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In this collection are Scottish folktales and legends that has delighted grown-ups and children for long. These often fascinating old stories come from various parts of Scotland. The tales that follow,have been culled from many works, some word explanations have been added, and the language updated a bit. Book references are at bottom of this page.

From the Orkneys

The Orkneys is an archipelago far north in Scotland. All the islands consists of old, red sandstone. People have lived there for at least 8,500 years. On the Orkneys are some of the oldest and best-preserved Stone Age sites in the world, and some are included in Unesco's World Heritage.

The climate is mild and the soil very fertile. Most of the land is cultivated. Agriculture is one of the main industries, while wind energy and energy from the ocean are becoming increasingly important. Bird life is abundant and the scenery breathtaking.

The Orkneys were colonised by people from western Norway around 875. Many settled there. The islands fell to Scotland from around 1472, when the Danish king of the Dano-Norwegian union failed to pay the dowry for Margaret of Denmark, the bride of Jacob (James) III of Scotland. The Scots took over the security that had been offered on that occasion - the Orkneys and Shetland Islands.

The language on the islands was until the 1700s Norn, which was derived from Old Norse. Norn was gradually replaced by Scots, which in turn has become Scottish English.

The largest island on the Orkneys is called the Mainland.

John Firth (1922) describes in details how people lived, what kind of furniture they had, how the outhouses were like, how they went about threshing their grain, how they ground flour and brewed beer. He likewise describes what they were doing at winter-time, how they used straw to needlework, carded, spun, wove, and braided straw. How young people went about to get a mate and get married is also dealt with by Firth. The staple food, diseases, acricultural tools, how they kept their sheep, harvested and avoided taxation - livestock, markets, feast days, upbringing - Firth offers glimpses into these sides to Orkney life, and still others - several generations ago.

Firth's book offers a great overview of the cultural background of the stories people entertained themselves with in evenings and winter nights before electricity, radio and television appeared.

A folk hero

Assipattle, Aessiepattle, Ashiepelt, Aessi-pattle: Literally, one who sits raking in the ashes, maybe tending the embers or fire also. The last part of the word, pattle, is poke. The German aschenputtel and Danish askepott carry the same meaning. Also compare the Norwegian glorake, which is a poker.

The Assipattle (Ashlad) of Scandianvian folk tales is a type character that typifies how to get on in the world, nobly or otherwise.


Supernatural Orkadians and What They Do

In places where humans settle, many supernatural creatures are soon told of. "Aside from the Æsir [Norse gods], the Dwarfs, and the Giants, our forefathers peopled the universe with other supernatural beings," the Norwegian Peter A. Munch writes. In Norse mythology, such creatures are said to represent forces or influences in nature: "[The Norse god] Thor . . . guarded men and their labors from the wild forces of nature, personified as Giants. Thus he held sway . . . thunder and lightning always were the special province of Thor," writes Munch further, in his [Norse mythology]. Norse giants became trolls after Christianity came to the North, and brave people oppose trolls in Norse literature and in many Scandinavian folk tales. It is possible to draw a parallel to Thor's fights against giants at this point. (Cf. Bø et al. 1982, 13)

Speaking of forces or trolls, human imagination is a formidable gift, say both Zoroaster and Dr Rudolf Steiner, with much time between them. Be that as it may, trolls in mountainous regions may be large and grotesque, but in flat countries they are not. On some islands some trolls have features in common with buried Norse vikings in mounds - keeping underground, sinister, having hidden or buried treasures also.

On land

Orkney trows

Tales of trolls (trows) are among the most popular ones. The Orkney trow is a somewhat small, ugly and shy villain. He shares features with folklore elves. Orkney trows come out of their mounds from the evening and into the night. During these hours they get into houses where people sleep, make noices and jump about. Their own homes deep within the mounds are wealthy, and their mound walls are adorned with costly metals.

Orkney trows are fond of music, in particular fiddle music. In the legends they seize musicans to play for them, or trick or allure them to their mounds. There the musicians have no other choice than to play.


