What do voles and Orkney have to do with one another? One thing somebody knowledgeable about British wildlife might be able to tell you is that Orkney is home to a unique variety of the common European vole (Microtus arvalis) called the Orkney vole.
The most remarkable thing about the Orkney vole is that the common European vole isn’t found anywhere else in the British Isles, nor in Scandinavia—it’s a continental European animal. That raises the question of how a population of them ended up in Orkney. During the last ice age, Orkney was covered by a glacier and would have been uninhabitable by voles; and after the ice retreated, Orkney was separated from Great Britain straight away; there were never any land bridges that would have allowed voles from Great Britain to colonize Orkney. Besides, there is no evidence that M. arvalis was ever present on Great Britain, nor is there any evidence that voles other than M. arvalis were ever present on Orkney; none of the three species that inhabit Great Britain today (the field vole, Microtus agrestis, the bank vole, Myodes glareolus, and the water vole, Arvicola amphibius) were able to colonize Orkney, even though they were able to colonize some islands that were originally connected to Great Britain by land bridges (Haynes, Jaarola & Searle, 2003). The only plausible hypothesis is that the Orkney voles were introduced into Orkney by humans.
But if the Orkney voles were introduced, they were introduced at a very early date—the earliest discovered Orkney vole remains have been carbon-dated to ca. 3100 BC (Martínkova et al., 2013)—around the same time Skara Brae was first occupied, to put that in context. The only other mammals on the British Isles known to have been introduced at a similarly ancient date or earlier are the domestic dog and the domestic bovines (cattle, sheep, goats)—even the house mouse is not known to have been present before c. 500 BC (Montgomery, 2014)! The motivation for the introduction remains mysterious—voles might have been transported accidentally in livestock fodder imported from the Continent, or they might have been deliberately introduced as pets, food sources, etc.; we can only speculate. It’s interesting to note that the people of Orkney at this time seem to have been rather influential, as they introduced the Grooved Ware pottery style to other parts of the British Isles.
Anyway, there is in fact another interesting connection between voles and Orkney, which has to do with the word ‘vole’ itself. Something you might be aware of if you’ve looked at old books on British wildlife is that ‘vole’ is kind of a neologism. Traditionally, voles were not thought of as a different sort of animal from mice and rats. The relatively large animal we usually call the water vole today, Arvicola amphibius, was called the ‘water rat’ (as it still is sometimes today), or less commonly the ‘water mouse’. The smaller field vole, Microtus agrestis, was often just the ‘field mouse’, not distinguished from Apodemus sylvaticus, although it was sometimes distinguished as the ‘water mouse’ or the ‘short-tailed field mouse’ (as opposed to the ‘long-tailed field mouse’ A. sylvaticus—if you’ve ever wondered why people still call A. sylvaticus the ‘long-tailed field mouse’, even though its tail isn’t much longer than that of other British mice, that’s probably why!) The bank vole, Myodes glareolus, seems not to have been distinguished from the field vole before 1832 (the two species are similar in appearance, one distinction being that whereas the bank vole’s tail is about half its body length, the field vole’s tail is about 30% to 40% of its body length).
As an example, a reference to a species of vole as a ‘mouse’ can be found in the 1910 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica:
The snow-mouse (Arvicola nivalis) is confined to the alpine and snow regions. (vol. 1, p. 754, under “Alps”)
Today that would be ‘the snow vole (Chionomys nivalis)’.
A number of other small British mammals were traditionally subsumed under the ‘mouse’ category, namely:
- Shrews, which were often referred to as shrewmice from the 16th to the 19th centuries, although ‘shrew’ on its own is the older word (it is attested in Old English, but its ultimate origin is unknown).
- Bats, which in older language could also be referred to by a number of whimsical compound words, the oldest and most common being rearmouse, from a now-obsolete verb meaning ‘stir’, but also rattlemouse, flindermouse, flickermouse, flittermouse and fluttermouse. The word rearmouse is still used today in the strange language of heraldry.
- And, of course, dormice, which are still referred to by a compound ending in ‘-mouse’, although we generally don’t think of them as true mice today. The origin of the ‘dor-‘ prefix is uncertain; the word is attested first in c. 1425. There was an Old English word sisemūs for ‘dormouse’ whose origins are similarly mysterious, but the -mūs element is clearly ‘mouse’.
There is still some indeterminacy about the boundaries of the ‘mouse’ category when non-British rodent species are included: for example, are birch mice mice?
