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  Orkney's Giant Folklore

Orcadian Giant: Art by Sigurd TowrieIn Norse mythology, giants were the first creatures who came to life among the icebergs filling the vast primeval abyss.

When Ymir, the first giant, fell lifeless on the ice, slain by the gods, his progeny were drowned in his blood.

Only one couple, Bergelmir and his wife, escaped to Jotunheim, where they took up residence and became the parents of all the giant race, as well as nemesis of the gods.

To the early Norse, the giants were personifications of the towering mountain peaks that surrounded them. They were huge, uncouth creatures that turned to cold, hard stone when struck by sunlight. For this reason, they were unable to move about the countryside, except under the protection of night or a blanket of thick fog.

When not feuding with the gods of Asgard, the immensely-powerful Norse giants quarrelled and bickered among themselves, casting their massive stone axes, boulders or stones at each other in fits of rage.

A Viking import?

Once again, it will come as no surprise to learn that, when the Norsemen settled in Orkney, they transplanted their belief in giants.

When confronted with the multitude of standing stones that litter the islands, they immediately assumed these megaliths had to be the remains of the petrified giants common in their homeland.

But giant lore did not become as rooted in Orkney folklore as some of the other Norse additions.

Compared to the other (smaller) creatures of Orcadian folklore - such as trows and fairies - there was practically nowhere in Orkney where these transplanted giants could feasibly "conceal" themselves.

Subsequently, belief soon died out. One exception to this was in the valleys and hills of Hoy and Rousay, where the belief in giants persisted until the early years of the 20th century.

The characteristics of the Orcadian giant

Orkney's giants differed little from their Scandinavian cousins.

They quarrelled and argued, hurled massive boulders across the islands, tried, usually unsuccessfully, to connect the islands with bridges and built huge structures so they might take a seat while fishing. They were also cursed to turn to stone if struck by sunlight.

In common with the older Norwegian tales in which the giants were hardly distinguishable from the trolls, the trolls' habit of spiriting away young girls, particularly princesses, was passed to the Orkney giant. This applies in particular to one, unnamed, giant - the one found in the tale of Peeriefool and the Princess.

Giant lore, as it survives today, is fragmentary and usually takes the form of folktales that explain the occurrence of a natural feature - features such as large rocks, a mound or standing stone.

This type of tale is common throughout Britain where the origin of numerous solitary megaliths or stone rings is explained as being giants (or witches) who, for various reasons, were turned to stone. The best-known example of this is the massive stone circle of Stonehenge, which was known as "The Giant's Dance".

Petrified giant or standing stone?

Throughout history, the "petrified giant" motif has probably been applied to practically all of Orkney's standing stones.

The Stane o' Quoybune in the parish of Birsay and the Yetnasteen - Yetnasteen being a corruption of Jotun Stein - in Rousay are probably the best examples of this. Click here for more information on these "walking stones".

Where a standing stone's was not explained away as a being the remains of a petrified giant, in common with the Norse tales, it was said to have been thrown there by a giant. Examples of such stones are the Fingersteen in Rousay and Eday's Setter Stone. The Giant Stone on Copinsay was said to have been thrown there by a giant from the farm of Stembister in Deerness.

In later years, the role of the stone-throwing giant was assumed by Orkney's witches, who became responsible for a few stones found in the isles. The Stone o' Scar, in Sanday, is one example.

Evidence of gigantic exploits

Across Orkney, the origin of a number of skerries and mounds were explained as being the result of the failed construction attempts of giants - most often Cubbie Roo.

The features could have been the result of giant's dropping rocks or were the remains of a collapsed bridge. A good example of the collapsed bridge motif is the Echna Loch in Burray, where a perfect "bridge" of shingle has piled up by the sea.

In the West Mainland, the motif of the giant's lost load is elevated to higher proportions. There, it was said, a Scottish giant waded across the Pentland Firth to collect a basket of fertile earth from Orkney.

Arriving in the islands, he scooped up two handfuls of earth and rock. The depressions left by his hands filled with water to become the lochs of Harray and Stenness.

Then, as the satisfied giant turned homeward, bearing his load of good Orcadian soil, a piece of turf fell from his basket to form the island of Graemsay.

A little further on disaster struck. The carrying rope snapped and the basket's load was sent tumbling into the sea where it formed the island of Hoy.