I apologise in advance for the length of this post, it started as a sort of beginner's guide to the Trow and finished up a 10,000 word essay! Usually when I start researching a specific location I have a couple of books to start with, that point me in the direction of a few more books, and so on, and after a few downloads of out of print books, some guilty spending on Abebooks, and a couple of visits to some local libraries, I have a good basis for my research and I'm ready to settle on the sofa and get researching! Things weren't quite so simple this time. The pile of books grew and grew, the download folder filled up, the postman could barely make it up the path, and I set up camp in the local University library. There really is that much folklore in Orkney and Shetland, and fortunately lots of wonderful authors have written it all down and preserved it for future generations. In this blog post I'll be collecting my research on the Trow, my favourite of the Orkney and Shetland folkloric creatures! The Njugle comes a close second, but more on that another day.
What is a Trow?
According to Saxby and Edmondston's 'Home of a Naturalist' (1888), “This interesting race of supernatural beings is closely allied to the Scandinavian Trolls, but has some very distinctive characteristics of its own. The Trow is not such a mischief-making sprite as the Troll, is more human-like in some respects, and his nature seems cast in a morbid, melancholy mould.” There are no female Trows, they marry human wives and as soon as the baby Trow is born the hapless mother pines and dies, and no Trow marries twice and no Trow can die until his son is grown up.
However, this information does not necessarily describe a typical Trow. The majority of Trow stories I came across were quite similar to tales from mainland Scotland and England, for example, the kidnapping of children and women in childbirth, stealing of cattle, blinding those who use their ointment, fond of dancing and music, dwelling in hills, etc. Some stories of the Trows have almost identical versions in England, for example, a creature being injured by someone called 'Ainsel' or a passer by entering a Fairy or Trow mound and a companion rescuing them a year later. Sometimes the words Trow and Fairy are used interchangeably in a tale. There are also many similarities to Scandinavian folklore too, and to the tales of Trolls, Drow, and Draugr. In some tales from Shetland, Trolls are also mentioned as well as Trow. To confuse matters further, some authors divide Trows further into Hill-Trows and Sea-Trows. James Henderson in Tocher 26 (1979) explains that “in the old days they were trows, sea trows, and land trows, but… in my people’s time… the trows… were more a memory or a talk of what they had done; they were then fairies.” He continues, “the Trows was sort o’ the right name for them, but they would refer to them as fairags”. In Tocher 30 (1978-79) a man of North Yell tells that “faeries” were "supposed to be a more, kind o' a gentle, gossamer being as what the trows wis... the faeries wis more or less a harmless face... they were more up fir gaiety and all that... The Trows wis... more closely associated til a earthly being, 'at they could either be good or bad, according to whit way you dealt wi them."
In this blog I will be concentrating on stories where the word ‘Trow’ is specifically used, but there are many other tales of Fairies in Orkney and Shetland that may once have been tales of the Trows.
One interesting theory behind some of the stories of Trows comes from Alan Bruford in his article in Narvez's 'The Good People' which tells of men being press ganged during the Napoleonic Wars and hiding from the press gang in sea caves and other remote places often associated as Trow abodes, with their families possibly leaving food in agreed places for the men to pick up at night. Mention is also made of deserters possibly coming ashore from naval ships and hiding in remote places, perhaps even hiding in barns and working the mill at night in exchange for a share of the farmer's grain, strikingly similar to the folkloric tale of the Brownie. The story of Brownie disappearing when he's given new clothing is explained as the deserter being in uniform, and when he is given civilian clothing he could finally destroy his uniform and pass for a civilian and venture out into the island.
Perhaps the earliest mention of a Trow comes from Jo Ben's Descriptio Insularum Orchadiarum which may be as old as 1529. The word 'Trowis' appears under a section about a marine creature said to cohabit with women, and a story is given of a woman harassed by one of these creatures, said to be covered with marine plants and similar to a horse. This could refer to a Trow, but the description fits more with the Nuckelavee or a Water Horse.Another possible early mention of Trows comes from The Court Book of Shetland 1615 - 1629 (published 1991), as quoted in the Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language Volume 2 (1825). Katherine Johnsdaughter in Eshaness was burned as a witch, she was said to have seen 'Trollis' rise out of the kirkyard of Hildiswick and Holy Cross Kirk of Eshenes and she saw them on a hill called Greinfaill, and they came to houses where there was feasting or "great mirrines", especially at Yule.
Nicolson’s Folk-Tales and Legends of Shetland (1920) describes Trows as “generally referred to as the peerie (little) folk. They had their abodes in the hills, and the nooks and crannies curtained by the delicate fronds of the Trows’ Kairds (ferns), were known as the Trows’ hadds (holds). They couldn’t bear the light of day so would swarm forth at night, dancing and enjoying themselves”.
My favourite description of Trows comes from Jamieson’s Sigurd O’Gord article in the Shetland News (1962), “They were not lovable but sometimes capable of helpful acts. They were mischievous rather than malicious and took delight in perversities that made people’s affairs go awry – the ale to go sour, butter to go rancid, the fire to send out showers of sparks and such like tricks.” He describes them as “small, no more than three feet tall, dark with straight, lank black hair, dark eyes, and pointed features”.
What do Trows look like?Physical descriptions of the Trows are usually quite vague, but often include the colour grey. Edmondston’s Sketches and Tales (1856) describes Trows as “nearly of human size, - or at least may adopt this form at pleasure, - is always clad in sober gray and likes to interfere in human affairs”. Saxby and Edmondston's 'Home of a Naturalist' (1888) refers to them as the "grey-folk". A tale in Saxby's Shetland Traditional Lore (1932) tells of two men passing the ferrie-rings on Unst on a midsummer night, when they saw "a grey man sitting on the heap of stones (which had once been an altar) in the middle of the rings. The Trow was muttering to himself in a strange language." The same book also mentions "two grey-clad boys" running off a cliff with a cow. These were Trows stealing a cow, and they left a semblance in its place that died soon after.
Hibbert's Description of the Shetland Islands (1822) describes Trows and Fairies as “a people of small stature, gaily dressed in habiliments of green", “they partake of the nature of men and spirits, yet have material bodies, with the means, however, of making themselves invisible”. He also mentions Brand describing them in 1701 as being often seen in Orkney clad in complete armour. Old-lore III (1910) mentions a fairy battle where a farmer saw two bodies of men coming out of knowes to fight an awful fight where men were killed and wounded on both sides. Accounts from Orkney and Shetland of Trows and Fairies wearing armour seem to be scarce though.
Tam Bichan the fiddler met a peedie man dressed in grey with a long grey beard and dark mischievous eyes, who invited him to come and play for him and his friends. Tam followed him through a door in the great mound of Dingieshowe in Deerness and down a long steep tunnel and into a huge room. The Trow served Tam with heather ale and he played the fiddle “like a demon”. When he left he found that many years had passed, though he had not aged at all (Muir, 1998, original source given as Orcadian Newspaper 1943).