So, where did the word ‘vole’ come from? Well, according to the OED, it was first used in a book called History of the Orkney Islands (available from archive.org), published in 1805 and written by one George Barry, who was not a native of Orkney but a minister who preached there. In a list of the animals that inhabit Orkney, we find the following entry (alongside entries for the Shrew Mouse ſorex araneus, the [unqualified] Mouse mus muſculus, and the [unqualified] Field Mouse mus sylvaticus):
The Short-tailed Field Mouse, (mus agreſtis, Lin. Syſt.) which with us has the name of the vole mouſe, is very often found in marſhy grounds that are covered with moſs and ſhort heath, in which it makes roads or tracks of about three inches in breadth, and ſometimes miles in length, much worn by continual treading, and warped into a thouſand different directions. (p. 320)
So George Barry knew vole mouse as the local, Orkney dialectal word for the Orkney vole, which he was used to calling a ‘short-tailed field mouse’ (evidently he wasn’t aware that the Orkney voles were actually of a different species from the Scottish M. agrestis—I don’t know when the Orkney voles’ distinctiveness was first identified). Now, given that vole mouse was an Orkney dialect word, its further etymology is straightforward: the vole element is from Old Norse vǫllr ‘field’ (cf. English wold, German Wald ‘forest’), via the Norse dialect once spoken in Orkney and Shetland (sometimes known as ‘Norn’). So the Norse, like the English, thought of voles as ‘field mice’. The word vole is therefore the only English word I know, that isn’t about something particularly to do with Orkney or Shetland, that has been borrowed from Norn.
Of course, Barry only introduced vole mouse as a Orcadianism; he wasn’t proposing that the word be used to replace ‘short-tailed field mouse’. The person responsible for that seems to have been the author of the next quotation in the OED, from an 1828 book titled A History of British Animals by University of Edinburgh graduate John Fleming (available from archive.org). On p. 23, under an entry for the genus Arvicola, Fleming notes that
The species of this genus differ from the true mice, with which the older authors confounded them, by the superior size of the head, the shortness of the tail, and the coarseness of the fur.
He doesn’t explain where he got the name vole from, nor does he seem to reference Barry’s work at all, but he does list alternative common names of each of the two vole species he identifies. The species Arvicola aquatica, which he names the ‘Water Vole’ for the first time, is noted to also be called the ‘Water Rat’, ‘Llygoden y dwfr’ (in Welsh) or ‘Radan uisque’ (in Scottish Gaelic). The species Arvicola agrestis, which he names the ‘Field Vole’ for the first time, is noted to be also called the ‘Short-tailed mouse’, ‘Llygoden gwlla’r maes’ (in Welsh), or “Vole-mouse in Orkney”.
Fleming also separated the shrews, bats and dormice from the true mice, thus establishing division of the British mammals into basic one-word-labelled categories that we are familiar with today. With respect to the other British mammals, the naturalists seem to have found the traditional names to be sufficiently precise: for example, each of the three quite similar species of the genus Mustela has its own name—M. erminea being the stoat, M. nivalis being the weasel, and M. putorius being the polecat.
Fleming still didn’t distinguish the field vole and the bank vole; that innovation was made by one Mr. Yarrell in 1832, who exhibited specimens of each to the Zoological Society, demonstrated their distinctiveness and gave the ‘bank vole’ (his coinage) the Latin name Arvicola riparia. It was later found that the British bank vole was the same species as a German one described by von Schreber in 1780 as Clethrionomys glareolus, and so that name took priority (and just recently, during the 2010s, the name Myodes has come to be favoured for the genus over Clethrionomys—I don’t know why exactly).
In the report of Yarrell’s presentation in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society the animals are referred to as the ‘field Campagnol‘ and ‘bank Campagnol‘, so the French borrowing campagnol (‘thing of the field’, still the current French word for ‘vole’) seems to have been favoured by some during the 19th century, although Fleming’s recognition of voles as distinct from mice was universally accepted. The word ‘vole’ was used by other authors such as Thomas Bell in A History of British Quadrupeds including the Cetacea (1837), and eventually the Orcadian word seems to have prevailed and entered ordinary as well as naturalists’ usage.
Haynes, S., Jaarola, M., & Searle, J. B. (2003). Phylogeography of the common vole (Microtus arvalis) with particular emphasis on the colonization of the Orkney archipelago. Molecular Ecology, 12, 951–956.
Martínkova, N., Barnett, R., Cucchi, T., Struchen, R., Pascal, M., Pascal, M., Fischer, M. C., Higham, T., Brace, S., Ho, S. Y. W., Quéré, J., O’Higgins, P., Excoffier, L., Heckel, G., Rus Hoelzel, A., Dobney, K. M., & Searle, J. B. (2013). Divergent evolutionary processes associated with colonization of offshore islands. Molecular Ecology, 22, 5205–5220.
Montgomery, W. I., Provan, J., Marshal McCabe, A., & Yalden, D. W. (2014). Origin of British and Irish mammals: disparate post-glacial colonisation and species introductions. Quaternary Science Reviews, 98, 144–165.