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  The Folklore of the Orkney Islands

"The first law of story-telling - every man is bound to leave a story better than he found it."

The Storm Witch: Illustration by Sigurd TowrieOrkney's 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 lore existed.

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.

A tongue here and there was touched to enchantment by starlight and peat flame."

George Mackay Brown
Foreword to Winter Tales

The 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 folk.

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.

Ghosts 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.

In spite of its frequent excursion into a twilight world, where nothing is known for certain, our folklore supplies answers as readily as it creates questions.

When 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.

Section Contents

See Also
The Battle Poem of the Valkyries
Orkney and the Arthurian Legends
The Everlasting Battle
Customs and Traditions
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