LINKLATER - the name


Sandwick map The surname LINKLATER is generally stated to be of ‘Scottish locational origin.’ More specifically, it originated not in ‘Scotland’ but in Orkney and nowhere else. The assertion by Elsdon C. Smith in ‘New Dictionary of American Family Names’ that Linklater, Flaws and Clouston are “common American surnames” is as fatuous as it is erroneous. All three are Orkney names, along with about another 288 according to Gregor Lamb. [Lamb 1981] My Orkney ancestors came from what is now the parish of Sandwick on the western Atlantic side of Mainland*. [See image at left. For more on Sandwick see here.] Sandwick in early documents was divided into North and South Sandwick and in what was North Sandwick there are several places with various Linklater names. The name poses two problems; variant spellings of the place-name, and variant spellings of the surname. At first glance the meaning looks simple; ‘link’ and ‘later’. As so often, looks deceive; the etymological divide comes before the k, because Linklater comprises two Old Norse words; ‘lyng’ meaning heather and ‘klett’ meaning a rock. Old Norse being an inflected language, the addition of -r is the nominative suffix. Thus lyng + klettr = Linklater. Voilà - almost. It is pronounced, according to Gregor Lamb [1981] Linkilter. Linklater was originally written Lingklet but a ‘k’ came to be substituted in the written form because the ‘g’ was pronounced as a ‘k’...The pronunciation of Linklater as Linkilter is an example of metathesis - a reversal of letters to facilitate pronunciation. This was common in Scotland and Orkney at one time, for example grass was pronounced ‘girse’ and burnt was pronounced ‘brunt’ [Anent the map; NB = Nether Benzieclett; K = Kierfold; EH = East House, the latter referred to elsewhere in these Orkney pages.]

*Mainland throughout refers to the principal island in Orkney and not to ‘mainland Britain’ or ‘mainland Scotland’. Mainland, an Anglicization of the Old Norse Meginland, was originally called Hrossey (Horse Isle). It is still occasionally called ‘Pomona’ by the ignorant, the English, or those unfortunate enough to be both, although credit for the original error goes to George Buchanan (1506-1582), a Scottish historian, humanist scholar and reputedly the most profound intellectual sixteenth century Scotland produced. Buchanan, apart from being a miserable Calvinist pedant was tutor to both Mary Queen of Scots and her son, the future James VI. As Pomona merits a separate page, see POMONA for a full description of Buchanan's maxie.

Lamb [1993] throws a further etymological spanner in the works by suggesting that while klettr indicated a shoreline rock, when used inland it assumed different meanings, e.g. a mound of some sort, often the remains of a broch such as those at Hunclett in Rosay and Holm, and Clestran [klettr-strönd, meaning beach fort] in Orphir. Brochs were stone structures resembling in outline power-station cooling towers. Constructed with a double-skin incorporating a stairway between the inner and outer walls they were both living spaces in themselves and sometimes the focus for a local community outside the walls such as that at Gurness. They were 30 or 40 feet high with no openings other than one easily defendable entrance. Notable well-preserved examples in Orkney are those at Gurness in Evie and Mid Howe on Rousay, but the best preserved and most complete is that at Mousa in Shetland. Built mostly from c. 500 B.C. to c. A.D. 500 they are pre-Norse and many would have been in a ruinous state at the time the Vikings arrived. Once abandonned, they must have been a tempting and easily accessible source of building stone. Lamb [ib] also maintains that klettr was pronounced and written differently when referring to inland features, citing in particular -cleat names as evidence, names which often had religious associations, including Benzieclett [baena-klettr, a prayer mound] dealt with more fully here, and Binyaclaith in Grimeston, Harray. Lamb suggests that many early chapels were built on such ‘sacred mounds’ but further suggests that the pagan Norse, lacking the word kirkja, applied the word klettr to any stone structure in the Orkney landscape including ‘chapels’. [Vikings abandonned paganism in 995 when Earl Sigurd the Stout was ‘converted’ at sword point and his son taken as hostage to ensure piety. The son dying, Sigurd reverted to the Norse pantheon.]

Having erred and strayed like a lost sheep from the name Linklater, returning to the place rather than the surname, the geography certainly lends credence to the notion of a mound of some type, either of religious significance or a general meeting place or þing. So far as I know there was never a broch at Linklater in Sandwick, but there is a fairly prominent mound or hill in an otherwise largely flat plain immediately to the east of Linklater which proved ideal for constructing two wartime airfields; Twatt to the north and Skeabrae to the south. Linklater protrudes into and overlooks this plain from the foot of the Hill of Cruaday and other higher hills to the west.

