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  The Sorcerous Finfolk

Fin Man: Illustration by Sigurd TowrieThe 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 shapeshifters.

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.

They came 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 sea.

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 gloomy creatures.


The Finfolk shared one common trait with Orkney's land-dwelling hill-folk and trows - they had an unpleasant penchant for stealing away mortals.

They 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.

As is detailed elsewhere, the Finwife had a particularly good reason for acquiring a mortal husband.

Finman on the Ebb: Illustration by Sigurd Towrie

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

In common with most of Orkney's other supernatural inhabitants, the disappearance of the Finfolk was blamed on the arrival of Christianity.

When the old people of Orkney were asked why the Finmen were no longer seen, they simply replied:

"De Finmen cinno' live whar' the true Gospel is preached on de land, and a sprole used fir fishin' oan da sea."

The "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.

Merging traditions

Although it appears that the Finfolk were a stark contrast to the relatively benign selkie-folk, this is actually far from the truth.

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.

Although 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".

In Orkney and Shetland, these people, known as "Norway Finns", occupied a place somewhere between myth and fact.

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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.

In Orkney, the Finfolk retained the Norway Finns' reputation as powerful sorcerers, although there are actually very few tales where they wield this supposed power.

By 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.

The Finman

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The Finfolk

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One very old, and practically forgotten, tale tells how their leader, known simply as the Fin-King, was killed by the men of the Mainland parish Sandwick during a battle at sea.

Details of this Fin-King, and the battle, are vague but it may be that the tale is a trace memory, or corruption, of an actual historical event.

I have often wondered whether the Finfolk legends had some basis on tales surrounding the pre-Christian inhabitants of the isles - perhaps a seagoing nomadic tribe who travelled the islands, settling on Eynhallow during summer and returning to their more-sheltered homes when the cruel Orkney winter set in and darkness reigned once again.
As time progressed, like other magical creatures, the Finfolk became linked with Satan - probably by overzealous ministers attempting to sway the islanders away from their deep-seated superstitious practices and beliefs. In some tales they are actually referred to as "servants of the Devil".
The practically forgotten legends of the Finfolk received an interesting twist recently during an organised visit to the Finfolk's ancient island home of Eynhallow. Click here for the full story
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