678, the Puffinet. Jim Miller, Abrach and
Iain Sutherland use Teistie or Tystay. This is used in Orkney, Shetland
and Caithness and comes from the Norse, Peisti, which described their
whistling calls. By 1744 they were being called Toists.
Then we have a name for birds in winter plumage, all versions of Jenny
Grey, such as Jinnie Grey, Jinnidie Grey, Chenny Grey. All come from the
Jim Miller records the name Rochie while Abrach says Rotches. These are
variants of a very old general north British name for the bird dating back
to 1694. The name is Dutch in origin and actually meant Brent Goose, but
seamen from the north misapplied it to the Little Auk and it stuck. Iain
Sutherland says Sile Bird. Sile in Scots means the newly hatched herring
so the bird was maybe regarded by fishermen as a sign of herring. This
seems improbable as the herring fleet were unlikely to meet this bird near
our shores. Though north of the Arctic Circle it nests in colonies of
millions. It does feed on planktonic food and this could include newly
hatched fish fry. However, they could be a sign of herring as the prey of
the herring will also feed on plankton, and if the Little Auks are there
so then might be herring.
Here again we have several names. Jim Miller mentions Cootrie and Abrach
Coutherneb. These are Scots from the bird's bill looking like an old
plough coulter. In the north of England they are called Coulterneb. Jim
also lists Sea Cockie and Abrach Craig Parrot. These come from the general
East Coast name of Sea Parrot. Jim, David Bruce and Iain Sutherland all
list Tammie Norrie which is also used in Orkney and Shetland. Tammie means
cheeky and Norrie is Puffin. David Bruce also uses the name Lalag, which
comes from the Gaelic Lachag or Small duck.
Iain Sutherland calls this bird a pigeon, and gives it the name Doo, which
is really Scots. Jim Miller uses the name Rocky which is self explanatory,
and Peeser for the young. Peesie in Scots means excellent and the young
were regarded as excellent food?
Jim Miller records the name Woody while Iain Sutherland gives Coushie.
This latter is from the Scots Cushat meaning coo-caller. I have also heard
these pigeons referred to as Cushy Doos.
Short Eared Owl
Iain Sutherland calls this bird either Broon or Gray Yogle. Yogle comes
from the Norn, via the Old Norse Ugla meaning owl. Gray Yogle is more
commonly Caithness, the other is heard more in Shetland.
Iain Sutherland records Gotechafer and Abrach, Gotesucker. These old
English names come from the daft idea that the birds sucked milk from
goats. Iain also lists Lich Bird, this one is even older English and comes
from the association of nocturnal birds with death, it literally means
corpse bird. The bird is so rare in the county it seems rather strange
that it would have a local name.
Iain Sutherland calls this bird Bulfit which in Caithness dialect means
We have three variants of the Old Scots name Laverock meaning lark. Namely
Lairag, Layrag and Laarag.
Iain Sutherland records Bitterie which no doubt comes from the Scots name
"Bites the Bank" which in turn comes from the bird excavating a nesting
burrow in a bank, using its bill.
Iain Sutherland, Jim Miller and Abrach call these birds Witchags. This
means little witches. An old British seaman's name for the Storm Petrel
was witch, and the swallow is similar in many ways. So sailors could call
the swallows that they saw ashore the same name that they used for the
Storm Petrel they saw at sea.
Most writers used Caithness variants of the old traditional name from the
North England and Scotland, Titling, from the Old Norse Titlingr which
describes the call. "-ling" or "-lin" means young or, possibly, small. So
we have Teet meaning the call and -ling meaning small. We have Teetlin,
Teetlan, Teetlag and Teitlan. This may also be the source of the other old
traditional name Titlark meaning small lark. Iain also listed Moss Cheeper
which he said came from the south of Scotland with the farm hands that
came here to work. In Scots it is also the Heather Peeper and Moor Cheeper.