The Norse influence in Orkney and Shetland was political, cultural and linguistic and emanated from western Norway with the westward Viking expansion and colonisation of the Northern Isles, north Britain, Hebrides, Isle of Man, Ireland and Iceland beginning in earnest by the 8th century but which had probably begun as much as a century earlier. Danish Vikings saw to southern Britain while Swedish Vikings headed eastwards to the Baltic and Russia. This influence in Orkney and Shetland waned when the line of Norse earls petered out in 1231 and the earldom passed to Scots, although sovereignty remained with Norway. Old Norse in Orkney and Shetland evolved into a dialect known as Norn, whose remnants are still to be found in many ‘Orkney’ words specific to farming, seafaring and other trades. “The dialect of an Orcadian from the more northerly isles is more readily intelligible to a Norwegian than to a Scottish mainlander.” [Laing 1974] In the early 20th century Hugh Marwick listed over 3,000 Norn words still in current use in Orkney. The meaning and use of lyng meaning heather is straight forward, but the precise meaning of klett less so. Here, from ‘The Orkney Norn’, is Hugh Marwick on klett. klett (klet): s., a solitary or isolated rock, a rock separated in some way from adjoining rocks; applied frequently to rocks in the sea, but sometimes also to solitary blocks on the land. To be distinguished from a rock jutting out of the face of a hill, which is known as a ‘hammer’, and from a pinnacle-rock (in the sea or at the shore) which is called a ‘stack’ or ‘castle’. Many farm names derive from klett, but these are now spelt Cleat. [Gen.] In Rousay there is a flat-topped rock detached from the neighbouring rocks on the beach known as Klett-ber. O.N. klettr, m., id. [Marwick 1929]

There are plenty of cletts in Orkney; e.g. the Clett of Crura off the east coast of South Ronaldshay, or Couba Clett in the Bay of Isbister - in fact innumerable similarly named coastal features but that begs the question why an inland place or farm would be named using a word that most commonly specifically referred to “a solitary or isolated rock, a rock separated in some way from adjoining rocks; applied frequently to rocks in the sea.” Gregor Lamb in ‘Orcadiana’ points out that “in those instances where clett place-names are found inland, no rocks are ever found in the vicinity!” I can vouch for that being the case when I visited Linklater in 2015 there was not a clett to be see - nor any lyng come to that. See the panoramic image below taken near West Linklater [HY261 218], admittedly, more than a thousand years after the place was named. “Where the few isolated lumps of bedrock are found inland, the Norse word hammar is generally used.” Lamb contends that klettr “in the Norse colonies also assumed the meaning ‘stone building’. Stone buildings would have been extremely rare in the Norse homeland and would have been seen as something really special.” Continuing the same train of thought, the plural form klettar meant ‘stone buildings’, noteworthy in themselves but possibly also signifying a tunship, a taxable entity important to the Norse exchequer. Thus Linklater might have been ‘the stone building in the heather’, ‘the stone buildings in the heather’ or ‘the tunship in the heather.’ When the BBC called the film they made about Eric Linklater ‘A Stone in the Heather’, (broadcast ca. 1978) they postulated only one of several possible meanings.

There are a large number of Orkney place-names employing variations of clett, klett or klaet in their formation e.g. several Cleats, Clestran, Noltclett, Hunclet, Faraclett, Whitecleat as well as Linklater and Linklet. Where they occur in historical documents, all are noticeable as yielding a generally high level of skat or land tax on a par with other place-name elements such as bae, bister, bu, stath, garth etc all of which indicate significant holdings. If ‘clett’ type suffixes indicated the presence of buildings rather than mere rocks that would account logically for their higher skat values. Lamb notes a further possible relationship between klaet or cleat names with sites of ancient worship. “It is quite clear...that in many cases a klaet could be a chapel” in support of which he states “the old house name Benzieclett in baena-klaet prayer klaet. The Orkney Benzieclett name shows quite clearly that this type of building was a chapel or at least an oratory.” There is a whole section on Nether Benzieclett in Sandwick here, a property occupied for a thousand years by Linklaters according to some [e.g. Thomson, 1980], although none of them so far as I know were my immediate forebears. When I visited Nether Benzieclett in 2015 the buildings were very ruinous and did not to my eye suggest any religous connection. But judge for yourself: see images on Nether Benzieclett.

