first law of story-telling - every man is bound to leave a story better than he
folklore is a tangled web of interconnecting threads, combining elements of Norse,
Scottish and Celtic myth.
Although on first glance
it seems that the Norse lore is by far the most prevalent influence, this is not
necessarily the case...
There is absolutely no doubt that
the impact of our Norse predecessors' arrival on the islands was considerable.
Each longship that pulled into Orkney waters brought not
only the settlers but also their distinct language, customs, traditions and beliefs.
These people carried with them epic tales of giants,
dwarfs, trolls and numerous other magical creatures from their homelands. As the
generations passed, with each retelling these creatures were transplanted from
the dramatic glaciars, mountains and fjords of Scandinavia into the low, rolling
hills of the Orcadian landscape.
But it would be incorrect
to say that new Scandinavian lore completely obliterated whatever native Orcadian
More likely it merged with the indigenous
folklore of the time creating the Orcadian tales and traditions we know today
- folklore with a distinct Celtic/Pictish base onto which numerous strong Norse
elements became grafted.
As such Orkney's folklore can
be easily split into two distinct groups - the tales surrounding the
sea and its magical inhabitants and the tales of the
creatures who wandered the land.
"It was in winter that the islanders
gathered round the hearth fire to listen to stories. Harvest was gathered in.
The ears that had listened only to necessary farming and fishing words all the
year of toil and ripening were ready for more ancient images and rhythms.
tongue here and there was touched to enchantment by starlight and peat flame."
Foreword to Winter Tales
sea, always a major part of life for Orcadians, was home to numerous supernatural
denizens, from the black-clad, dour-faced Finmen,
to the handsome, gentle, but generally deceptive selkie
The land also had its share of magical dwellers.
The hollow hills dotting the Orkney countryside housed
the mischievous trows and fairies
who rampaged through the still nights creating havoc, stealing away their mortal
neighbours and sickening livestock.
stalked silent churchyards and ancient ruins, witches
practised their 'black arts' on deserted sea-shores, while in the ancient mounds
by the farms, offerings were made to the benevolent dwellers-within
to ensure their protection continued unabated.
of its frequent excursion into a twilight world, where nothing is known for certain,
our folklore supplies answers as readily as it creates questions.
the myths and legends of Orkney are gathered together with surviving customs and
superstitions, they provide a unique insight into the long story of the Orcadian
people - to a memory bank revealing the hopes, fears and experiences of the numberless
generations of my ancestors.
To further explore the folklore
of Orkney, select from one of the categories in the menu to the top right.