Abrach gets it wrong by calling them Chockitiebeets and David Bruce uses
Field Lintie, which is a more general name for many small brown birds.
Jim Miller gives Rock Lintie, while Iain Sutherland gives Shore Teetlin
and Gutter Teetlin and David Bruce uses Rock Teetlin. These are all simply
the bird's habitat followed by small cheeping bird. Strangely, Rock Lintie
is also used for the Twite. Gutter means muddy. Although I have not heard
it in use, Shore Teetlin would be the best name for this bird.
Iain Sutherland lists Seed Bird, which is Scots for all wagtails, while
Jim Miller lists Willie Wagtail, which is again general for all wagtails.
Iain Sutherland gives the slight variant on the last name with Seed Foulie
while Jim Miller and Abrach give Willie Wagtail or Waugtail, which I think
shows that all wagtails were lumped together.
Iain Sutherland calls this bird Water Craw and Ess Cockie. Jim Miller and
David Bruce also use the former name and Jim quotes Burnie Baker as well.
Water Craw is general from the north of Scotland, a black bird that lives
near water. Ess Cockie is from the Scots Esscock which comes from the
Gaelic for waterfall "eas". Burnie Baker is Scots from Burn-Becker. I did
hear that Burnie Baker came from its white chest looking like a baker's
apron, but that was no doubt just a fanciful suggestion.
Iain Sutherland lists the word Rannie. In Scotland Wran has been used for
centuries, possibly coming from the Middle English "wranne". The pet form
of the name Wrannie is also common and it could just as easily be spelt
Blue Sproug is the name given by Iain Sutherland. Blue Sparrow was a
common Scots name for the bird, and Sproug is just Caithness for Sparrow.
The Dunnock’s old name was Hedge Sparrow.
Jim Miller recalls Redbreast which is a general British name in use since
1401. Iain Sutherland calls the bird a Ruddag, which comes from the Old
English "rudduc". Ruddock was in common use up until the 19th century. I
think Ruddag is just the Caithness pronunciation of Ruddock.
Iain Sutherland records the name Red Tail which is an old general British
name for the bird, and David Bruce uses the modified or mixed up version,
Robin Red Tail. I am not sure why there would be a local name for a bird
that is quite rare in the county.
I have heard the name Whinchacker which is simply a Scots name based on
the bird's "chack" like call. The Stonechat is the Stonechacker.
As said above, there is the Scots Stonechacker or Stonechecker used by Jim
Miller. Then there are various onomatopoeic variants of Checkitibeet,
Jeckitibeet, Jeckibeet and Checkart. These are Caithness names. Iain
Sutherland also cites Clocharet. This is Scots from the Gaelic "clacharan"
and is used for Wheatears as well.
There are several variants of the onomatopoeic "check" and "beet", check
really meaning chack. We have Chockitibeet, Checkitibeet, Jeckedie-beet,
Jekkiedibeet, Jekkidies and Jeckedybeet. Then there is the Stonechecker.
This confusion with the Stonechat goes back to the days when Wheatears
used to be called Stonechats.
Iain Sutherland lists two names, Heather Cock and Hill Chack. The second
of these is a well known Orkney name formed from the bird's habitat
followed by its harsh call. Heather Blackie is another Scots name. Heather
cock is usually reserved for the Black Grouse.
Jim Miller and David Bruce use the common Scots name Blackie. David and
Iain Sutherland give Blackjock, Iain gives Grey Hen and Jim, Blackchock.
These are all likely to be Caithness; Grey Hen for the female, and the
Caithness Jock ie Chock. Abrach uses Mavis, he is wrongly using an old
name for the Song Thrush.
Jim Miller and David Bruce use the name Feltie and Iain suggested the
flicher came from the bird always flicking its tail. This must be wrong as
the bird does not flick its tail. In fact these names, along with Felt,
Feltifer, Feltiflier and Flirty Fleer are all very old Scots names for the
bird which in turn came from the Old English "Fealu Fearh" which means
Grey Piglet, the bird's call seemingly sounds like a piglet squealing.
