Caithness dialect



Thumbnail History

In 1735 Aneas Bayne, in his 'A Survey of the County of Caithness', commented that the local dialect was then spoken in five or six parishes, with Gaelic in the other four.  He also commented that 'the commons speak it tolerably well where they are not much corrupted by the accents and idioms of the Irish' (by which he meant Gaels). The compilers of the Old Statistical Account said in 1791 that the speech of Canisbay was “Scotch with a intermixture of Norwegian vocables” while in Wick (1791) the people spoke the “common provincial dialect of the north”.  The same was said of Canisbay and Wick in 1840-41. In Halkirk in 1840 Gaelic was giving way to Scots and had been doing so for some forty years previously.


The dialect is generally known as Caitnes ('Kate-niss') which is the local form of the county name in Scots.


Although Caithness (Caitnes) faces towards Orkney, it forms part of another, wider dialect known as Northern Scots. Northern Scots includes all the forms of Scots spoken from Caithness as far south as eastern Angus. There is much about the Caithness dialect that is similar to the North East of Scotland. For example, in Caithness, just as in the North East, an f is used instead of a wh. So what and when become fat and fan. Also, the th at the start of many words is lost so that the, that, this and they are pronounced e, at, is and ey by Caithness speakers. It is also common, perhaps even more so than the North East, for the sound ee to replace a number of vowels such as ai, oo and u.  For example, words such as been (bone), heer (hair), meed (made), and meen (moon). There are also a few features which are probably derived from cross over with Gaeilc.  The sound ch is softened to an s or sh as in shapel (chapel). Caithness speakers also say she, her or hers instead of it and its.


The well known places of Caithness include Dounreay (Dounerie), John O’ Groats (The Groats), Thurso (Thursa), and Wick (Weik). Like some other parts of Scotland, Caithness has a long-established fishing community who also have their own distinct Scots words and phrases. Writers in Caithness dialect include George Gunn, Robert MacKay, D Manson and Jenny Stewart. There were a number of publications in the local dialect, such as E Silkie Man (above right), published during the 20th century.