The hogboon is an underground creature that typically lives in a burial mound near a farmhouse or other house, and can bring luck to the home and garden if he is treated friendly and respectfully. If not, he may move.

He is nicer than the trow, People on the Orkneys used to set out some food on the mounds for the hogboons.


Orcadian giants threw large rocks at each other and tried to build bridges between islands, but without much success.

In the Sea

Seal folks, selkies

People on the Orkneys and elsewhere along the Atlantic coast believed of seal women and seal men, called selkies, silkies, selchies. The selkies lived close to nature, and were capable of changing into human form.

Selkies were believed to live as seals in the waters, but also that on land they could drop their seal skins to become humans for some time, before they had to dive into the sea again. If someone found and hid the sealskins left by selkies who had changed into humans, the selkie had to remain on land afterwards, or until they find their skins again. In the meantime the selkie-turned-human often marries and get children, all the while longing for a dive in the ocean again and waiting for a chance to do it.

Some seal woman get fond of the human who hid the seal skin and married the human-formed seal woman, and devote themselves to their human husband and children. Other selkies allure people out into the sea in midsummer, and then the humans disappear.

Mester Stoor Worm

In Orkney lore, there is a monstrous creature known as the Mester Stoor Worm. He lived in the deep sea. When he lays with his head near a kingdom the people has to feed him or get destroyed.

Orkney's Stoor Worm resembles the monstrous Midgardsorm, Jormungand, the World Serpent of Norse mythology in that both encircle the earth and live in the sea, and are horrible. The parallell is there. Further, the Orkneys were Norwegian for centuries until after the Middle Ages.


In Orcadian folklore, Finfolks have been traced to Inuits (Eskimoes) in fur clothes, rowing in kayaks on sporadic, long sea voyages, maintains Alasdair MacGregor (1937:110-112).

However, in Orcadian fantasies the Finfolks engage in magic and transform their shapes at will - a dark, mysterious race from deep down on the sea floor. At intervals they come to the Orkneys from the deeps where there they live in a crystal hall surrounded by gardens of many-colored seaweed. It is never dark there, because of self-luminous, small creatures down in the ocean.

In summer, the Finfolks move to the Paradise Island called Hilda Land ('Hidden Land'). Hilda Land is normally invisible, lies just below the water surface, surrounded by magical mist. Only rarely do people see Hilda Land. And people who are kidnapped by Finfolks and brought there, never return to tell of it . . (That must be a glitch).

Finfolks use the fishing grounds around the Orkneys and do not mind sabotaging the efforts of fishermen there.

Wading, swimming and rowing ashore in spring and summer, they search out people to take captive by a variety of tricks. For example, the Finmen may appear in human form disguised as fishermen in a boat. A Finwomen may appear as a mermaid. They abduct unsuspecting fishermen or frolicking youth and force them into lifelong servitude as spouses, finding that humans are better spouses for them than their own kind.

Like other not-much-human beings, greedy Finfolk have a weakness for silver and things made of silver metal, such as coins and jewelry.

[See WP, sv. " Finfolk" for more]

Nucklavee, also called "knoggelvi"

The most horrible elf or spirit one can think of is "knoggelvi". The word is probably composed of words for "nix" and "elf", and comes from Scandinavian folklore. This spirit usually lives in the sea, but gets the blame for failed cropes, epidemics and drought. His breath can make crops wither and livestock get ill.

This guesome elf may appear with one single burning, red eye, but he is described differently in different sources. To get rid of this scary elf one should cross a river, for this sea elf is said to afraid of running water – and yet he lives in the wavy, coursing sea (through a little glitch) . . .

This bad elf cannot stand the fumes of seaweed being smoked. It makes him so crazy and wild that he goes berserk to the end that horses die and crops become scanty. At such times the ancient Mother of the Sea can stop him, it says. She represents summertime and nature in summer.

Sea trolls

The small and ugly trolls on land, the trows, had driven smaller and weaker trolls into the sea. There they were, but wished they were back on dry land. Their faces looked like monkey faces, they were covered with scales, and their hair was like seaweed. They limbs were long and their feet round, and they were quite harmless to people. They were lazy too, and tried to steal bait from the hooks on the lines that fishermen cast into the sea. It happened that such little trolls were hooked and drawn up to the surface along with the fish that was caught – and if that happened, many fishermen were scared.

