Orkney Folklore: Bonnie Shaw

There is not much written about Bonnie Shaw. OrkneyJar and all these other wonderful resources go into detail about the trows and the phantom animals and the restless children and all the other ghosts and ghouls that populate the islands, but you won’t find any academic resources talking about Bonnie Shaw. But ask someone in Orkney or Shetland, and they’ll tell you. He is perhaps the most terrifying of all the creatures of Orkney folklore.

An Orkney schoolchild's interpretation of Bonnie Shaw.

An Orkney schoolchild’s interpretation of Bonnie Shaw.

Like many of the old traditions, elements of the Bonnie Shaw story could have been imported from Nordic myth. The story of Dr. Schaeffenhaus that lingers in Scandinavian legend is very similar. But he seems to have become particularly ingrained in the islands that hover on Scotland’s periphery, a horrific, unspoken part of the landscape. The story of Bonnie Shaw is that he would visit parents who were going through hard times – perhaps their crops had failed, or there was illness in the family – and offer to use his vast magical powers to fix the problem. By all accounts there was no miracle that was beyond Bonnie Shaw’s capabilities to make reality. But the goodwill gesture always came at a price. In exchange for this service, the parents would have to abandon any claim of ownership of their child, passing custody over to Bonnie Shaw. This was not merely a straight exchange. By all accounts, Bonnie Shaw was a cruel figure, and would claim the debt at his own leisure, waiting long enough that the parents had only just begun to entertain hope that the debt had been forgotten before swiping the child away without warning. Where the child went after this is unknown: some believe that Bonnie Shaw feeds on children, while others think he merely collects them like trinkets, taking them back to his home to act as his servants for all eternity.

But Bonnie Shaw’s influence was considered to be more insidious than simply offering Faustian bargains. It is said that he would use dark magicks to break down the resolve of communities, make them more pliable to accept his wicked deals, and more willing to disconnect with their children. This meant that some parents feared they had fallen under Bonnie Shaw’s spell whenever they had angry or hateful thoughts about their sons or daughters, and there was even an annual celebration – since lost to time – where parents would dance and sing songs in a display of appreciation for their children, who were sat on makeshift thrones and given handmade crowns, in an attempt to dissuade Bonnie Shaw’s attentions!

Like the Black Dog, the Bonnie Shaw myth is so old and nebulous that its origins are unclear. But while he may be a known entity all around Orkney and Shetland, there is one place that above all others is considered his home. You won’t find it in any official writing, but that’s the other thing Merksay is famous for. More than any other island, this is the place that Bonnie Shaw has been said to return to the most often over the centuries. And even today, while the rest of our folklore has faded into quaint superstition for most, the mention of Bonnie Shaw will drain the colour from the faces of most Merksay Islanders. Here, Bonnie Shaw still has power. Bad things have happened here, and of course there’s a perfectly rational explanation for it all, but right there, on the tip of everyone’s tongues, are the words no one will say. Bonnie Shaw. It’s all stuff and nonsense, of course. Bonnie Shaw’s just a legend. There’s no such thing as Bonnie Shaw.

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