(The Mound of Dingieshowe)
A description in Narvez's 'Good People' (1997) contains an account recorded in 1974 from a lady who was ten at the time when she encountered some strange beings on Unst in 1914, perhaps Trows. She was playing in a ruined house when "all at once there was this, white from one side and black from the other side, just wee things about this height (two feet or less), just like men. No women, no, they were just like men, little bodies... The black came from one side and the white from the other side, and they fought and they fought and they fought, and we sat there spellbound both clutching together, looking at these things... and they just fought away, and then the black ones seemed to disappear, and the white ones stayed for a while, and then they went, just disappeared like that. We never realised that we'd seen something, you know, that was na really there, it was just something queer. And we took to our heels and we made for home as fast as we could."Perhaps one of the more recent descriptions of the Trow comes from the letter pages of The Scot's Magazine, Aug 1964 from a man who saw the Trows whilst walking in winter along the cliff top at Tor Ness. "I was amazed to see that I had the company of what appeared to be a dozen or more 'wild men' dancing about, to and fro... These creatures were small in stature, but they did not have long noses nor did they appear kindly in demeanour. They possessed round faces, sallow in complexion, with long, dark, bedraggled hair. As they danced about, seeming to throw themselves over the cliff edge, I felt that I was witness to some ritual dance of a tribe of primitive men."
The size of Trows also varies considerably. A farmer at Sholtisquoy in North Ronaldsay used to shoo the Trows away when he went out at night in case he stood on one for they were very small (Muir 1998, gives source as BBC Radio Orkney Archives). The inhabitants of Trowie Glen on Hoy were said to be no more than a foot high, though their leader ‘Himsel’ was taller and dressed in pale blue with a white beard and a blue turban (Marwick, 1991). The fiddler of Flammister knew the men walking towards him one night were Trows as they were “short of stature” (Nicolson, 1920).A warning in Saxby’s Shetland Traditional Lore (1932) warns against traveling between Lerwick and Scalloway on a Saturday evening, as a traveller will find himself suddenly and noiselessly surrounded by a “murge o’ peerie craters like mice”. The multitude of little beings will run up his sleeves, and his stockings, and trouser pockets, and they will creep among his hair, and nibble his toes and fingers, and frighten the wits out of his head, so that he will never reach Scalloway. However, the author comments that she has not heard of any man being so afflicted of late years. No name is given to the peerie creatures in this encounter.
Old-lore Misc IV (1911) contains a curious tale that describes a creature that may or may not be a Trow, perhaps also bearing similarity to the Scandinavian Draugr. The occupier of a farm on which a large broch was situated resolved to open out this great knoll, and found the debris to contain ashes, bones, shells, and kitchen midden refuse, a graveyard from the past. One day whilst cleaning out the broch the farmer saw an old grey-whiskered man dressed in an old grey tattered suit, patched in every conceivable manner, with an old bonnet in his hand and old shoes of horse or cowhide tied to his feet with strips of skin. He addressed the farmer and said he was working on his ruin, and warned that if he should work anymore then he would regret it when it is too late. Six of his cattle would die in his corn yard, followed by six funerals from his house. The prophecy did come true.A tale from Sanday told to Marwick and published in the Orkney Anthology (1991) tells of a farmer awakened at 3am by a little fellow who stood in front of the box bed and asked for the loan of a “piftan piv”. The farmer grunted that he wasn’t getting up this early and he could look for it himself. The little fellow did and he found it and disappeared in a blue lowe (flame). Marwick comments that he was looking for a sifting sieve and lisped, and the little fellow was a Hill-Trow or a Hogboon. The man who told the story described the creatures as small with long ears standing near the tops of their heads.
Names of the Trows
Trow names mentioned in Orkney and Shetland folklore include: Eelick or Alick, Bollick or Dollick, Gimp, Kork, Tring, Keelbrue, Bellia, Horny, Barnifeet or Bannafeet (Proceedings of Orkney Antiquarian Society vol 5 1926-27), Broonie (Black, 1903), Tivla, Fivla (Jakobson, 1897), Divla, Vivvla, (Old-lore, 1921), Shankim, Hornjultie, Kannonjultie, Karl boggie, Peester-a-leeti, Truncherface (Nicolson,1920), Sara Neven, Robbie a da Rees (Tait, 1951), Hill Johnnie, Eddy o’ Annis, Peesteraleeti, Skoodern Humpi, Tuna Tivla, Bannock Feet, (Marwick, 1975), and Hempie the Ferry-louper (Fergusson, 1884).
Trow DwellingsMost, if not all, of the Islands of Orkney and Shetland seem to have at least one known Trow site, most often a knowe or hill. It is perhaps more than coincidence that many of these Trow abodes are also the remains of an Iron Age broch or Neolithic mound. "They occupy small stony hillocks or knows, and whenever they make an excursion abroad, are seen, mounted on bulrushes, riding in the air" (Edmondston, 1809). The plantiecrue was also a favourite haunt of the Trows, a small circular drystone enclosure for growing cabbage plants (Saxby and Edmondston, 1888). Certain natural caves along the sea coast have also long been associated with the Trows or hillfolk (Spense, 1899).
(Konger's Knowe, a local fairy haunt according to Old-Lore Vol 2)
One evening an old woman in the parish of Walls was walking along a dark hillside accompanied by her dog when it ran ahead as if following something. She hurried after and saw in the hillside a doorway through which a bright light was streaming out, leading to a warm and comfortable interior of a trowie house, where a great many Trows were energetically dancing to lively music. A trowie wife was stood washing a dish near the doorway and she caught sight of the dog and drove him out, then the music ceased and the light vanished. (Burgess, 1895)
Entering a Trow abode is not advisable. A small hole on the summit of Liorafield on the Island of Foula is said to lead to the subterraneous abode of the Trows. It is said that several barrels of lines were let down without finding a bottom, and whoever opens the Liora or vent will die immediately. (Hibbert, 1822)
Magnus Ritch saw a procession of little people at the Trowie Glen on Hoy and followed them to a cave halfway down the glen. He found himself in a richly decorated hall where a dance was in progress, and he met their king who said he should have had a passport before entering but he would give him one. He was offered heather ale and joined in the dancing, but when he lit his pipe and blew out the pungent fumes of Bogie roll tobacco all the little people turned ghastly white and one after the other fell to the floor, the king being the last to succumb. Magnus then found himself at the entrance to a rabbit burrow with not a little person in sight. (Marwick, 1991)
Old Mac the tinker sold dishes island to island and one day when he passed a mound he saw a small dark man standing at a door in the side. The man asked what he was selling and Mac told him he brought plates and bowls, and cups and saucers, and even a chamber pot or two. Suddenly he found himself in a large room inside the mound, and then suddenly he was back outside again sitting on top of the mound and his basket was empty. Inside the basket he found five gold sovereigns. (Bremner, 1997)
Destroying a Trow’s home is not to be taken lightly. According to Saxby, the Roman Catholics possessed a Trow house and pulled it down to build a chapel, Gletna Kirk, on the site to prove to credulous natives how foolish and sinful their belief in Trows was. But what they built one day was thrown down by invisible powers during the night. The builders persevered for a few days but no one would venture to keep watch, the priest thought someone was playing a trick. A devoted priest agreed to keep catch but he was found dead at his post the next morning (Saxby, 1932). The author lists the many kirks that were said to be Trow haunted places, including the Kirk-o’-Calvadell, Kirk-o’-Gunyester, and Kirk-o’-Underhool, and claims they were built by priests and parsons who wanted to teach the people that “these places were holy to the Church, and were to be dissociated from the idea of evil creatures and unhallowed rites”.
