Alec Finlay: A poem of namings, from Gaelic and Norn

River Dee: photograph by Hannah Devereux, 2016 (from ‘gathering’)
River Dee: photograph by Hannah Devereux, 2016 (from ‘gathering’)

Alec Finlay is a Scottish poet and artist based in Edinburgh. These texts come from a series of ongoing projects derived from research into place names, in particular Gaelic (from his book gathering, forthcoming from Hauser & Wirth in 2018) and Norn — the dialect of Scots and Norse spoken in Orkney and Shetland Norn c. 1800 (from MinnMouth, forthcoming in 2017). This sequence derives from a performance given at the 2016 O-I/I-O Poetry Festival in Glasgow as a closer to the whole event.




a name means nothing to a place


place-names are necessary relations


a name recovered returns the claims of human affection for a place


place-names identify a field of biotic relationships


place-names are allied to habitat restoration


listen to a place-name, hear the dead speak


some place-names follow speech but run counter to meaning


names change when the guard of speech alters


some place-names are all that remain of lost languages


our place-names un-name older names


most people lives in places, a few dwell in names


the meaning of a name may go into oblivion long before the name itself





the oldest names

belong to rivers

the glen’s flowers









numen swim

hidden within names


Uisge Dé

River Dee

Water of the Goddess


the river is the goddess” (WJ Watson)



oldest of all


from -er, -orto cause, to move



a place-name is an intensification of awareness


Maighdean Mhonaidh

The Lassie on the Hill


place your finger here

on the flower

of the mountain



place-names are social signs

for natural forms



Dark-eyed Springs Cairn





place-names exist in space


they evolve in speech

over time


speech steers names

into new forms


ears become tongues


the translation of a place-name

is a matter of sound and sense

exemplifying the tidal

nature of meaning



the wave the rock-reef makes: bōd

the rock-reef that makes the wave: ba

— we sink or swim by such distinctions



in place-names the mouth — minn

   is bay

mouthful of sand and pebbles

mouth of the river

   and mother

minn, sought on the child’s





on Shetland

Banna Minn

Tether Mouth


BANNA: band, fetter

MINN: mouth


Burra teddirt

by a sandy rib 

puckerin da lip

skornin da bod


soonds a mooth

n ammas th childers


needfu fir mynnye




Score Minni

Mother Sound

also on Shetland


Skōr: hollow in the seabed, sound

MINN: mouth


soonds ascar / markéd inda / sea-boddam


 da brimtuds fløddin

   da mooth fuwi

      soonds  faain

   laumin      swinklin

beatin      onda chord

                 oda aert



south to Suffolk




MYNNI: firth

MERE: sea-pool


shippin owt

   somethin deep

      in th bloo-O


or havin more

   ova bowl ov

      sumthin tidal





With thanks to Harry Giles, Katrina Porteous, Ian Duhig, and Laura Watts for their guidance in terms of dialects


Banna Minn (for Jen Hadfield)


Burra, tethered by a sandy tombolo, puckering the lip, imitating the waves — sound is a mouth, and amma is the children’s discontented murmuring, needful for their mum, minn


Tombolo connecting Kettla Ness to the rest of Burra, Shetland. Band, N. band or fetters; band, Sc, string together; tether, bond; means of restraint, confining force or influence. Minni, mynni, ON, mijin, Sh, mouth of a stream, inlet; munnr, the mouth, from PIE *ment-. Minn, mijn, Sc, minni, Sh, the mouth, a child's word. Mynnye, OSc, mother, said to be a child’s instinctive utterances; also a bay or inlet, arm of the sea, sound or strait. Teddirt, OrN, tethered. Skoarn, skoarnin, Sh, imitate someone, repeat what someone says. Bod, Sh, onward motion of the waves. Soond, Sc, sound. Mooth, Sc, mouth. Childer: Sc, children. Amma (Ind), mother. Murmurashen, Sh, murmur or discontented muttering. Needfu, OrN, needing, needy for.


Score Minni


sounds is a scar marked in the sea bottom — the bay of tidal breakers is the mouth as it fills with sounds, falling, flowing, splashing, beating, on the chord of the earth


Formerly Skora Minn, bay by Outer Score, between Bressay and Skōr Head, Shetland. Skōr, ON, sound, hollow in the seabed; skord, Sh, crack, fissure; mark or notch for keeping count. In Northeast England scar, from sker, ON, reef can refer to rocks at the foot of sea cliffs, a narrow beach, or a shore-based reef. Bodd’am, Sh, sea-bottom. Minn Sc, mouth; Jakobsen gives mynni, minni, Sh, “opening into which a stream of firth disembogues.” Brimtud, Sh, sound of breakers on the shore. Flød, Sh, tide. Laum, neologism devised by the Russian poet Velimir Khlebnikov, defined as “broad, flowing over the broadest area, knowing no confining shores,” from the l sound of lit and lodka, flow and boat. Swinkle, Sh, splash gently. Baetin, Sh, beating. Opo da, Sh, upon the; oda, Sh, of the. Aert, Sh, earth.



Minsmere (for Guy Moreton)


“lagu byp leodum langsum gepuht / the sea by (lands)men is deemed everlasting,” The Old English Rune Poem, trans. Bill Griffiths


(July) shipping out something deep in the blue O [the sweep of the sea’s horizon]. (March) or having more of a bowl of something tidal [the safety of harbour].


Suffolk village lost to the sea in the sixteenth century; the name survives in Minsmere Levels and Minsmere Haven. The name is a Scandinavian-English hybrid; it means River-mouth Lake, from OScand, mynni, mouth of the river; mere, OE, pool, sea; ME, haven, OE, hoefen harbour, inlet with good anchorage. The River Minsmere is known as the Yox, River Yoke, in its upper stretch. Lida, AS, July, the mild month of calm weather for voyages; Hredmonath, AS, March, the fierce month, wise to stay in harbour. Sheeppin, sumffin, haffin, Suff, shipping, something, having. Mo+wa, Suff, more. Bowlow, Suff, bowl of. The blue O is the sea orisounde, ME, horizon, which John Clare thought could be reached in a day’s walk. Bill Griffiths suggests that The Old English Rune Poem was Anglian, sharing characteristics with the riddling of Old Norse kenning. East Anglia was among the earliest places where English was spoken, as the dialect spoken by of Frisian, Angle, Saxon, Jute, and Swabian language communities became ‘islanded’ and eroded or absorbed Brittonic.




James Stout Angus, A Glossary of the Shetland Dialect

Keith Briggs and Kelly Kilpatrick, A Dictionary of Suffolk Place-names

AOD Claxton, The Suffolk Dialect of the Twentieth Century

Dictionary of the Scots Language/ Dictionar o the Scots Leid 

John J. Graham, Shetland Dictionary

Bill Griffiths, Anglo-Saxon Magic

Bill Griffiths, Fishing and Folk

Jákup Jakobsen, The Place-names of Shetland

Velimir Khlebnikov, trans. Charlotte Douglas & Paul Schmidt: The King of Time

Velimir Khlebnikov, trans. Charlotte Douglas & Paul Schmidt: Theoretical Writings

David Mills, Suffolk Place-names

Walter Skeat, The Place-names of Suffolk

John Stewart, Shetland Place-names

Peter Trudgill, The Norfolk Dial