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Unst Boat Song

[ Roud - ; Mudcat 1870 ; trad.]

John Stickle, a cooper, a good fiddler in his time and a humorous man with a broad knowledge of Shetland dialect and old Shetland songs, was born in Baltasound, Unst in 1879 and died there 73 years later. Perhaps the most remarkable of his songs was the Unst Boat Song, an ancient boat song in Norn, a form of Norse-language, whose leader chorus structure indicates that it was once a song for rowing—perhaps on board Norse galleys. The song has been published in the Shetland Folk Book, vol. 2 (Shetland Times, Lerwick, 1951) somewhat overedited by William Ratter. A 1947 recording of this song made by Patrick Shuldham-Shaw was included on the anthology Sailormen and Servingmaids (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 6; Caedmon 1961; Topic 1970).

Hom Bru sang Unst Boat Song on their 1982 album Obadeea. They noted:

This song is one of the few remaining examples of the old Shetland tongue, Norn, based on the ancient Scandinavian languages. Norn is now found only as a few words in the Shetland dialect. The song was possibly used as an accompaniment to rowing. The word ‘obadeea” means ‘curse the weather’, and we thought it would make a good album title, considering the usual climatic conditions in Shetland!

Fiona J. Mackenzie sang The Unst Boat Song in 2012 on her Greentrax album Archipelago. She noted:

This song is sung in the ancient Nora language. This language was spoken in Shetland, Orkney and Caithness but has now been extinct since around the mid-19th century. The last native speaker is reputed to have died on Unst around 1850 and only fragments of the vocabulary remain today, including this song—a prayer or plea to the sea and to God to look after the fishermen.

The song is preceded by an archive recording from 1947, sung by John Stickle of Unst, who died in 1957. We can only approximate a translation.

Karine Polwart sang the Unst Boat Song in 2016 on the project Songs of Separation. She noted:

Unst is the northernmost of the Shetland Isles. I first heard this sung on the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington DC by the wonderful Fair Isle mother and daughter Anne and Lise Sinclair. They recorded a version of it with their family band Fridarey. I learned the song eventually from Lise’s cousin, my dear friend, neighbour and bandmate Inge Thomson. The language is old Norn, fragments of which are still alive in Shetland speech today. Anne regards the song as a sea-prayer ¢…]. It was a spine-tingling experience to sing this together in the Cathedral Cave on Eigg, with the sound of the sea in our ears. Do seek out the beautiful music and poetry that the late Lise Sinclair left behind her.


Fiona J. Mackenzie sings The Unst Boat Song

Starka virna vestalie, obadeea, obadeea
Starka virna vestalie, obadia, monye

Stala, stoita, stonga raero,
Whit saes du, da bunshka baero?
Whit saes du, da bunshka baero?
Litra maevi, drenghie.

Saina papa, wara, obadeea, obadeea
Saina papa, wara, obadeea monye.


Strong winds blow from the west;
They may bring trouble and damage the boat, men.

Put in order, brace the mast
O what say you, the boat will be able to carry her sail?
I’m pleased with it, boys.

Holy father, watch over us
They may bring trouble and damage the boat.