Iain Sutherland also gives Screik Feltie. This means Screech Feltie and
could have arisen after the meaning of feltie was lost. Iain records
another name, Hill Bird. This may have come from Hill Blackbird meaning
Ring Ouzel. I would not class the Fieldfare as a hill bird in the county,
it frequents the arable land. So the name may have gotten mixed up.
Another possible source is the Caithness verb "to fly", "til fleich",
although why this bird should be called a flier when all birds fly would
be a bit of a mystery.
The problems of dialect use was highlighted in the local press some time
ago when a headline talked of a boat "fairly flechan" up the coast, when
it should have been "fleichan". "Flechan" means to scratch or try to get
rid of fleas!
Abrach and David Miller list Mavis and Mavie. Mavis is of course the old
English name for the bird, in use since 1200, and Mavie is the Scots
Iain Sutherland records the name Red Mavis which means red thrush which is
Abrach and David Bruce used the name Stormcock which is an English and
Scots name derived from the fact that the bird would sing even in a storm.
Iain Sutherland and David Bruce used Feltie, which is really the name of
the Fieldfare, so could be being used incorrectly. Iain also quotes Heilan
Pate which is slightly corrupted Scots, Hieland Piet or Pyot. This was
used a lot in the north east. Pyot means either multi-coloured or
Chatterer or Magpie-like in colour. The bird is not all that common in the
Iain Sutherland called this warbler a Caper Lintie which is hard to pin
down. Caper in Scots means a piece of bread or a privateer, neither seems
to fit the bird. The English meaning of frisky could apply to any warbler.
So I am at a loss, I doubt if people could tell one warbler from another,
except possibly by their song. Could it mean the bird that sings a frisky
song? The bird is by no means common in the county.
Green Wran is used by both Jim Miller and Iain Sutherland. The old British
name was Willow Wren and the bird could hardly be called green, pale
yellow at times but not green, so it is a mystery. Maybe it comes from the
fact that it nests in grassy tussocks?
Iain Sutherland records Basket Hinger and Moonie. The first is general
Scots and the second comes from the name used in Roxburgh, Mune or Moon,
made into the Caithness diminutive.
Iain Sutherland calls this little bird the Black Ox-ee which comes from
Scots. Since 1544 Ox-eye or Ox-ee was a widespread name in Britain for
tits. It refers to the bird's small size, and comes from the Norman French
for tit, "Oeil De Boeuf".
More than one writer uses Blue Ox-ee or Ousen-ee. The same explanation as
for Coal Tit applies. The name is used elsewhere in the country for Great
Tit as well.
Jim Miller uses Checkie which is the Caithness version of Jack, a name
used elsewhere in Scotland.
Hooded or Carrion Crow
Jim Miller used Cra which is short for the Scots pronunciation of Crow,
namely Craw. Iain Sutherland calls them Gar Craw and Corbie. The first is
from the Old English name for the Carrion Crow which was Gore Crow. In
Scots gar means the same as gore. Corbie is the Scots for Raven but can
also be applied to both Crows and Rooks, it is a corrupted form of the
Latin name for the Crow family, Corvus.
Jim Miller calls them Crows which was common practice throughout Britain.
In fact all of the Corvids were called crows.
Iain Sutherland uses two names for this bird, Corkie-Craw and Croupie. The
first is interesting as Corkie could be a corruption of croaky or it could
be from the Scots form of corkie, meaning someone in authority, ie. the
head of the crow family. I suspect the former as there is a northern
English name "Croaky Crow". The second is from the Old Scots Crowp to
croak, again in northern England and Scotland the bird can be known as the
Jim Miller uses Stirler which is a modified form of the Scots Stirlin.
