Trows, Fin folk and Selkies
Local historian and storyteller Tom Muir, whose knowledge of Orkney's folklore is recognised worldwide, writes here about some of the creatures our ancestors shared their lives with. Some of the stories are repeated later in this Folklore and old stories section of the website as they differ a little in the telling from Tom's version.
Trow is the Orkney name for the fairy folk, although they are also known by that name too. Trow has the same source as the word Troll in Norwegian. Around the shores of Scapa Flow there are many stories relating to these troublesome and dangerous creatures.
The valley in Hoy where the Dwarfie Stane lies is called the Trowie Glen, the valley of the trows. Here a young man was lured into a brightly-lit cave where the trows were having a dance. He was issued a passport into the land of the trows by their king and joined in the fun. The night ended in disaster once he lit his pipe, as the trows were overcome with the fumes and passed out. There was a noise like a clap of thunder and the man fell senseless to the floor, only to wake outside a rabbit hole with not a trow in sight.
Two men from Orphir went to Stromness one Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve) to buy a stoneware jar of whisky for that night’s celebration. On passing the mound at Howe they heard music and went to investigate. They saw a door standing open in the side of the mound and inside they could see the trows dancing. The man with the jar of whisky went in and joined in the dance, but always refused to leave, saying "Wait until the reel's over". The other man left him, but he never came back. The following year he returned to the mound and found the door had reappeared and he could see his friend was still inside, dancing. He was asked to leave, but still answered "Wait until the reel's over". His friend grabbed him and pulled him out of the mound, much to the dancer's annoyance. He thought that he had only been in the mound for a minute and would not believe he had been away for a year until he saw that he had danced his shoes to shreds. The jar of whisky was found to be empty too!
The Mainland fairies decided that there were too many ministers preaching the gospel and decided to go and live among the hills of Hoy. They met on the night of the full moon at the Black Craig outside Stromness and the most agile jumped right over to the Kame of Hoy with a rope. He secured it so that the rest of the fairies could run over it like a bridge. Unfortunately the rope broke when they were halfway over and they were swept away by the sea, and that was the end of them.
It was on the shore below the headland of Breckness that a local farmer once saw a mermaid sitting combing her long, golden hair. He saw that she had taken off her sea skin, as Orkney mermaids are not bound to their fish’s tail. He crept among the rocks until he was able to snatch it and conceal it under his jacket. She begged him to return it otherwise she would never be able to go back to the sea again, but he knew that as long as he had the skin he held power over her. They were married and had six children, three boys and three girls. The mermaid encouraged her children to ask their father where he held the stolen sea skin, and one day he told one of his daughters. She ran to her mother and told her where it was and so the mermaid got back her skin and returned to the sea from whence she came. She would come ashore from time to time to comb her children’s hair, and it is said that her song can still be heard along the shores of Breckness even to this day.
Fin folk are said to be the men folk of the mermaids, but they look very different. They are covered with fins, which they wrap around their body, and use their powerful magic to make it look like clothes to mortals. They live under the sea in a fine city of coral and crystal called Finfolkaheem. They also spend their summers living on beautiful islands known as Heather Blether or Hilda Land. These islands are usually hidden from our eyes by magic, but some fishermen have claimed that they have landed on it while lost in a mysterious fog. Island mirages can often be seen during humid days in the summer months.
Many tales are told of the selkie folk, who have the power to remove their seal skins at certain times of the year (usually said to be midsummer) and to dance on the beach until the sun rises. These stories only apply to the larger Atlantic Grey Seal, not the Common Seal. Many stories tell of how a young man sees the selkie folk dancing and steals the skin of a seal maiden, who has to go with him and be his wife. After several years she finds her skin and abandons her family to return to the sea.