Norn was spoken as late as the 18th C. in Orkney and persisted somewhat longer in Shetland where Patrick Neill, as late as 1805, “At Lerwick, and indeed throughout Shetland, Dutch and Danish coins are more common than British.”. [Neill, 1806] Long before that the ‘official’ language had become Scots. Mooney, in an article published in ‘Orkney Heritage’, writing of two cash books found in a cathedral strong-room, asserted that while they “provide a good deal of information about the activities of the Kirk Session of Kirkwall” between 1631 and 1653, found “no Norn words in these records.” The last official Orcadian document in Norse was issued in 1443 [Thomson, 2008]; the earliest in Scots just ten years earlier [ib.]. The ensuing eclipse of Norn by Scots was as rapid and total as the earlier extinction of ‘Pictish’ by the arrival of Norse, and the later dilution of Scots by standard English from around the Reformation in 1560, with the introduction of the King James' Bible in 1611 and subsequent forced useage of the Book of Common Prayer. It is now generally accepted that the Picts, in spite of the best efforts of the Romans to dislodge them, occupied Orkney as well as much of Scotland till the arrival of the first Norse settlers. They spoke P-Celtic [as distinct from Q-Celtic]. While many placenames in Scotland are testimony to the dominance of the Picts, in Orkney it is argued by some that none of their placenames survive having all been replaced by Norse. This gave rise at one time to the theory that the Viking incursion into Orkney was so sudden and complete as to suggest the violent extinction of the Picts, but as there is no archeological evidence supporting this [e.g. mass graves] the current view is that the Picts in Orkney were simply absorbed, enslaved or overwhelmed by the incoming Viking culture. If nothing else, Pictish women may have seemed useful breeding stock. For more on the subject see The Orkney Picts. A notable exception to the lack of Pictish placenames is the name of Orkney itself. “The first element of Orkney Celtic.” [Lynch, 2001] There is more controversy over its meaning, but the prevailing view favours the porcine; “...Orkney, the Orcades (‘islands of the “young boars” ’)” [Lynch, 2001 - his punctuation.] Perhaps the islands should really be called the Porkney Isles.

Adamnan, in around 695 AD, wrote that Columba, a native Gaelic speaker, needed interpreters to converse with Picts. Part of a missionary's function is presumably talking to the natives. I don't imagine the Vikings were motivated by any such urge to chat, their reputation suggesting that when they saw something they wanted they took it rather than asked for it nicely first. Nor it seems were they curious as to Pictish or other Orkney toponymy. As a result they set about “the naming of parts” afresh which they did with zeal to the exclusion of any pre-existing names.

Clues as to Pictish language continue to be sought in Orkney place-names which some [e.g. Hugh Marwick 1923] claim do contain elements of Pictish or Celtic. Those that are not Norse are later Scots names. Jakob Jakobsen could find only 40 Shetland names which he claimed contained Celtic elements [‘Shetlandsøerne Stednavne’ 1901. Of Shetland he wrote “Every small hill, point, rock, dale, cleft, brook, piece of field or meadow, etc., bears its own name, and these names, with comparatively few exceptions, have been handed down in Norn dialect.”] and Hugh Marwick identified 30 in Orkney. [‘Celtic Place-names in Orkney’ 1923] Since then however, F.T. Wainwright, after scrutinising Marwick's list, concluded in ‘The Northern Isles’ [1962] that apart from one or two possible Brittonic names, not a single name can with certainty be attributed to the Picts. Depending on your viewpoint, just why so few or no ‘Pictish’ Orkney place-names survive is also a matter of continuing debate. The Picts were under pressure on all fronts and not just from Viking incursions in Orkney. Across the Pentland Firth, in 843 AD, the Picts united with the Dalriada Scots under Kenneth MacAlpin for reasons that remain obscure and promptly disappear from history. The Vikings, for whatever reasons of their own, set about renaming everything and their names endure to the present. Clearly the Norse enjoyed coining new place-names, yet their names were noticeably unimaginative. [Thomson 1987] Somewhat unfair, and certainly no truer of the Norse than of people in the 20th and 21st C. bestowing modern names to old settlements that lack even ‘unimaginative’ Norse names, e.g. ‘Structure 8’, ‘Brodgar New Hoose’, ‘Lochview’, ‘The Temple’ etc. Norse names are descriptive, which is practical even if today their names seem ambiguous as in the examples of Linklater or Benzieclett.

Notwithstanding the many subsequent centuries of Scottish and Anglophone influence, Orkney place-names remain stubbornly redolent of their Norse origins. The Norse, whatever their relationship to the previous population, indelibly stamped the islands with many thousands of their own place-names - the whole vocabulary of today's landscape is unmistakably Norse. [Thomson 2008] It is interesting to note also how tenacious Norse names are in the Hebrides where, in spite of more than a millenium of Scottish sovereignty and Gaeilc culture, some 40% of place-names are Norse.

