Folklore of the Orkney Islands

A Pilgrimage to the Orkney Islands - Why We Became Human

Orcadian Folklore covers the folk traditions, superstitions and myths of the Orkney Islands. This archipelago, in the northern tip of Scotland, shares traditions with the Shetlands and Faroe Islands that reflect its Norse-Gaelic heritage. It includes eerie accounts of sea serpents, trows and shapeshifting seals.

The Orkneys have a population of 22,000 and a landscape of treeless hills and towering crags. Strong winds are common and temperatures rarely exceed 12 degrees celcius. 

In the Stone Age, indigenous Orcadians built villages and megaliths out of stone slabs. The Picts inhabited the islands in Roman times. In the 9th century, Vikings took over and ruled the Orkneys until Scotland annexed the region in 1472. Today both the Orkney dialect and gene pool is three-quarters Scottish and one-quarter Scandinavian. 

Two factors give Orkney folklore its unique flavour:

  • Geography. The North Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean in the Orkneys, making for notoriously stormy waters. Seals, sharks and sea birds are a common sight, drowning a common death. 
  • Ruins. Megaliths, barrow mounds and ancient stone villages dominate the Orkneys. Built around 3,000 BC, they awed later inhabitants and earned a hallowed reputation. Ancient sites inspired myths of fairies and ‘hidden people’ who called them home.
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Trows are the foremost of these ‘hidden people’. Squat goblin-like creatures, they inhabit hinterlands and barrows of Orkney. Their name derives from the Scandinavian ‘troll’. Like trolls, they are ugly and malicious, like fairies small and mischievous. Trows kidnap human babies and replace them with their own. The ‘hogboon’ was a more benevolent house-spirit.

Sea Serpents are common. The Stoorworm was a sea dragon with a monstrous appetite. According to legend, Assipattle the farmer’s son, slew it by sneaking into the Stoorworm’s belly and lighting a peat fire in its liver. In 1804 fishermen found the Stronsay Beast, an unidentified carcass washed up at sea – 4 feet wide and 10 feet long. Scientists concluded it was a decomposed basking shark. 

Selkies are shapeshifters who take the form of humans on land and seals at sea. While their human forms are beguiling, they can only revert through their sealskin. Stories abound of selkies who take human lovers and the complications that subsequently arise. Selkie myths spread from the Orkneys to Iceland, the Faroes, Shetlands, western Scotland and parts of Ireland.

Finnfolk are malicious sea spirits who abduct humans. Their summer home is the vanishing isle of Hildaland, their winter home is Finnfolkaheem, deep beneath the sea. Finnmen prey on fishermen who sail too far out to sea. Their daughters are mermaids. If one fails to find a human husband, she must marry a finnman and will rapidly wither into a haggish ‘finnwife’ thereafter. They then take to land and funnel silver back to their husbands. Orcadians blamed finnfolk for death at sea. 

Selkies and Finnfolk may be of common origin. There are three possible explanations:

  1. Sami. The Norwegians used to view their reindeer herding neighbours as magic-workers to be feared and avoided. They called them ‘Finnar’. The finnfolk could have come from misremembered accounts brought by Norwegian colonists.
  2. Inuit. Orcadian fishermen occasionally saw Greenland Inuit at sea. Dressed in sealskin robes and rowing canoes, they looked alien to the fisherman, who kept their distance and reported the sightings to their families.
  3. Medical conditions. Syndallacty is when children have conjoined fingers and/or toes resembling a seal’s flipper. It is hereditary and used to be common in the Orkneys; people claimed it came from selkie ancestry.

Sources: Orkneyjar, Owlcation.

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