(Cuween Fairy Knowe, said to be a Fairy or Trow abode. Unfortunately I couldn't find any further stories about it)
Tales of the TrowsThere are far too many tales of Trows to include them all, but here are some of my favourite snippets of Trow folklore, I hope these will give you an idea of the wide variety of tales told about these curious creatures.
Trows are said to walk or skip backwards when seen by women. Men usually see them moving forward in the common way (Saxby and Edmondston, 1888), though Saxby’s ‘Shetland Traditional Lore’ (1932) tells the Trows always walk backwards, facing the person spying on them.
"It is well known, you see, that if the sun rises while a Trow is above the grass, he or she has not the power to return home, and is day-bound, and must stay upon the earth in sight of man till sunset." A girl in the peat-hill saw a little grey woman wandering as if in search of something, and making a noise like scolding, only she used a hidden tongue. All day she was seen by the boys and girls and at last about sunset one girl resolved to speak to her but the sun went down and something drew her attention and when she looked back the woman had disappeared. (Saxby and Edmondston, 1888) In Saxby's Traditional Lore (1932) the woman carried a straw kirshie basket and muttered "I want yon kirshie, I want yon kirshie".
A Yell man was grinding corn in the water mill one night and set about making supper, putting a fowl on to roast over the fire. He heard the merriments of dancing and music outside and knew the Trows were coming, and sure enough the door quietly opened and in came a young woman. She asked him his name and he answered cautiously, “Mysel’ I’ da mill”. She was in no hurry to leave and wandered to the fire and curiously touched the fowl, then approached the man and placed a hand on his shoulder. He lost his temper and seizing the fowl from the fire, he swung it straight in her face. She screamed in pain and fright and fled outside. The music immediately ceased and the miller heard angry voices demanding to know how she had come by the injury. “It was mysel’ I’ da mill” she replied, and the Trows replied in chorus “Sel’ do, sel’ ha’e” and the mirth was resumed. The lucky miller settled back down, satisfied that his wit had saved him. (Nicolson, 1920)
(Water mill at Millbrig, Orkney)
Property belonging to the Trows is said to always bring luck with it. A woman found a Trow's kettle and she was very lucky while it remained in her house. A woman who found a Trow's silver beautifully carved spoon put it in her pocket and immediately felt strangely drowsy and fell asleep on the heather. When she woke up the spoon was gone. (Saxby and Edmondston, 1888) Other Trow items found include a copper pan (Hibbert, 1822), a wooden cog (Spense, 1899), a small wooden cap with the power of curing jaundice (Saxby and Edmondston, 1888), and a 'stone pig' earthenware bottle with healing contents that never grew less (Nicolson, 1920). A Trow's sword was found at Nordhouse, Shetland, described as a small bronze dagger or knife with tang and 4 inches in length. It was long used as a Trow's sword for magical purposes (Black, 1903). It was said that if a person was attacked by a Trow, then the next time they visited the spot they would discover something valuable. One man returned and found a trowie dart, a talisman useful against all kinds of evil spirit (Burgess, 1895).
A man in Aithsting had heard from old folk skilled in Trowie-law that if he washed his face with the first egg of a chicken, he would at once possess the power of seeing Trows. Sure enough he did, and they chased him away. (Burgess, 1895)
A Shetland woman was visited by a little Trow woman who asked to borrow some meal. She obliged and a few days later the Trow returned with her best meal, from the top of the ear. The woman’s husband knew this was coming as “da Trowie knowe was reekin”, as they were drying corn. (Nicolson, 1920)
One Trow tried to postpone matrimony and took up abode in a ruined broch, eating only earth shaped into models of fish, birds, cattle, and children. He eventually married a witch who assured him she knew how to prevent his death in exchange for the secrets of Trowland. The witch told her mother all about the Trows and gave instructions on how to protect against their enchantments used to lure women to their domain (Saxby and Edmondston, 1888). Saxby’s Traditional Lore (1932) adds that Trows were not usually friendly to witches, though they frequently had dealings with them. A Trow imparted to an old man how to detect a witch, and when one visited his house as a black dog he recognised her by a peculiar formation of the eyelid and through the Trow’s teachings and he struck her with tongs. When he next saw the witch she walked with a limp and had a humped back.Spense's 'Shetland Folk-Lore' (1899) tells of a belated traveller who was sorely pressed by a swarm of hillfolk or trows near the Heugins o' Watley:
"Whin Johnnie cam' ta Watley burn,
They (trows) tried to do 'im an ill turn;Bit haein his gun weel lod,
He cocked an' fired ta clear da rodd.
Bit Johnnie's gun refused ta fire,
Which made 'im cry: "O, dems er dier";
Then in the barrel he did drive
English shillings number five,
Which into bodies did divide
That walked close by Johnnie's side."
Over a century ago, John Spence of Millbrig was herding one fine summer evening in the meadow by the Klik Mill when he saw an old fellow sitting on a dyke. He went over and sat beside him to strike up a conversation and the old man handed him his snuff-box to take a pinch. The box was a horn, all “chowed” at one end, and old John said “Min, ye hae a vera trowy box” and as soon as he uttered the word ‘Trow’ then off the old chap went in “spunks o’ fire” across the Moss o’Yeaman. It was the Filtyman, as old folk sometimes called him. To John’s astonishment the box now appeared to be nothing but horse dung (Old-lore, 1909). Marwick (1975) explains the story further and tells that ‘trowy box’ meant that the box was dilapidated, and the Filtyman disappeared as the Trows could not abide the mention of their name.
(The Klik Mill at Millbrig)
According to Saxby’s Traditional Lore (1932) the Trows are not honest and will klikk (steal) anything they can find, but “they never, never tak aught frae one o’ themselves. No” that wad be the worst faut o’ any! They are aubar (very greedy and eager) to get silver, and a boy o’ their ain stole a silver spoon frae a kongl-Trow. He was banished frae Trowland on the moment and condemned to wander for ever among the lonesome planes o’ the Isle. But once a year – on Yule Day – he was allowed to veesit Trowland for a peerie start: but a’ he got was egg-shells to crack atween his teeth, followed by a kunder upon his lugs, and a wallop ower his back. So he wandered wanless, poor object! But so it maun be for dat’s their law!” He was seen wandering about clad in grey, and weeping loudly. Saxy describes Kunal-Trows as a sort of Trow, very human but their nature is morbid and sullen. They wander in lonely places after the sun has set, and were seen at times to weep and wave their arms about.
