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  The Fairy Folk in Orkney Lore

The origin of the Fairy Folk

Fairy Howe: Illustration by Sigurd TowrieThe root of Orkney's fairy folklore is not clear, entwined, as it is, with the lore of the trows. There is probably no single source.

Instead, we undoubtedly have elements from a number of different traditions - such as pre-Christian beliefs in gods, goddesses and the spirits of nature, which inhabited Orkney's streams, lochs and hills.

Like the trows, it is also highly possible that the fairies, at one time, represented the spirits of the dead.

A vanquished race?

A number of years ago, a common belief was that fairy folklore evolved from folk memories of a prehistoric race.

Newcomers, it was suggested, ousted the original inhabitants of the isles, and the memories of this defeated, hidden people developed into the fairy beliefs we have today.

The tradition that iron gives protection against fairies echoes this idea of ancient invasion and obliteration. But these day, the idea of the vanquished race has fallen out of favour with scholars.

But for historical evidence of a similar phenomenon we need look no further than the Picts. Within a few centuries of the Norse settlement of Orkney, the Picts had already slipped into the shadowy world of folklore.

There they remained until modern times, with the term "Pict" or "Pight" becoming interchangeable with "fairy" and "trow".

Fallen angels?

But when it comes to the folkloric origin of the fairies, the answer is clear.

As documented in the section dealing with the sea-dwelling Selkie Folk, it was thought that:

"When the angels fell, some fell on the land and some on the sea.
The former are the fairies and the latter the selkies."

This interpretation of the fairy folk's origin undoubtedly shows a later Christian influence, perhaps in which the islands' older pagan beliefs were given a "gentle" nudge towards Satan - undoubtedly in an effort to dissuade converts from their long-held pagan beliefs. A prime example of this is the fairy folk's hatred, and fear, of the Bible.

The following anecdote neatly illustrates the point.

In what sounds suspiciously like a piece of church propaganda, it was said that a fairy woman once met a man, whom she asked whether there was any way that her soul might be saved.

The man replied: "Yes indeed, but only if you can say 'Our father which art in Heaven.'"

The fairy woman tried to answer, but was only able to say: "Our father which wert in heaven" - i.e. "Our father who was in heaven".

Her loyalty to Satan, the Fallen Angel, proven she went away crying in despair.

Descriptions of the Fairy Folk

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