On the island of Graemsay there was a strange story told of a bride who was abducted by a seal during her wedding party. A watch had been set and a large male selkie was caught approaching the house of Ramray where the party was being held. The young men tied it up and slit its throat before fastening it to a large nail in the end of the house. Once the threat had been removed the bride let down her guard and went outside for a breath of air by herself. A scream was heard and when they rushed outside they found the seal was gone and so was the bride. These selkies had some magic about them, as they left a replacement bride that they called a 'sea wife'. She was wizened and had a foul temper, but the Graemsay man must have decided that a bad wife was better than none, and together they raised a family.
It is said that giants once roamed Hoy, but the most detailed story of a giant was about one who came from Caithness. He was a keen gardener and would often look out towards Orkney with envy as the land there was so green and fertile. One day he took a straw basket slung over his shoulder and set off to get some good Orkney soil. He was so big that he waded across the Pentland Firth like it was a puddle. He found a likely spot and set down his basket and took two great scoops of land which filled it to the top. Water flowed into the holes left and made the Stenness and Harray Lochs. He slung the basket on his back and started to walk home. As he was walking a large piece of turf fell off the top of the basket into the sea and made the island of Graemsay (some say the Holms were also made in this way). He went further, but disaster struck and the band of the basket broke, spilling all the earth that he had gathered. He left it there and to this day we can see it as the Hills of Hoy.
In 1814 Sir Walter Scott visited Stromness and met Bessie Millie, the witch who lived on Brinkies Brae and sold fair winds to sailors for sixpence a time. She was succeeded by Mammie Scott, who also lived in Stromness and had the winds at her command. One ship's captain was foolish enough to steal one of Mammie Scott's ducks before leaving Stromness. As the ship sailed into Hoy Sound she appeared at the Point of Ness and waved a silk handkerchief at the ship and the wind suddenly died down and a flat calm fell over the waters. The ship drifted back and went aground on the Point of Ness, despite the fact that the tide was flowing in the opposite direction. The captain had to apologise and pay her for the duck before he could get his ship back into the sea and sail away.
One sailor from Stornoway in the island of Lewis bought a fair wind from Mammie Scott for his journey home. She gave him a piece of red woollen thread that had three knots tied in it. He was told to untie the knots if he needed better wind, but on no account was he to untie the third. He untied the first knot as he left Stromness and the wind picked up and he had a fine sail towards Cape Wrath before untying the second knot. The wind freshened and the boat made good speed. As he entered the harbour in Stornoway his curiosity got the better of him and he decided to untie the third knot. No sooner had he done this than the wind swung around against him and rose to a fierce storm which blew his boat all the way back to Stromness.
There was another witch who had a house overlooking Scapa Bay where she lived with her only son. One day a school of pilot whales were spotted in Scapa Flow and the men of Scapa prepared their boats to drive the whales ashore for their meat and valuable oil. The witch’s son begged his mother to let him go in one of the boats, but she refused and forbade him to go as she thought that he was too young. The youth ignored his mother and slipped away to join one of the local boats. The whales were driven into Scapa Bay and the bloody business of the slaughter began. As the day wore on the witch appeared among them, furious that her son had disobeyed her. She walked into the water a short distance, muttered a spell and put a thimble on one of her fingers which she drove down into the sand. She pulled her finger free of the thimble, leaving it buried in the sand. She turned to the crowd and said in a loud, clear voice: "There will never be any more whales captured in this bay until the day that my thimble is found." Her words proved to be true, and since that day there has never been a whale ashore in Scapa Bay.
The Barrel of Butter
The skerry in Scapa Flow known as the Barrel of Butter is so called because its taxable value was one barrel of butter a year. The reason it had a taxable value at all was because it was a breeding ground for seals and their skin and oil was valuable. It has a strange story attached to it about how it was created. When work began on St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall in 1137 the women of Kirkwall went to fetch stones. They had an ability lacking in modern Kirkwallian women; they could walk on water. They set off to walk to Hoy to get stones for the building of the cathedral, which they carried back in their sackcloth aprons. After a while a group of them were returning when they met a woman coming the other way who told them that the work was finished and the cathedral needed no more stones. They dumped their loads into the sea and that was what made the Barrel of Butter.
© Tom Muir