Iain Sutherland and Jim Miller give us the Caithness names of Sproug,
Sprowg and Spoug for the adult and Gilpin or Gilpan for the young. In fact
the adult name is used elsewhere in Scotland in these forms, and Speug or
Sprug is quite common in the Central Belt. Gilpin in Scots means a loutish
fellow so that can't be the Caithness origin of this word. Gilpie means a
lively person so it could be derived from the fact that fledgling sparrows
are very lively indeed, harrying the parents for food, as anyone who has
watched them will know.
Jim Miller and Iain Sutherland use the name Shilfa. In his lectures Iain
said that the word and several variants were used elsewhere in Britain. It
comes from a Scots name dating back to 1684 called Shoulfall which in turn
came from English Sheld Fall which means Apple Fall. Iain also uses Bricht
Lintie and Abrach Wood Lintie. I have heard the latter and it describes
the usual habitat. There is a Scots name "Brichtie" which could be the
source of the Bricht Lintie. Lintie really means Linnet and was used for
all finches, then for all small birds.
Iain Sutherland records Green Lintie, which is Scots.
Iain Sutherland calls this bird the Thristle Teet and I have heard Thistle
Peeper. Teet is from the Norn word for the call of the bird. Thristle is
just thistle, and it is surprising how often you see this bird feeding on
thistles. In England it is the Thistle Finch or Tweaker.
The name Lintie has been used in Scotland since 1728. There are three
descriptive versions of this as well as plain Lintie: Rose Lintie, from
the colour of the male, Whin Lintie, from the habitat, and Sparrowneb
Lintie from the bill shape. I suppose these had to come because Lintie was
being used for other birds in the county. Strangely the Scots Dictionary
lists Brown Lintie as a Caithness name, which no-one uses, and Iain
Sutherland does not list any of these, which probably means they are not
used here at all.
Again, as one might expect for such a close relative, we have Linties,
this time all describing habitats. Jim Miller gives Hill Lintie and Rock
Lintie while Iain Sutherland gives Heather Lintie. Hill Lintie is used in
both Orkney and Caithness. Rock Lintie can also be used for Rock Pipit.
Heather Lintie is not all that accurate as the bird is not always
associated with heather.
Jim Miller uses Sna-feel and I have heard Snaffle. These come from the
Scots Snawful meaning Snow Fowl. Iain Sutherland gives Cornbird and in his
lectures said that the bird arrived at harvest time.
We have two names, Yellow Yarlane or Yarlin and Yellow Yite or Yeet. In
Middle English the bird was "small yellow bird ":- Yowlow-ling, where
-ling means young or small. In the north of Scotland Yowlowling became
Youlring or Yowlring. These names were in use in 1544, and from these to
Yarlin would be quite easy. In the Scots dictionary Yarlin is said to be
from Orkney, and must have passed to Caithness. I expect Yeet came by
combining Yite and Teet. Yite itself is a name from Central Scotland for
Iain Sutherland gives two names for this bird. Black Coley Heid and Ring
Lairag. First means Coal Black Head and could be a form of the Northern
English, and Scots Coal Hood which is used for this and other birds with
black heads. The second could be from the Scots name Ring Fowl or Fowlie.
The name means Ring Lark and I suppose it does have a ring of colour round
its neck, the Caithness Lairag replacing fowl.
We have two names for this bird. Firstly Boltie Lairag or Boltylairag.
These come partly from the Norse, Boltie meaning plump. So the name
describes a plump lark. Then there is Thrustle Cock Lairag, Thistle Cock
Lairag and Thristle Cock Lairag. These mean Thistle Lark. I am not sure
how the name arose, thistles are more usually associated with Goldfinches
and Throstle Cock is the Missel Thrush. Perhaps some confusion locally?
Either way both of these sets of names are seemingly unique to Caithness.
These are names that will likely die out as there have been no reports of
this once common bird for some years.
A Great Spotted Woodpecker
An example of this bird, rarely seen in Caithness, has
been present for some months on the Thurso river, between the boating pond
and road bridge (Feb 2002)