And in freshwater there were "water trolls".

Water horses

Water horses haunted fresh water lakes and streams. The looked like fine, strong horses, and came in many colours. They tried to make people climb up on their backs, and then course down to the lake with them and drown them.

The water horse is similar to the Nix. In Norwegian folklore the Nix is linked to water and a risk of getting drowned, and is said to be able to change into a horse that does just the same as the water horse of Orcadian folklore.


Folklore of "a nation of pessimists"

Subtle Desires Suggested

Freakish creatures in Orcadian folklore represent human libido in the process of adapting to overriding conditions, including landscape features and fauna. That is a suggestion.

Hard conditions give rise to wishful ideas and inventions by steps and stages. There are inner and outer attainments.

As for trolls, there were many court cases in the Orkneys where good people were accused of many things, including black magic of witches - accused of magic that is ascribed to Finfolks in the folklore. Hm. It happened that socially quite powerless people got the blame for storms that suddenly rose and boats sank at sea and fishermen were drowned. There were court cases - And here is a clue into the shadow sides of "the moon", of human id. If maladapted or hampered in its full growth, it may project such sides of oneself onto others, also the Finfolk.

Do we glimps Orkadian "shadows" or "shadow beings" by his folklore? Or hidden proclivities, even abilities? Maybe so: It may be probed but not proved full well. There are no mainsteam ways of doing that, only analytic guesses, for example in the Jungian ways. They are suspect ways by and large, since they are based on unproved claims by and large.

Suggested hints aside, frenzied witch hunts raged for centuries in Europe. [Black and Thomas 1903: 154-55 o.a.]

From Village to Village: Stories

Most of the following is drawn from the introduction of George Douglas, and a little from a preface by Elizabeth W. Grierson.


Like other stories that were told among people, these were formed to hold the attention of the listener or reader. Mermaids and men meet, ogres and princesses mingle, and so on. In the Scottish tradition there were story-tellers that went from village to village, telling their stories, and it was a great event when a story-teller entered a village. Also, young people were used to gather at night to hear old ones recite the tales they had learned from their forefathers. The practice still lingered in remote districts when some of the tales and legends were written down in the 1800s, mainly.

Douglas discerns between well outlined lowland tales with depth of human significance, and Highland tales. Highland tales show what understanding had got of nature, farm animals, and human relations, and includes an abundance of supernatural elements, with a high degree of fancy. A rustic and poetic vein runs through so many.

Douglas writes, "Perhaps the deepest thinkers . . . are to be found among the hill shepherds," and points to one of them, the Ettrick Shepherd James Hogg, and considers him "master in the weird tale," for his writings about fairies, who in Scotland are told of as man-stealers, and not delicate, joyous revellers, as in England.

A rather gloomy view of Nature has tinged many superstitious beliefs, and the beliefs have left their marks on the tales of a nation of pessimists, if Douglas has seen the light. The fairies and the humoursome, good-natured brownie get but a small space in the popular mythology compared to shapes of awe, terror, of ill-omen, such as ghosts. Such tragic remains in all likelihood signal something of the broodings of a people and its overriding conditions.

Another division is between Celtic stories and "simpler tales":

Wild and fantastic Celtic stories are about some dangerous quest, meeting with giants, echantment and charms. In the West Highlands, Celts had a penchant for giants, and the giant of the West Highland tales is always "fair game".

Such tales are contrasted with simpler tales about goblins, bogies, witches, fairies, and tales about mermaids and mermen in the sea. They can talk with humans if they so wish, and present themselves as seals too. The shaggy brownie figures in some such tales too. And the trolls, trows, "hill-folk," or "grey neighbours," of the Norsemen of the Shetland Islands have a character of their own. The seal people, selkies, have a prominant place in the folklore of the Orkney and Shetland islands and other islands.

