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  The Fairy Folk in Orkney Lore

The Fairy Folk attack!

Fairy ArrowsWhen not fighting among themselves, the fairies - and trows - were renowned, disliked, and particularly feared, for of their habit of attacking liestock and humans.

When an animal became thin and ill, it was said to have been elf-shot or trow-shot. To remedy this potentially disastrous condition, every Orkney parish turned to the women who were said to be able to diagnose the disease, and thereafter restore the animal to health.

In all these cases, the malicious fairy's weapon was usually a stone or flint arrowhead, but sometimes the projectile was a sharp splinter of wood.

When summoned to an elf-shot animal, the wise-woman would examine every part of the animal's body, looking in particular for a hairless spot on its side, or any lumps beneath the skin. These, she would assure the onlookers, were sure signs that the animal had been trow-shot.

Her final test was to pierce the cow in various places with a large needle - if the beast did not bleed it was obvious that it was bleeding internally from the fairy's inflicted hurt.

Some of the measures taken to cure such a condition were described in the publication Notes on Orcadian Folklore, written in 1884:

"The owner had fired guns over the cow between sun and day. He had whispered in her ears until he was tired; he had given her drinks off silver, but all to no avail, for her heart was riddled with fairy shot."

From recorded incidents, we know there seems to have been no standard treatment for elf-shot animals. Almost every wise-woman, who specialised in the cures, had her own preferred method. Two of these were recorded in Shetland and, as you will see, are both completely different from each other. They do, however, demonstrate how the wise-woman preyed upon the superstitious beliefs of her fellow islanders.

The first instance was recorded in 1895.

In this case, the old woman, who had been called in to help, discovered a small dimple in the cow's skin, opposite the heart. She asked for a Bible and, after searching for a certain segment of holy text, ripped out the page on which it was printed:

" I shall tak a verse oot o' dis leaf, an whitever a verse dat is none knows bit me, for it's a saecret, an dem at wid be weel sud never middle wi' things at dey ken no o'."
Click here for translation

She tore the healing verse from the page and rolled the tiny scrap of paper into a hard pellet, which was then pushed into the supposed wound. After waiting a while, she withdrew the pellet and taking it, the torn leaf, and the mutilated Bible, went into the cottage where she received her "payment" in the form of gifts. A few days later the cows were said to be well again.

The second account is even more surprising as it was recorded as recently as 1959. The writer was quoting "a charming and intelligent woman" who had witnessed the rite as a girl:

"Aunty Betty hed a coo, an she was trow-shot. So sheu got twa veemin at kent aboot daelin wi dis an dey trivelled ower da animal, an sained ower her a while. Dan dey gaed her saut and sut, an tied a simmit aboot her middle. Dan dey set fire till a coarn o gun pooder anunder her; an last iv aa, dey got a he-cat, an set his clewers ithin her shooders, an rave him fae her heid till her tail."
Click here for translation

Remarkably, this performance did not kill the unfortunate beast, but its condition was once again said to have improved. This ceremony was still in use in Shetland between the World Wars.

Cattle were not the sole targets of the fairies. mortals were also attacked, although the frequency of these assaults was considerably less.

In 1884, the Orcadian poet Duncan Robertson wrote;

"There is still a man living in Papa Westray who is lame from the effects of an arrow which was shot into his back when he was ploughing by a hill-trow."

Anyone who found an elf-arrow was supposedly immune from such hurt, but they had to keep the protective artefact with them at all times. If the arrow was given away, the person parting with it was liable to be stolen away by the fairies.

In 1908, one Peter Smith from Tankerness found a small splinter of wood, which he supposed to be an elf-arrow:

"It was esteemed so sacred that he kept it locked up in his chest, so that no one was allowed to look on it or handle it."

The Elfbelt