As I mentioned last week, the Orkney Islands are rich with history, and with that history comes a wellspring of old legends and local folklore. Every culture has them, but with the Nordic influence on Orkney we have developed a folklore quite distinct from that which exists in Scotland, with its Gaelic traditions. Over the next few instalments of this blog, I’m going to shine a light on some famed creatures of Orkney myth.
Surely the most famous mythical creatures most widely associated with the Orkney Islands are trows. Trows are described as small, ugly creatures, like shrunken trolls – the word “trow” is often referred to as an Orcadian corruption of the word “troll.” They were said to live in the many hills and mounds that can be found on the Orkney landscape, only emerging from their underground caves at night. Once darkness fell, they would enter human households once the occupants had retired to bed for the night, and warm themselves by the fire or steal various trinkets. There are old accounts of terrified people lying in their beds wide awake, listening to the pattering of tiny footsteps at the far end of their house!
While trows were generally considered to be mischievous pranksters, there was a darker side to the myth. It was commonly believed that trows loved to steal babies and swap them with changelings. These changelings were said to be the natural offspring of the trows – frail, misshapen creatures – who the trows were eager to get rid of in exchange for healthy human babies. This was evidently the way old cultures explained birth defects and disabilities, and so any poor infant afflicted with such conditions was often considered to be a changeling, and thus neglected by their parents. Just one of the ways that the trow myth has haunted the Orkney consciousness.
“Trow and Bairn” illustration by Sigurd Towrie
But it’s not just babies that the trows stole. They were also reported to steal adults from time to time, with young women proving particularly vulnerable, replacing them with identical doppelgangers known as stocks. According to legend, the only way to tell a stock apart from a real human was to set fire to them. In their last burning screams, their true monstrous nature would be revealed.
Of course, while once the trows were widely feared in Orkney and Shetland, the arrival of modern, enlightened times has diminished their power. Few Orcadians believe in trows these days, though you might find the occasional Merksay Islander who will swear on their life that they saw a small, dishevelled figure scurrying about on the hills at night!
For more information on trows, visit OrkneyJar, a wonderful resource on Orcadian life and legend.