Orkney abounds in both heather and rock. Geographical features to which lyng + klettr could reasonably be applied are not hard to find. There are several places called Linklater in Sandwick, West Mainland, as well on as South Ronaldsay and North Ronaldsay. (Another complication! These islands are not really related although their names might suggest otherwise. The North and South are descriptive in that N. Ronaldsay is the northernmost island in the archipelago and S. Ronaldsay almost the most southerly, but N. Ronaldsay was originally ‘Rinansey’ or St Ringan's isle, whereas S. Ronaldsay was Rognvald's Isle.) Recent research suggests that about half of Orkney's ‘primary’ farms have topographical names incorporating natural features such as -vik and -vagr (sea inlets), -nes (headland), -eid (isthmus) and klettr (rock outcrop). [Thomson 1987]

Some ammunition supporting the ‘unimaginative’ thesis can be found in the proliferation of names qualified by adjectives, such as Upper, Middle, South, etc or their Norse equivalents, rather than coining new names; an extreme example being Upper Nisthouse i.e. 'Upper Lowest House'. However, such names indicate pressure from an expanding population requiring the creation of new settlements from old and bear testimony to the antiquity of the root settlement and its name. In the case of Linklater in Sandwick, there are currently Upper, Nether, and West. [See O.S. Explorer sheet 463.] Long before either Vikings or Picts arrived in Orkney the islands were not only inhabited but had been actively farmed for several thousand years by people or peoples who left tangible memorials made, as in the case of the Picts, of stone. Settlements evolved and remained in use over many hundreds of years and in many cases their boundaries, pre-dating the Vikings' arrival, can still be seen, having been either adopted or established by the Picts.


Linklater as a place-name was variously spelled but, as with the surname, is now usually Linklater; e.g. O.S. HY 266 218 [sheet 6 of the old one inch series] and HY 264 213 in the parish of Sandwick in West Mainland and ND 450 870 South Ronaldsay [sheet 7] all use Linklater. West Linklater on Mainland appears on older (pre 1880) maps. However, John Thomson's 1832 map shows no Linklater on Mainland, but there is a Linclater above Windwisk to indicate a bay. There remain today a Linklet Bay to the east of North Ronaldsay HY 78 54 [sheet 5], and a ‘Linklet House’ and Linklet are shown south of Ancum Loch on modern OS maps of N. Ronaldsay, but not on the 1879 OS map. An interesting variant occurs in connection with sheep pundin on North Ronaldsay where for most of the year, sheep are banished to graze on the foreshore. In the past, there were nine sheep punds [‘pounds’] into which the sheep would be driven for killing, shearing or scoring. For scoring [‘tallying’], two sheep men were appointed by each of the six township districts which Fenton names as “Busta, Nesstun, Hollandstun, Linklettun, Ancumstun (locally always called Eboy) and Eastin' or East-North Yards.” [Fenton 1978] Other variants on older maps include Lynkclet in 1505 named as threepenny land in North Sandwick and in South Ronaldsay. However, there are far more variant spellings of the surname than the toponym either in documents or on maps.

Used as a surname, LINKLATER appears to be a ‘modern’ spelling in the sense that that is how it has been consistently spelled since the early 19th C. In the census records for Sandwick and Stromness 1821-1911 LINKLATER is the only spelling recorded. (There was no census in 1831.) By contrast, that spelling occurs only once in Peterkin's ‘Rentals’ and was moreover the earliest, recorded in 1595; “the ane half of WARTH fallen in escheat to my Lord for theft, by William Linklater in Sanday, payis in land mail 3 lisp. butter.”) [Peterkin 1820] Thereafter the surname is LINKLETTER [once in 1613] then LINKLATTER at nine properties in 1739; Alexr. at Instabillie, George at Scorwall and Brakos, Thomas at Sowie Land, William and Thos. at Boys, Hugh and George at Northunniger, George at Housegair, John at Linklatter, and John at Scabrae Neather Town. Finally a Thomas LINKLATTER of Housegairth is listed as a tax-paying heritor in 1820. It seems that places rather than individuals were named until the 1739 rental. Again, from Peterkin's ‘Rentals’ the recorded place-names are variously spelled as LYNKCLET [1497-1503], LINKLETER and LINKLETTER [1595, those two spellings occurring on two facing pages while the surname is given as LINKLATER], LINKLITTER [1614], LINKLETTER [1642 and 1754], then LINKLATTER [1739] tallying with the same contemporary spelling of the surname in the ‘Rentals’. For more on Peterkin see PETERKIN’S RENTALS. The foregoing applies mostly to Peterkin, but in the poll tax records of the 1690s, the name is always spelled Linkletter apart from a smattering of Linklatters. The 1690s Poll Tax returns for Sandwick have Linkletter without exception.[Irvine 2003]

Linklater crops up once or twice in Sir Walter Scott's rather poor novel ‘The Pirate‘ which while set predominantly in Shetland is based partly on historical facts surrounding the pirate John Gow and his capture in Orkney. For some utterly bizarre reason, Sir Wattie refers to a fictional character, whose name is clearly intended to evoke Linklater, as Laurence Linklutter [p. 117 Edinburgh Edition, 2001]. This is the only ocurrance of such insanity I know of. He appears to have recovered some thirteen pages later when he refers to “the Linklater glen”.

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© 2018 Duncan Linklater Custos Rotulorum.