Past Life: Shetland Similes

From Shetland Life, December 1985, No. 62

Shetland Similes

by J. Copland

Over the years much has been written and, of late, much encouragement given to the use of the Shetland dialect. We have Shetland verse and proverbs, Shetland guddiks and sea-names, yet – so far as I know – little or no attention has been accorded the simile. My dictionary gives “simile” as “a comparison to illustrate anything”, and it is no doubt common to all races and countries. The time-honoured, local ones are very rarely heard nowadays, and are in danger of being lost.

All draw mental pictures, often exaggerations – the better to drive the point home – and many, by their very nature, hold an element of humour. Take the case of a ridiculously small object in a large container – “laek a sillik in a sixereen”. Several recall and shed light on a way of life that has gone. Geese and swine played a much bigger part in the old-time crofters’ economy than they do now, and so we have – “common as geese wi bare feet”. The breeding sow, though grateful for the warmth of the hertstane to lie on, was vulnerable to the occasional live coal from the open fire, and published the accident in no uncertain way by “reein laek a brunt grice” – the equivalent of the English “scalded cat”.

Picture this same portly matron out for a stroll around the corn-yard on a summer’s evening. She is credited with acute hearing (another simile – “lugs (hearing) laek a grice” – but her eyesight is none too good. Misjudging the width of a narrow, awkward gateway, she attempts the impossible and gets jammed – “laek a grice in a grind”.

It’s many a year since I last heard “bare as the needle withoot da treed”, but “bare as da back o Yule” is better known, focussing on the lean years of a bygone age, when any particular tit-bit of food was hoarded for Christmas, while there must hae been much anxious thought of how the potatoes and meal would last out till the store could be replenished.

Regrettably, I have never seen a water-mill or a corn-kiln in operation, but both were vital in the old days. The stone-built kiln was usually in a corner of the barn and, of course, was fired with peats. A vent was incorporated to draw off most of the smoke, and so prevent tainting of the grain. Sticks, a few inches apart, were laid across the hot-air opening. Over this, forming a bed for the oats, went a fairly thick layer of drawn straw. Naturally, this straw became drained of every particle of moisture – hence, “as dry as kilstrae”.

It was often said of some “near-be-gaun” skinflint, that he was “hard as the nedder millstane”, and this poses an interesting question. Was the lower stone sometimes shaped from a harder grit than the upper, or was it just because of its fixed and relentless nature?

In his fascinating book The Northern Isles, Alexander Fenton makes no mention of this, although he gives a very detailed account of mills and kilns.


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