Writers: James Hogg, born in the Arcadia, Ettrick Forest; Allan Cunningham, born in 1784; Campbell of Isla, born in 1822, who went about on foot among the people of the West Highlands and Islands and got them to tell him stories that he noted down accurately.

Then, why spend time on rude "old-wives' tales"? They could reflect significant workings of the human mind. They give vent to poetic and literary ores, and stood the test of time during the centuries before modern technology allowed for other forms of entertainment and other night activities, including watching TV. Stories of farmers and fishers and some of the notable story-tellers have backed up other writers, such as Sir Walter Scott, by their keen sense of central sides to the art of catchy story-telling.

And, as the psychologist Jerome Bruner is into, culture is transmitted by stories.


Scottish folktales, legends, fairy tales of Scotland, the Orkneys, Literature  

Alchin, Linda. 2011. The Secret History of Nursery Rhymes. Los Gatos, CA: Smashwords Edition.

Black, Gordon Fraser, coll., and Northcote Whitridge Thomas, ed. 1903. Examples of Printed Folk-Lore concerning the Orkney and Shetland Islands. (County Folk-Lore Vol. III. Printed Extracts No. 5.) London: David Nutt, 1903.

Briggs, Katharine. 1976. An Encyclopedia of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures. New York: Pantheon Books.

Bø Olav, et al. 1982. Norske eventyr. Oslo: Samlaget.

Campbell, John Francis. 1890. Popular Tales of the West Highlands: Orally Collected. Vol. 1. New ed. London: Alexander Gardner.

Campbell, John Francis. 1890. Popular Tales of the West Highlands: Orally Collected. Vol. 2, New ed. London: Alexander Gardner.

Campbell, John Francis. 1892. Popular Tales of the West Highlands: Orally Collected. Vol. 3, New ed. London: Alexander Gardner.

Campbell, John Francis. 1893. Popular Tales of the West Highlands: Orally Collected. Vol. 4, New ed. London: Alexander Gardner.

Campbell, J. F., in A. Aberfeldy. Radical Linguistics, Chapter 2, "Archaic Gaelic". []

Chambers, Robert. 1880. Scottish Jests and Anecdotes. Edinburgh: William Paterson.

Douglas, George, ed. 1901. Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales. New York: A. L. Burt Co., 1901.

Emerson, P. H., coll and ed. Welsh Fairy-Tales and Other Stories. London: D. Nutt, 1894.

Fergusson, Robert Menzies. Rambles in the Far North.. 2nd ed. London: Alex. Gardner, 1884.

Firth, John. Reminiscences of an Orkney Parish together with Old Orkney Words, Riddles and Proverbs. 2nd ed. Stromness: John Rae, 1922.

Grierson, Elizabeth Wilson. The Scottish Fairy Book. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1910.

Grierson, Elizabeth, W. The Scottish Fairy Book. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1910.

Hallen, A. W. Cornelius, ed. The Scottish Antiquary, or, Northern Notes and Queries. Vol VI. Edinburgh: T. and A. Constable, 1892:115-122.

MacDougall, James. Folk Tales and Fairy Lore in Gaelic and English: Collected from Oral Tradition. Edinburgh: J. Grant, 1910.

MacGregor, Alasdair Alpin, saml. The Peat-Fire Flame: Folk-Tales and Traditions of the Highlands and Islands. Edinburgh: The Moray Press, 1937.

Mackenzie, Donald Alexander. Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend. New York: Frederick A Stokes, 1917. Marwick, Ernest Walker. The Folklore of Orkney and Shetland. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2000 (London: B. T. Batsford, 1975).

Maxwell, Charles Alfred. The Sea Kings of Orkney, and other Historical Tales. Edinburgh: W. P. Nimmo, 1870.

Muir, Tom. The Mermaid Bride and other Orkney Folk Tales.. Kirkwall: The Orcadian Ltd, 1998.

Opie, Iona and Peter. 1997. The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press.

Tibbits, Charles J. (Anonymous). Folk-Lore and Legends: Scotland. London: W. W. Gibbings, 1889.

Towrie, Sigurd. Orkneyjar: The Heritage of the Orkney Islands. 1996-2013.

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