Saxby advises that you must rest your fire when you go to bed, or when all members of the household are outdoors, as the Trows think a housewife is a very graceless person if she allows the fire to die out and has to borrow a lowan taund (blazing peat) from a neighbour. Trows see to it that the fire is kept up, and they punish anyone who forgets to lay the resting peat upon the waning fire (Saxby, 1932). “They were lovers of fire, and had their underground dwellings well lighted… when the household fires went out, they would renew them from the nearest human dwelling. All Shetlanders have seen a crackling rush of fiery particles making towards the door” (Marwick, 1975, quoting The Scotsman Paper 1893). Trows were also known to enter human homes to warm themselves by the fire. A woman in Northmavine was drying corn on the kiln in the barn one night when a very small man came in and squatted down in front of the fire, enjoying the warmth. After a time the woman was raking the fire and some embers fell on the strange visitor, and he let out a shrill cry and ran outside, dropping his shoe. It was so small that afterwards she used it as a snuff-box. (Nicolson, 1920)
(Traditional Orkney fireplace, Kirbister Museum)
One of the most curious stories comes from an article by Bruford in Narvez’s ‘The Good People’ (1997), quoting Tocher 26 (1977). He tells of the Black Doctor, who would know when the Fairies or Trows would come out: “He’d suddenly spring up, he’d say, “They’re out! That’s it!” He’d get dressed... maybe a wild night, he'd get dressed, oil coat, sou'wester, and take his - always took his heavy stick and he would set off... in the pitch blackness. He'd come home sometime durin' the night, all over covered of mud, all hacked... an' blood. He'd say, "It was a tough fight," he says, "but I beat them." Now where he'd been or what happened nobody knows, but he'd be out for hours on end, come back like that.”
A family at Challister were sat down to supper one night and had left the empty souans pot on the floor near the door. A little dog wandered in and cautiously approached the pot, as if ravenously hungry. The family didn’t know who the dog belonged to, and after a time they heard a shrill voice outside calling “Go light! go light!” The dog looked up but resumed licking the pot. The voice shouted louder and louder, but still the dog paid no heed. Then the folks heard a sharp metallic ring and the dog gave a yelp and ran outside. Inside the pot lay a short arrow. (Nicolson, 1920)
Michael Beatty and his wife lived in Skerries on the slope of Broori Hill, not far from Michael Beatty’s Cove, a known Trow habitat. One day his wife was baking bronnies (thick oat cakes) and on leaving the room and returning she was surprised to find one bronnie missing. The same thing happened repeatedly, much to her annoyance, and she decided to tell her husband. One evening after his wife had been baking, Michael hid himself in a corner to watch and wait. To his surprise, one of the hearth stones slowly lifted upwards and through the opening came the hand of a Trow, and it snatched one of the broonies, the stone closing after it. This wasn’t the only sighting of the cave Trows. Some men were employed curing fish on a beach in Skerries, and they slept overnight in a bod. One night the foreman went outside to check the fish heaps, and after 5 minutes he suddenly burst into the bod sweating profusely and missing one of his clogs. He said he had suddenly become surrounded by Trows, and they took hold of him and he was hurried in the direction of Michael Beatty’s Cove, when one of his clogs fell off. Then his captors carried him back to the beach. Sure enough, the next day his missing clog was found just where he said it would be, and it was further away than he could have reached in 5 minutes so they knew his story to be true. (Nicolson, 1920)
Sandy Scott of Aithsting was on the long walk home, tired and fatigued, when he passed the Wharsdel burn and heard a commotion further up the burn. He went to investigate and there he saw two diminutive men down on the green by the stream, fighting each other for all they were worth. They ducked and dodged, and thrashed each other without mercy, until they were both too exhausted to carry on. They sat down to rest and noticed Sandy. “They saw that he was tired and footsore, and apparently appreciated the neutral attitude which he had maintained during the fight, for without uttering a word, he found himself safe and sound on the brigstanes at the front of his house.” He saw the little men walking briskly over the meadow, seemingly the best of friends. (Nicolson, 1920)
Orrick in North Voe was said to be a bad place for Trows. A man named Toshie went to visit his father Jeems but when he left for home it had grown dark. When he reached Orrick he found himself surrounded by Trows, and he couldn’t get past them. He went back and fetched his father to see if together they could drive the Trows away but “da aald man could mak nothing o’ dem edder” . They returned to Jeem’s house to spend the night, and Toshie went home in daylight the next morning. On another occasion Jeems’s horse was spooked by a Trowie wife near the Loch O’ Houster. (Shetland Folk Book III, 1957)
The Trows didn’t limit their pestering to humans, and they were known to bother giants too. A giant in the Kaem hills couldn’t get any peace because of the Trows, as they would climb over him, creep into his ears, and even pull his eyebrows. He made up his mind to put a stop to it and decided to construct a huge creel of straw and carry them over to Norway. He made the enormous creel and then one moonlit night he found the Trows and scooped them all up in his giant hands, and dropped them in the creel and tightened the top up. But when he went to lift it he realised it was too big and he couldn’t get it on his back, so he dragged it to the top of the hill to try lifting it from there. He nearly tore a hole in it from dragging it over the earth, and when he lifted it on to his back the bottom fell out and out came the Trows “wiggling like sillocks” (young coal fish). This made him overbalance and he fell on one knee, forming a gap in the hills still known as k’neefell, and where his other foot fell became a loch, Pettawater. In the moonlit nights of harvest, the Trows come out and sing and dance around Pettawater, just as they did when they escaped from the giant. (Marwick, 1975, gives source as Robertson, New Shetlander 31 (1952)
(straw weaving display at Kirkness Museum, Orkney)
Although little mention is made of the mating habits of the Trows, tales of Trow children are quite common. Whether these children are of the Trow species or are stolen human children is not explained.
One night in the twilight the Guidman o’ Taft found a strange looking box-shaped thing of wattled straw in the yard beside his house. At first he thought it was a fiddle case so he brought it in and flung it up on top of the box bed, before going to the byre to feed his cows. When he came back inside he heard strange noises outside in the yard, a loud trampling sound mingled with a sound like “foodle-dee-doodle-dee-doo, foodle-dee-doodle-dee-dee”. Then a small voice from the straw-box on the bed said “Let me oot, mammie is crying for mulle”. Taft knew at once that there was a little Trow inside the case and he quickly put it outside, and all went silent. (Burgess, 1895)
Recordings on the Tobar an Dualchais website from 1955 and 1974 tells of how Maalie Coutt’s grandfather had been digging peat turfs when he heard a voice shout “Watch me heed!” and a boy about 8 years of age and covered with hair jumped out of a crack in the ground. The man offered to feed him and he replied he ate heath and the black bull’s bladder and he claimed to be from between the Troils O Houlland in North Yell and the Grey Stane O Stourascord. The man took the boy home and warmed him but the boy threatened to blow down the house if he didn’t release him, he claimed to be a fairy changeling or trowie boy.
