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  The Folklore of the Orkney Islands

"The winter gathered us into one room as it gathered the cattle into the stable and the byre; the sky came closer; the lamps were lit at three or four in the afternoon, and then the great evening lay before us like a world: an evening filled with talk, stories, games music and lamplight."
Edwin Muir

The Storyteller: Art by Sigurd TowrieMagic has fled the world....

...but not completely. It has taken refuge in the few places remaining where it can still thrive.

Orkney is one such place.

A place where, in winter, a black cloak of darkness almost constantly covers the islands and the Orcadian people gathered around their fires to pass the long nights with song and story.

Their folklore is a vital part of the vanishing magic.

Given the mystical, almost dreamlike landscape of the Orkney Islands, with standing stones, ancient ruins, burial mounds and spectacular scenery, all hemmed in by the invisible walls of a raging sea, it is not surprising that the islands have such a rich and varied folklore. A folklore that was able to develop and spread around the winter flames.

But this lore is in danger of disappearing - the children of Orkney are no longer told the tales, so cannot in turn pass them on to future generations.

Years of persecution and ridicule, by ministers, schoolteachers and other "worthies" who saw it as their duty to relieve the islanders of their "ridiculous beliefs" took their toll.

In The Orcadian newspaper of March 15, 1856, for example, the Birsay correspondent wrote:

"Mr W. lectured on popular superstitions, showing the absurdity of a belief in witchcraft, fairies, ghosts, hobgoblins, and the whole of the superstitious ideas derived from the idolatrous religion of our ancestors.

“We were sorry to see that so few of the class, for whose benefit the lectures were delivered, were in attendance; and we are afraid that the old wives of the neighbourhood are as superstitious as they were before...''

The folklore and traditions clung on, but gradually the age-old cycle of telling and retelling was broken. So now we must look to other ways to preserve and disseminate the information.

Which neatly explains the purpose of these web pages.

Orkney's most esteemed writer, the late George Mackay Brown, summed the situation up perfectly when he wrote:

"We cannot live fully without the treasury our ancestors have left to us"

...so let us begin....

What is Orkney Folklore?

Section Contents

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

External Links
Orkney Heritage

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