‘Voe’, Brian Whalley’s Word of the Month for May 2016, is one which may puzzle some of Nicholson’s readers, for all kinds of reasons. Firstly, it is a rather uncommon word, which many people simply may not have seen before. Then, those who do recognise it may wonder how it crept into Nicholson’s poems, since it is a toponym specific to Orkney and Shetland, and is not normally used elsewhere in the British Isles. Why would Nicholson appropriate this place-name word, especially in poems set in the Cumbrian landscape? All is revealed in Brian’s article…
The word ‘voe’ is often found as a place-name element. At Sullom Voe, an inlet between the North Mainland of Shetland, and Northmavine, there is a well-known terminal for oil and gas from the North Sea. ‘Voe’, by itself, or in combination with some other word, is usually used for the name of an inlet but on occasion a local village may incorporate this element into its name, or in fact use itas its name. It seems to be more common in the Shetlands than in the Orkney Islands.
In Norman Nicholson’s poetry, the word ‘voe’ occurs twice. However, neither use relates directly to sea inlets in Cumbria. Rather, the use of the word indicates a link back to Nicholson’s own Norse ancestors or his affinity to the kind of landscape they would have known.
First, in ‘Cornthwaite’ (Collected Poems, p. 354):
Cornthwaite, 'the clearing of the corn',
My mother's maiden name – whose umpteenth great-grandfather,
Off-come from a northern voe, hacked thorn,
Oak-scrub and birch from rake and beck-bank
To sow his peck of oats, not much of a crop.
Lish as a wind-racked larch, he took his trod
Through landscape nameless still to him, until,
Remembering his own grandfather's talk
Of tveit and dal and fjell ,
He scratched those words on the rocks,
Naming the Cymric cwms in a Norse tongue.
It is fairly clear throughout the poem that Nicholson is referring to the legacy from his maternal ancestors, who are linked to the actual land itself, as in the next lines:
The land then named him back.
And here, a millennium later, my baptismal card.
The Norsemen (‘off-comers’, in Nicholson’s own local dialect), in longboats from the voes of Shetland, explored and colonised what became the Kingdom of The Isles and Man. This included, of course Furness (far ness or promontory) and the coast of Cumbria, as can be seen in the place names of the county. Hence, ‘tveit’ originally þveit,a small field or a clearing cut from a forest or from waste ground. This Norse word, which Nicholson writes in its Norwegian form, has in the north of England become the place-element ‘thwaite’. This is found in many different place names in Cumbria and N. Lancashire such as Tilberthwaite, Satterthwaite, and Haverthwaite, villages not so very far from where Nicholson lived. In turn, the place element ‘thwaite’ can become part of a locational surname, as in ‘Thwaite’ itself, or ‘Postlethwaite’, or indeed ‘Cornthwaite’, Nicholson’s own middle name, and the maiden name of his mother who died when he was only five years old (see Nicholson’s autobiography, Wednesday Early Closing, Faber and Faber, 1975 and Kathleen Jones’ 2013 biography,Norman Nicholson: The Whispering Poet).
Place names and the locational surnames derived from them do not usually translate cleanly for what look to be cognates but ‘korn’ as a cereal crop is probably also Old Norse, and thus Nicholson’s mother’s surname, in Nicholson’s own eyes, linked him strongly back to his Norse ancestry.
We can, therefore, reasonably expect Nicholson was referring back to his roots on his mother’s side by using a word, voe, that is not (as far as I can find out) represented by any place name elements in Cumbria. No matter, Nicholson matches the word with his origins along with ‘thwaite’ and ‘fell’ etc. Nicholson himself outlines his ancestry, along with a little about place-name elements, in Chapter 1 of Greater Lakeland (Robert Hale, 1969).
But the poem itself comes back neatly to a self-deprecating glance at Nicholson’s own work, with the poet portrayed as someone who has to:
Chop and bill-hook at thickets and rankness of speech,
Straining to let light in, make space for a word,
To hack out once again my inherited thwaite
And sow my peck of poems, not much of a crop.
The use of the word ‘voe’ in this poem can, then, be viewed not only as part of a carefully chosen etymologically Norse vocabulary, but also as a subtle indicator of Nicholson’s precise knowledge of the specific origins of the Norsemen who first explored and then settled Cumbria.
The second occurrence of ‘voe’ is in ‘Boo to a Goose’ (Collected Poems, pp. 273-4) and it’s back to the Shetlands again with a nature poem initially set in the middle of the Millom slag banks.
The girls grew up and the streets fell down;
Gravel and green went under the slag; the town
Was eroded into the past. But half a century later
Three geese – two wild, streaked brown-grey-brown
As the bog-cottoned peat, and one white farm-yard fly-off –
Held sentry astride a Shetland lochan. The crumbled granite
Tumbled down brae and voe-side to the tide's
Constricted entry; the red-throated diver jerked its clown-
striped neck, ducked, disappeared and perked up from the water
Red-throated divers (Gavia stellata) breed in the Northern Isles and Outer Hebrides and can be found around the coasts of Britain in the winter – a migration mirroring that of the north-men, perhaps.
And other poets using ‘voe’? Unsurprisingly, Hugh MacDiarmid uses it, but in a title, ‘In Dury Voe’. This neat little poem has some of the nature observations of Nicholson (‘sma’ stars’, ‘an arrested snawstorm’) and a similarity of meaning with the last line of ‘Cornthwaite’ quoted above.
And finally, I’ll match the last with some words from ‘Memento (1990)’ a poem by Edwin Morgan:
over the cliff-top and into the mist
across the heather and down to the peat
here with the sheep and where with the peeweet
through the stubble and by the pheasant's tryst
above the pines and past the northern lights
along the voe and out to meet the ice
among the stacks and round their kreidekreis …
I think Nicholson would have approved.