(Cutting peats on the moor)
"The Trows require that every hearth shall be swept clean on Saturday night, that no one shall be found near it, and, above all, that plenty of clean water shall be found", this was thought to be to allow Trows to wash their children. One night a boy neglected these duties and as he was sleeping near the fireplace he heard a commotion and awoke to see two Trow-wives and a baby with 3 eyes, the extra eye in its forehead. The Trow-wives sought water but found none so took their revenge by washing the baby in swatts from a keg. They washed the baby and his clothes and then poured the mess back into the keg. Then they sat by the fire, hanging the baby's clothes on their feet before the blazing peats. The boy knew that if he kept his eyes on them they could not go away, so he stared and watched, hoping to learn something worth remembering. The Trow-wives began to fidget as they wanted to depart before sunrise and at last one grabbed the red hot fire tongs and pointed them at the boy's eyes, grinning in a hideous manner. She moved closer and closer, and as expected the boy blinked and screamed, allowing the Trows to flee. The next morning there were no sowens for breakfast, just dirty water in the keg. (Saxby and Edmondston, 1888)
Shetlanders have occasionally held communion with the Trows and by special favour have been transported through the air, whenever occasion served, from one island to another (Fraser's Magazine, 1846). Mam Kirstan was asked by the Trows to help look after and dress one of their babies. One of the grey men gave her a box of curious ointment to anoint the child with, but she wiped her eye whilst doing so and gained a sight so keen she could see a boat on the ocean 20 miles away. One day she mentioned it to a Trow man, not realising who he was, and he asked what eye she saw it with and then put his little finger to her eye and she was blind in it ever after (Saxby and Edmondston, 1888). A midwife named Catherine Tammasdaughter was visited by a messenger from the Trows and taken by boat to the island of Fetlar. There she performed her duties among some strange beings and accidently used ointment meant for the child. Suddenly she noticed a woman she once knew, who had been sometime dead. The woman asked which eye she saw her with, and the offending eye was immediately blinded by an elf-shot. (Spense, 1899)
A fisherman sat dozing by the fire when a very small woman came in with a child, soaking wet. He did not want to be bothered so pretended to be asleep, and she made herself at home, hanging the child’s wet clothing on the man’s foot. He stirred and the garments fell into the ashes, so she hung them back on but he stirred and again they slipped off and needed to be replaced. He stirred again for a third time and the Trow struck him smartly on the foot with her hand, and remarked “Dat stroke s’all be felt for the ninth generation”, and in the generations that followed there was always someone who walked with a limp.
A family in Yell also encountered a Trow child. They were sat around the fire chatting one evening when they heard a child crying outside, and a few minutes later in walked a little girl. The older members of the family had no trouble recognising that she was of “Da Gud Folk” and they resolved to treat her with kindness in case any harm should come to the house. They put her to bed with their own children and retired to sleep. The next day the child stayed and at night they heard a female voice calling outside as if looking for a child. As soon as the child heard the calling she disappeared, and the children beside whom the “little trow” had slept grew to be well off men and women. (Burgess, 1895)
Music and Dancing
The Trows are said to be great lovers of music, and especially fond of fiddles. Many a beautiful reel is said to have originated from the Trows, often learnt by a local fiddler passing a Trow dwelling late one night. "One sweet, simple, fanciful reel was learned by a man one night when he was passing over a hill in Unst. He heard the Trows playing inside the hill, and he listened until he had mastered their melody." (Black, 1903) Another man learnt a Trow air after he was lying in bed one morning before day-light and heard a large company of Trow pass his door accompanied by a piper playing the tune. (Hibbert, 1822). One man was not so lucky, he heard the Trows playing at a Trow hill but the “peerie misty men” guessed and from that night on his wits went “awool-gathering” and he could only babble of the Trows and play their tune. (Saxby, 1932)
Fiddlers were frequently invited to play for the Trows, but often with unfortunate consequences. A fiddler of Yell was waylaid and carried off by the Trows on his way to a Halloween gathering. After playing for a considerable time he was allowed to leave but on returning home found his house a crumbling ruin and his neighbours were strangers. When he went to church the next day he crumbled into dust (Nicolson, 1920).
Sigurd O’Gord was asked to play fiddle for the Trows at the Packman’s Stane on Toylisha Eve. Unfortunately he drank their liquor, distilled from the nectar of bell heather, and put himself in their power for a hundred years. He later described their music as in a minor key and with a peculiar rhythm, and their dances were crude and grotesque, they went “henkin, benkin, denkin, and kwenkin.” They also showed him a beautiful dance symbolising the northern lights, a ballet of the aurora, with ladies dressed in bright hues with a wizardry of hidden lights, and they leapt and shot up high, shimmering and changing hues, a most beautiful dance. They brought him a wonderful fiddle and he played their music and his own, and they let him keep the fiddle as a parting gift. As he headed home he noticed an aurora was beginning to show in the north, and when he arrived home he opened the door to find a room full of strangers. 100 years had passed, and no one believed his story. Sigurd wandered out to the well of Gord and played the Trow song over and over, and a young man reported seeing him suddenly drop and no more was left of him than if the body had lain unburied for a hundred years. The fiddle turned to dust. If you go to the well of Gord at midnight on Toylisha Eve and listen carefully some say you can still hear the Trow tune. (Jamieson’s article in Shetland News 1962-63)
Some fiddlers were more fortunate. Jeems o’ Da Klodi played for the Trows and was rewarded with a bag of threepenny pieces (Nicolson, 1920), and when the Fiddler of Flammister played for the Trows they promised that nine generations of his bairns would carry a fiddle, and they did (Saxby, 1932). However, John Herculeson played the fiddle for the Trows of Wormidale Hill for two whole days, but considered it imprudent to accept any reward (Spense, 1899).
William Cooper of Kolafirt was taken inside ‘Da Tieves Knowe’ and they asked him to play at a bridal gathering as their fiddler was taken unwell. He did and when they asked him never to tell about his experience he obeyed and all around him prospered. However one night after too much drink his neighbours pried the story out of him and his luck turned. His cattle died, his crops failed, and he became blind and fell into poverty (Nicolson, 1920).
The Trows were also very fond of a good dance, and they were said to ‘hink’ or ‘limp’ when they danced, giving the name ‘Henki’ to some Trow sites including the Henkisknow (Jakobsen, 1897). At one fairy knowe they were spoken of as “scraeo’ henkies” (Spence, 1899). The Trows were said to ‘loop’ instead of walk and to ‘henk when they danced. They squatted till their knees were doubled up in front, their hands tightly held between the thighs and the calfs of the legs, and then they hopped about like pinioned fowls. (Saxby, 1932)
Approaching a Trowie dance is not without risk. A Fetlar man saw a number of Trows performing the halta dance and he dared to argue with them and one threw a hedder kow (heather stalk) at him that hit his heel, and he was left a cripple on that foot. (Nicolson, 1920)
Trow Thefts and Kidnappings
The Trows were greatly feared for their attempts of stealing both cattle and humans. They were said to shoot cattle with arrows, carry away humans, and “child-bed women are taken to nurse a prince and although they appear to be at home, the immaterial part is removed and they appear pale and absent” (Edmondston, 1809). Children were also taken away to the hills in order to be play fellows to the infant offspring of the Trows (Hibbert, 1822). People under the power of the Trows were said to be “in the hill”, and an old Rousay man was extremely angry as his friends would not take him “oot o’ the hill” when he told them exactly the place where he could be found (Marwick, 1991).
