Finfolk of Orkney folklore were a race of dark and gloomy sorcerers, feared and
mistrusted by mortals.
Their boating skills
were unparalleled and as well as having power over storm and sea, they were noted
Unlike the selkie-folk,
who were restricted - according to some tales at least - in the times they could
come ashore, the Finfolk were truly amphibious.
and went as they pleased, venturing between their undersea world and the human
realm as they wished.
The Finfolk led a nomadic lifestyle.
They spent the long Orkney winters in the luxury of Finfolkaheem,
a majestic city of unknown location, but usually said to be at the bottom of the
In the summer, however, they returned to Orkney, where
they took up residence on their magical island home, Hildaland
- one of Orkney's magical vanishing islands. Tradition
has it that this Hildaland was later taken from the Finfolk
and renamed Eynhallow.
There were two distinct divisions
within the ranks of the Finfolk - these were, unsurprisingly, the Finman
and the Finwife. The tales of the Finmen generally make
up the bulk of the folklore and are fairly standard in their descriptions of the
Finfolk shared one common trait with Orkney's land-dwelling hill-folk
and trows - they had an unpleasant penchant for stealing away mortals.
would spirit away their captives, transporting them to their hidden island homes,
where they generally forced to remain for the rest of their days. These unfortunates
were usually taken to become the wife or husband of one of the Finfolk.
detailed elsewhere, the Finwife had a particularly good reason for acquiring a
But beneath these legends of abductions, it is clear
how the Finfolk's malevolent influence could have been used to explain away the
many disappearances and deaths at sea.
Imagine a grief
stricken mother, sat in a silent croft by a raging sea. Would it not be better
to hope your lost son had been taken by the sea folk, perhaps to return again,
alive and well, some day?
Christianity and the Finfolk
common with most of Orkney's other supernatural inhabitants, the disappearance
of the Finfolk was blamed on the arrival of Christianity.
the old people of Orkney were asked why the Finmen were no longer seen, they simply
"De Finmen cinno' live whar' the true Gospel
is preached on de land, and a sprole used fir fishin' oan da sea."
"sprole" mentioned above was a fishing device allowing the fisherman
to use two hooks on one line.
The influence of the Finman
and his kin was feared right through until at least the end of the nineteenth
century, and the above statement was probably recorded around that time, as the
folklore began to slip out of the Orcadian consciousness.
Although it appears that the Finfolk were a
stark contrast to the relatively benign selkie-folk, this is actually far from
Above all of the creatures of Orkney myth,
the selkie-folk have been "sugar-coated" in recent years to create an
angelic benevolent sea-spirit - a far cry from the original entities that struck
terror into believers.
In addition, both bodies of folklore,
although now regarded as completely distinct, were probably one and the same.
the sea-dwelling Finfolk tales appear to contain elements from a number of different
sources, they were almost certainly based on the "Finns" of Norwegian
tradition. The indigenous inhabitants of northern Norway, the "Finns"
were also renowned for their "magical powers".
Orkney and Shetland, these people, known as "Norway Finns", occupied
a place somewhere between myth and fact.
here for more details.
Over time, elements of other
lore became grafted to the exploits of these magicians - including,
for example, elements acquired from the tales of the now forgotten Huldrefolk.
The resultant confusion with other aspects of Norse and Orcadian myth leaves us
with the Finfolk and selkie folklore we have today.
Orkney, the Finfolk retained the Norway Finns' reputation as powerful sorcerers,
although there are actually very few tales where they wield this supposed power.
the time the legends came to be recorded, they had already begun to fade. So not
only were elements blurred, or forgotten, but they were reinterpreted by the folklorists
of the time.
The recorded Orcadian explanation for the
name "Finfolk", for example, was simple. It had nothing to do with Scandinavian
sorcerers. The "Finn folk" surely had fishlike fins. These fins, it
was recorded, were cunningly disguised, so that when viewed by a human they looked
like flowing articles of clothing.
Further north, in Shetland,
there was no such misconception about fins. There, the link between the Norway
Finns was recorded as late as the end of the 19th century. In these accounts,
the Shetland Finns had all the trademarks of Orkney's Finfolk and selkie-folk.