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  • Writer's pictureStephen Jennings

In Depth - Halloween Treats

Whilst we would normally delight in presenting our (seemingly) annual Halloween talk this year, horrors of an altogether too real kind have limited us to dropping a few treats here. There are links galore in the following - sometimes fun, sometimes sobering - so clicking away will do the trick. All the excerpts come from "Examples of printed folk-lore concerning the Orkney & Shetland islands" from George Fraser Black except for the last found in "Shetland Folk-lore" by John Spence. We wish you all a safe October and a Happy Halloween!


How Women could become Witches

When it is full moon and midnight the aspirant after un-hallowed power goes alone to the seashore and lies down upon the beach below the flood-tide mark. She then puts her left hand under the soles of her feet and the right hand on the top of her head and repeats three times, "The muckle maister Deil tak' what's atween dis twa haunds." The devil then appears and clenches the bargain with shaking of hands. When this is done there is no retracting. The woman is his slave, and he gives her power on land and sea.

Witch Metamorphosis

I was told once of a witch who had taught her daughter some “tricks of the trade," and the girl, proud of her knowledge, changed herself into a raven, according to the maternal directions. But in learning how to become a bird, the girl had forgotten to receive the instructions necessary for returning to mortal mould, and would have remained a raven if her mother had not guessed somehow the state of the case. With great difficulty the witch contrived to restore her daughter's personal appearance, but not all her art could bring back the girl's natural voice. Croak she would, and croak she could, and all her descendants after her; and that was how the peculiar sound (called corbieing in Shetland) known as "a burr" came.

Trows & Witches

There was a girl, whose mother had been taken by the Trows at the girl's birth, who grew up to be a lovely creature, with golden hair. Such hair had never been seen in Unst, so long, soft shining. It fell in golden waves about her, and such an unusual mode of wearing it created much wonder. No maiden — not even a child — ever permitted her hair to fall as it pleased except this girl, and folks did say that whenever she tried to bind it to her head the bright locks refused to obey her fingers, and slowly untwined themselves until they became natural ringlets again. The girl was a sweet singer — and singing is a fairy gift — and she would wander about, lilting merrily to herself, while neighbours wondered, and young men lost their hearts. It was believed that the girl was under the special care of the Trows, for everything seemed to be smooth before her, and her golden hair was called "the blessing o' them that loves her." But it happened that a witch began to covet the maiden's lovely locks, and one day, when the girl lay down among some hay and fell asleep, the witch cut off all her beautiful hair. The poor young thing returned to her home shorn of her glory, and after that she pined away. All the song had died from her lips, all the smile had gone from her young face. But when she lay dead, in her teens, folks said that her golden hair began to grow again, and had grown to its former length and beauty ere the coffin lid was closed upon her. The witch did not triumph, for the Trows, who had loved and watched over the motherless girl, took possession of the malignant old hag and punished her as she deserved. She was compelled to wander about their haunts and to live in the most strange manner. She was haunted day and night by evil creatures. Whenever she tried to sleep the Trows would come and make such queer noises that she could not rest. She continued in that state till extreme old age, when she was spirited away altogether.

Witches & Ghosts

[After a wreck.] Some people saw the six men who had been in the boat at the south end of the island, near a well-known Trow haunt. They looked just as they had been in life, only for the kind of something in their faces that was no' just earthly altogether. And often after that they were seen — always the six of them — walking with their faces aye turned to the sea. Sometimes they appeared in the daytime and sometimes at night, but no one had the courage to speak to them until a sensible woman did so. They were passing near her house and she exclaimed, "Oh! what is this?" Then she called the skipper by his name and he spoke, but his voice was like a clap of thunder and she could not understand him. She said, "Moderate your speech, for I'm no' fit to stand it." Then the man spoke quite naturally, and the first he said was, "What is it that goes before the face of the Almighty?" and she replied,

'Justice and judgment of Thy throne

Are made the dwelling place;

Mercy, accompanied with truth,

Shall go before Thy face.'

After that the man conversed just as if he had been alive and he told her that when their boat came off the mouth of the fiord, Madge Coutts (a witch who disliked them) came it into the boat and seated herself on the thwart and they knew by her look that she had 'designed for their lives.' They hoped to get rid of her by striking her with their Luggie-staff (large fish-clip) and actually succeeded' in turning her over the gunwale, but in a moment she dived under the boat and got in on the other side in the form of a large black ox. Putting down her horns she struck them into the boat and drew out the hassen (board adjoining the keel to which the binders of a boat are attached) and then of course the boat went to pieces. The skipper said he could not rest because of some transaction that was not quite honest between himself and a brother, and he begged the women to set it right that the brother might have his own. She did so and the six men were seen no more. It was remembered that upon the day of the accident Madge Coutts was seen going in an her own chimney in the form of a grey cat, and that immediately afterwards a sulphur-tainted smoke was seen ascending.

Trows & Ghosts

There lived in Fraam Gord a woman called Catherine Tammasdaughter, who practised midwifery. One dark, stormy night, as she and her husband were asleep, a messenger from the trows appeared at the bedside. Instead of the goodman getting up and having a say in the matter, he is thrown by a magic spell into the most profound slumber, so that he is quite oblivious to his wife's departure.

Catherine is soon ready, and is conducted to the seashore, where a small boat is in waiting. The night is dark and murky, and the sea is breaking on the shore, but fearlessly she takes her seat in the tiny skiff. With amazing speed they skim the waves, and soon she is landed in the Wick o' Groten, in the island of Fetlar. Presently she is ushered into a spacious cavern, where a great company of strange beings are gathered together. The special object of Catherine's visit is soon accomplished, and she is presented with a tiny pig (jar), containing an ointment for anointing the new-born child. While she is performing this delicate operation, she accidentally touches one of her eyes. No sooner does the mysterious ointment touch the eyelid than she beholds a certain woman of her former acquaintance, who had been some time dead. Calling her by name, she exclaims:

“Lass, what w’y is du come here?"

“What e'e saw du yon wi'?" enquires one of the trows.

“Dis ene," replies Catherine, pointing to her left eye.

Immediately by an elf-shot she is struck blind on the eye that had been thus mysteriously opened to behold the secrets of this enchanted dwelling.


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