Two women travelling on the Orkney mainland stopped at a cottage by the road and asked if they could rest there, and the woman was friendly and invited them in. Whilst she made some tea they heard the strangest and most unearthly grunts coming from the box bed and a repulsive looking creature put his head out and stared at them with big unblinking eyes. The woman told them not to be frightened as he would do no harm, and she ordered it to be quiet. She told them how one harvest morning she went to pick cabbages from the yard and when she came back she found her fine chubby boy gone and the Trow changeling in his place. (Fergusson, 1884)
(Traditional Orkney box bed at Kirbister Museum)
A North Ronaldsay mother rid herself of a bad tempered changeling by making porridge with an “added something”. The changeling sat up and stared at her and she held up a cross made from a certain wood in the other hand, and ordered it to eat. It looked frightened and screamed and leaped up the chimney, and her own bairn returned in about an hour (Mermaid Bride, 1998, original source BBC Radio Orkney tape). A blacksmith carried out the hearth ashes in eggshells rather than a bucket, causing a changeling to laugh and give himself away. The blacksmith threw flaming straw into the bed and the changeling disappeared in a blue flame. To get his own son back he took a knife, a bible and a black cock to a well-known Trow knowe and when the cock crew three times a door opened in the side of the hillock. He shoved the knife above the door to prevent it closing and entered, and at the sight of the bible the little folk fled and the blacksmith retrieved his son. Whilst living with the Trow the son had been employed working iron for the Trows and had acquired the art of tempering scythes it was said. (Nicholson, 1920)
One changeling gave itself away after a tailor employed at a farm was woken by music and saw a large company of fairies dancing. Suddenly a man, who was previously thought to be a Trow changeling, jumped up and joined in their gambols, showing a familiarity with the movements of the dance that only a hill dweller would know. The tailor sained himself and the elves immediately fled, but one touched his toe and he could never again move that joint. (Hibbert, 1822). Note how the author uses the words Trow, Fairies, and Elves interchangeably in the same story.
Not all changelings were disagreeable. One overworked servant lad was advised by a changeling to go to a Trow knowe and say he had been sent to fetch “So-and-So’s Flail”. He obeyed and a very small wrinkled woman handed him a small neat flail. When he returned, instead of an ill-triven child he found a well-built young man who took the flail and threshed the corn for him. The strong man admitted to being the real son and said he had been taken by the Trows. He advised the servant that whenever he is in trouble he could rely on the young man for help. He then departed with his flail and the peevish child reappeared in the cradle. (Nicolson, 1920)
Leask (1932) tells a shocking tale of how a woman, who died fourteen years ago, narrowly escaped being roasted alive after being declared a changeling. Her parents were advised to set her on the fire, she would disappear through the lum, and their own child would walk through the door. Fortunately a neighbour intervened and talked sense into her parents and she was allowed to live.
Trows of the hills were said to have a relish for the same kind of food that affords sustenance to the human race, and to take down beef and mutton with elf arrows. (Hibbert, 1822) Mam Kirstan saw the Trows rolling up something resembling a cow and threw her bunch of keys into the heap without the Trows seeing. When she got home she found her own cow dead, and when they opened the beast they found her keys inside (Home of a Naturalist, 1888). The Trows would typically leave a likeness or wooden stock behind when stealing a cow or human.
A clergyman walking on Foula saw a group of islanders dancing about and throwing brands of fire at something. On reaching the spot he heard them reciting an Old Norse incantation and saw them throwing the brands of burning peat at a young quey (cow?). The islanders told him that the Trows had taken the quey into the hills, so they were driving the Trows away with the burning peats to get the cow back. (Reid, 1869)
Methods of protecting a cow from Trows, or healing it after a visit from Trows, include a sewing needle folded in a leaf from a psalm book and secured in the hair of the cow (New Statistical Account, 1845), firing guns over the cow or drinks of silver (Marwick, 1884), and drawing a cat down the cow’s back and sides to enclose the cow in a magic circle (New Statistical Account, 1845).
Taedir was returning home after taking the midwife home and saw a body of Trows crossing the meadow. He realised they were there for his bairn and was fortunately able to reach his house first. He threw a razor on to the green path to the door and the Trows at once dispersed. The following morning he found the razor with a broken blade, and his best milk cow was missing. (Nicolson, 1920) Another man was also fortunate and received prior warning when he heard a knocking and someone say "mind the crooked finger". His wife, who had recently given birth, had a crooked finger so he knew the Trows were up to no good. He chased them off with steel and a bible and found the likeness of his wife the Trows had created. (Douglas, 1901)
A Sandness woman died in childbirth and her husband later remarried, but one day he came across a door in a hillock near Stoorbro Hill and inside he saw his first wife who advised she had been taken by the Trows and an effigy left in her place. She warned him not to eat food whilst he is there, and he obeyed but his refusal angered the Trow, who boxed his ear and he remained deaf in that ear for the rest of his life. (Nicolson, 1920)
An old crofter in the parish of Walls in Shetland was returning home when he met a gang of Trows carrying a bundle between them. When he entered his cottage he saw that his wife was gone and an effigy left in her place. He seized the effigy and flung it into the fire and it rose in the air and vanished through the lum in a cloud of smoke. The wife soon walked in through the cottage door and they were never bothered by the Trows again. (Burgess, 1895)
A man near Aith saved a bride in Norway from becoming a victim of the Trows. One night he saw a number of Trows cutting bulwands (bulrushes) and they said they were making them into horses to ride to Norway. He asked permission to accompany them and cut a bulwand too, and when a Trow exclaimed “Horsick up haddock, weel riden bulwand” in an instant all the bulwands were transformed into horses and off they went to Norway. They came to a house where a wedding was taking place, and they reduced their shapes and passed in through the keyhole, assembling again in the loft above where the wedding company were sitting at supper. The Shetlander overheard them plotting to steal the bride and knew what to do, he said “God save the Bride and all the company” and this rendered their efforts futile. The Trows were furious and hurled him down on the table, breaking his leg. The host took the intruder for a robber and threatened him, but on hearing how he had saved the bride from being carried away, he treated him with kindness and tended to him until he was recovered and then took him home. (Old-lore, 1912)
A bridegroom in Sandwick was taken by the Trows to Suleskerry, an uninhabited islet some 50 miles from Skaill Bay. He was taken back after what felt like a few hours, but his neighbours said he was gone 7 years, and his bride was now married to another man. Strangely, when he returned he was all grown over in hair, and his neighbours barely recognised him. (Old-lore, 1914)
Sea Trows & Water Trows
"They tell us that several such creatures do appear to fishers at sea, particularly such as they call sea-trowes, great rolling creatures tumbling in the waters, which, if they come among their nets, they break them, and sometimes take them away with them". Fishermen try and keep them away with their oars or staves and fear them greatly and sometimes say it is the devil in the shape of such creature (Brand, 1701). Hibbert (1922) comments that fishermen converted whales, orcas and porpoises into these Sea Trows. Mermaids and Selkies are also occasionally referred to as Sea Trows.
Dennison's article in the Scottish Antiquary (1891) describes Sea Trows as "the ugliest creature imaginable. His face is like that of a monkey, his huge unwieldy limbs out if all proportions to his attenuated body; his head slopes to a sharp angle at the top, like the roof of a house; and his feet are flat, and round as a millstone. His home is in the sea, to which he has been banished by the superior power of the Land Trows; and when on land, of which he is very fond, his movements are of a low order. He is not vicious; but sometimes tries a trick on man, which often ends in his own confusion. His favourite rendezvous is the foreshore."
(The splash of a disappearing Sea Trow... or an otter! )
A Kirkness farmer was often bothered by Water-Trows from the adjoining loch. When drying corn in the kiln if he went into the house he always came back to find the ingle or kiln fire put out on his return. They were continually playing tricks on him and putting things out of order. One day instead of going outside after attending the kiln he concealed himself under some straw in his barn and in a short time two Trows sat down by the ingle. On attempting to get nearer to them he rustled the straw, and one of the Trows said to his companion “strae’s gae’n” but was reassured by the reply “sit still and warm thee wame. Weel kens thoo strae canna gang”. Eventually the farmer got near to them and emerged from his retreat, hitting the intruders with his flail, and he was never troubled by them again (Old-lore, 1911). Unfortunately no explanation is given on how a Water-Trow differs from a regular Trow.
Trows and Christmas
Yule was a special time for Trows. 'Home of a Naturalist' (1888) tells that seven days before Yule-day was Tul-ya's e'en, and "on that night the Trows received permission to leave their homes in the heart of the earth and dwell, if it so pleased them, above ground". They caused much trouble and it was very important that people remembered to protect themselves and their property against the Trows. Each member of the family washed their whole person, and donned a clean (if possible, new) garment in which they slept that night. When the hands or feet were put into the water, three living coals were dropped into the water, or else "the Trows took the power o' the feet or hands".
Trows are said to be excessively fond of dancing, and very keen to join in the revels of Yule, but they could only do this in the disguise of a mortal. 'Home of a Naturalist (1888) tells a rather horrific tale of two children who were left in their bed whilst the parents joined the dancing in the next house. The merriments were underway when the two small bairns glided into the barn, with wide-open eyes and smiling lips that never said a word. They danced merrily up and down, keeping wonderful time and dancing with such marvellous steps that the merry-makers declared they must have been taught by the Trows. The young mother suddenly spotted them and cried in horror "Guid save me, the bairns!". Now no Trow can remain visible when a pious word is spoken, so the little strangers vanished at once through the crowd at the door. Everyone hastened outside to search for them in the snow, but they could find them nowhere. The poor mother had forgotten to 'sain' and protect her children, so the Trows had taken the form of the children to go dancing. The children were found dead the next morning in a snowdrift in a ravine near the house, wrapped in each other's arms.
Another Yule Trow story in this book tells of the drink running low at a Yule celebration, and the men saying someone would need to go for more. An outspoken damsel named Breeta shouted up that they would meet the Trows about the Moola-burn. A youth named Josey spoke up and told Breeta that if she wasn't scared then she should come with him to see the Trows linking ower the braes. And so she did accompany him, much to the worry of an old woman in the group, who muttered that it was a foolish thing of Breeta to speak like that of the Trows. Sure enough, Josey returned at last, alone with two empty whisky bottles, shouting madly "The Trows have got the drink, and they've got the lass as well!" Poor Breeta was lying dead in the Moola-burn, weet and wan, when her brothers found her. In her hand she clutched a bulwand, a type of marsh reed the Trows use for horses. Josey was also dead by next Yule.
Trows were indeed very fond of drinking at Yule. According to a tape recording from 1972 on the Tobar an Dualchais website, a Trow would visit all the houses in Yell looking for drink. He'd spend the first night in North Yell, then the next in South Yell, and if he found drink he'd drink it. On one occasion he drank so much he was found lying on the ben (inner room) window ledge of a house. The people tried to grab him but he threatened them and bid a hasty retreat, fleeing for the north.
Nicolson's 'Folktales and Legends of Shetland' (1920) warns that legs of mutton and pork hams often disappeared in a mysterious fashion at Yule unless protection was used, like a steel knife or fork stuck in the flesh. The Guidman O' Raga went to a local Trow dwelling on Yule E'en to catch a glimpse of them, and overheard them saying they had stolen his ham.
A woman on the island of Papa Stour would stand on the brig-stanes in front of the house every Yule night and watch the Trows dancing on the green sward close to the Sea shore. Her husband couldn’t see them unless he placed his foot on hers or gripped her hand. (Nicolson, 1920)
Olly Foubister of Papa Stour noticed that every Yule E’en his boat would disappear from the noose and reappear on Yule morning. He became curious and hid in the stern one Yule E’en and hearing a commotion he peeped underneath the sail to see several little men approaching, the Trows. They got on board and rowed out to sea until they reached the head of Watsness. Three Trow disappeared into a cave and each came out with a keg of whisky on his shoulder, and they got back on board and rowed back to Papa Stour. The little men clambered out carrying two keys, and chanted “for the sleeper, for the sleeper” and Olly returned home with a substantial Yule dram. (Nicolson, 1920)
On the 24th night of Yule the doors were all opened and much chasing and driving and dispersing took place, to chase out the unseen creatures. Their time of freedom was over and the Trows retired to their gloomy abodes until next year. According to Saxby's Traditional Lore (1932) at the Shetland festival of Up Helly Aa iron was much in sight as the Trows cannot abide the sight of it, and there were marches through the town and a huge bonfire and noise, and "amid noise and hearty congratulations the Trows were banished to their homes in the hillsides. When day dawned after twenty-forth night every Trow had disappeared and the Yules were ended".
Protection from the Trows
There are many tried and tested methods for protecting against Trows and Fairies and healing those affected by them including: laying crossed straws on the threshold or a circle of pins on the pillow (Saxby and Edmondston, 1888), a bible under the cradle pillow, or fastening the bed curtains with pins set in a circle (Saxby and Edmondston, 1888), a fire-brand borne three times around a person or an animal (Spense, 1899), a black cock crowing, silver coins, or steel (Spense, 1899), a circle drawn on the ground in God’s name (Edmondston, 1809), possessing an elf shot (Low, 1774), carrying a live coal (New Statistical Account, 1845), a knife in the wall of a house (Statistical Accounts, 1791-99), blood drawing (Old Lore, 1908), or salt water taken from the breaking sea (Nicolson, 1920). In Shetland a dog with double back claws (dew claws) was considered a perfect safeguard against Trows (Marwick, 1975).
(An old Orkney cottage, Kirbister Museum)
Other Trow and Fairy Protection advice includes: A captured lady can be freed from the Trows by saying "Guide be aboot wis" or to call on God' name (Saxby and Edmondston, 1888). When making butter, the housewife would place a cabbage lead and a sixpence under the kirn to prevent the Hill Trows from ‘taking the profit’ (Marwick, 1975). Children were advised when going anywhere after dark to hold the left thumb in the palm of the hand with the fingers folded firmly over it, and if they did this the fairies may annoy them but could do them no harm. (Marwick, 1991)
Marwick also (1975) provides this useful piece of advice: “Whoever meets a Trow should draw a circle around him and bid ‘Gjud be about me’ or lie down and stick a knife in the ground at his head”. One Shetlander was surrounded by hill-folk one winter’s evening when passing a knowe. He searched frantically in his pockets and found the leg of a pair of shears and dropped to his knees and drew a circle around himself, then another and another until the cock crew and the hill-folk suddenly left. He said the moment they touched the steel drawn circle they went back as if with a rebound, and he gave it as his dying advice that none should travel at night without a good steel knife in his pocket. (Marwick, 1975)
"When any person is emaciated with sickness, his heart is worn away; this is attributed to the agency of Trows." (Hibbert, 1822). There are a variety of cures used by cunning folk to cure such an ailment including hanging a triangular stone in the shape of a heart around the neck, or pouring melted lead through a key so it assumes a variety of shapes, and then selecting a portion which is sewn into the shirt of the patient. (Edinburgh Annual Register, 1814)
In the 1850s and perhaps even earlier, the farm folk at Huip in Stronsay went out each evening to buil (pen in for the night) the Trows who lived in a green mound to the west of the house. These creatures were scared away to bed by a circle of men and women who closed in on the mound, banging milk pails and anything else that would make a noise (Marwick, 1975, gives source as Proceedings of Orkney Antiquarian Society 1926/27). Marwick’s Orkney Anthology adds that these Trows caused great mischief about the house, and the story was told by a man of over 80 who witnessed the penning of the Trows as a boy.
The Last of the Trows
A fiddler in Collyfa on Yell regularly played for the Trows each Yule E’en but one year they failed to invite him so he went to the “Trowie hadd” but there wasn’t a soul in sight apart from one old wife sat by the fire. She said a minster had come to Collyfa and the Trows could not suffer his preaching and praying and they got no peace so they cleared out (Tocher No 30, Tom Tulloch). Another version tells that the Trows had moved to Faroe, but the old wife had stayed behind as she was too old to travel (Nicolson, 1920).
The Trows who lived at the Knowes of Catfirth were forced to leave when quarrymen destroyed their homes. They were spotted one day coming out of the knowes and carrying their belongings. One had a kist on his back and a daffik in his hand, another had a kettle on his head and a creepie under his arm, and everyone carried something. They were weeping and lamenting, “Oh! Whaar sal we gaeng noo, whaur sall we gaeng noo!” When they reached Tammies dik they halted and stood in a circle, and an old man addressed the group, “My dear children, lament no more. I have decided on a place to go, we shall go to Bijl-r-am O’ Krun.” Then up spoke a spruce young fellow with a big yellow beard, who reassured the group that he had been there before and it wasn’t a bad place, and advised them to hold their tongues and keep moving as daylight was coming in. So away they went, over the burn, up the south dyke or Crulees, and up to the knowes at the north side of Bijl-r-am, where they vanished.” (Shetland News, 1903).
According to Fergusson’s ‘Rambles in the Far North’ (1884) the Trows have left mainland Orkney altogether now. They are said to have become dissatisfied with life and they hatched a plan to move to a new dwelling beside the Dwarfie Stone among the hills of Hoy. One night at midnight when the full moon was shining they met at the Black Craig of Stromness and began tying together simmons, the bands used to thatch houses, making them into a long rope. A long-legged Trow named Hempie the Ferry-louper made an enormous leap over to Hoy and attached the end of the rope to a rock, and a Trow at Stromness held on tight to the other end. The Trows clung on to the rope and began crossing over the sea but midway the Trow in Stromness accidently let go and all the Trows tumbled into the sea and drowned. Poor Hempie was unable to go on without his friends and leaped into the angry waves to join their fate. A black cloud passed across the moon and the sea stilled as the form of the Dwarf of Hoy was seen upon a rock overlooking the catastrophe, and he recited:
“The Trows are gone, forever gone,
Far from Orcadia’s shore;
Beneath the tide went every one,
I’ll see their forms no more.
The moon is dark, the stars all weep,
The sea is hushed and still;
Forever now these fairies sleep.
By grassy knoll and hill.
Within the caves beneath the sea
They dance and sport again,
On Orkney hills no more they’ll be;
They live beneath the main.
Farewell, ye spirits that cheered my gloom,
Farewell, a long farewell!
I, too, must pass into the tomb,
No more the tale I’ll tell.”
(The cliffs of Hoy)
According to Fergusson (1884) when the older generations require their children to go somewhere on a dark night they can be heard coaxing them with “A’ the Trows are droned noo, they wunna fleg thee ony mair”. He comments “This idea was generally very prevalent throughout the Orkney Isles, and the disappearance of Orcadian fairies is thus satisfactorily accounted for.”
Lastly, just in case you were thinking of seeking out any remaining Trows, a word of warning from Saxby and Edmondston's 'Home of a Naturalist' (1888): "A girl, that, in the saucy merriment of youth, she was wont to run to the fairy knowes, and call to the Trows to come and fetch her to see their wonderful home. This she did frequently, and at last the irritated Trows breathed upon her, and she became paralysed in the limbs, and remained so all her life." So perhaps it’s best for all that the Trows are left in peace.
Sources and Further Information
I’d like to give a huge recommendation of 'Da Book O Trows' by the Shetland Folklore Development Group. A well-researched compilation of Trow stories, complete with a CD of Trow music and storytelling, currently available for purchase here. Tom Muir's ‘The Mermaid Bride’ is also full of wonderful Orkney Folklore and well worth a read.
A Brief Description of Orkney, Zetland, Pightland Firth, and Caithness (1701), Brand
A Tour through the Islands of Orkney and Shetland (1774), Low
View of the Ancient and Present State of the Zetland Islands (1809), Edmondston
Edinburgh Annual Register, Vol 5, Part 2 (1814)
Description of the Shetland Islands (1822), Hibbert
Fraser's Magazine Oct 1846
Sketches and Tales of the Shetland Islands (1856), Edmondston
Rambles in the Far North (1884), Fergusson
Notes on Orcadian Folklore (1884), Marwick
Home of a Naturalist (1888), Saxby and Edmondston
Orkney Folklore. Sea Myths. The Scottish Antiquary Vol 5 No 20 (1891), Dennison
Some Shetland Folklore (1895), Burgess
Art Rambles in Shetland (1896), Reid
The Dialect and Place Names of Shetland (1897), Jakobsen
Shetland Folk-Lore (1899), Spense
Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales (1901), Douglas
County Folklore Volume 3 (1903), Black
Old-Lore Series, Orkney and Shetland Miscellany, 1907 - 1946
Folktales and Legends of Shetland (1920), Nicolson
Shetland Traditional Lore (1932), Saxby
Shetland Folk Book Volume 2 (1951), Tait
The Scot's Magazine, Aug 1964
The Folklore of Orkney and Shetland (1975), Marwick
The Good People: New Fairylore Essays (1991), Narvez
An Orkney Anthology, Volume 1 (1991), Marwick
Hoy, The Dark Enchanted Isle (1997), Bremner
The Mermaid Bride (1998), Muir
The Book O Trows (2007), Shetland Folklore Development Group
Orkney Jar Website, Sigurd Towrie (http://www.orkneyjar.com)
A comprehensive guide to the history and folklore of the Orkney Isles, including many wonderful tales of Trows, Giants, Selkies, Finns, and Mermaids.
Orkney Jar Website, Sigurd Towrie (http://www.orkneyjar.com)
A comprehensive guide to the history and folklore of the Orkney Isles, including many wonderful tales of Trows, Giants, Selkies, Finns, and Mermaids.
Strange Lands, Andy Paciorek (http://www.batcow.co.uk/strangelands)
A superb website full of descriptions and illustrations of a wide variety of faeries, goblins, and monsters, and more. Includes my all-time favourite illustration of the Trows, as featured above. Book also available to purchase here.
A superb website full of descriptions and illustrations of a wide variety of faeries, goblins, and monsters, and more. Includes my all-time favourite illustration of the Trows, as featured above. Book also available to purchase here.