About Orkney
 About the Site
 Search Site 
  Orkney's Giant Folklore

The giant, Cubbie Roo

In this article, Orcadian author Gregor Lamb's challenges the long-accepted theory that the historical figure Kolbein Hrúga and folklore's Cubbie Roo were one and the same.


In his book, History of the Orkney Islands, written at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Reverend George Barry, minister of Shapinsay, said of the island of Wyre:

"near its centre, on a fine green hillock, which has a commanding view of the adjacent islands, is situated the castle of Coppirow, or Cubbirow. An Orkney gentleman, about the middle of the twelfth century, erected it in that form. His name was Kolbem Hranga (sic) ....and the name which the castle bears is so similar in point of fact to that of the founder, that we need trace it to no further derivation."

Barry was the first to suggest that Coppirow/Cubbirow and Kolbein Hrúga were one and the same person and ever since it has been assumed that this is true.

Every Orkney guide rightly makes mention of Cubbie Roo's Castle in Wyre and goes on to explain that the name derives from Kolbein Hrúga, the 12th century Norse chieftain who built it.

However, we have to ask ourselves the question - is it really possible that the name and nickname of a Norse chieftain could be passed down through folk memory over a period of more than five hundred years?

A good example of folk memory the writer came across in Orkney is an instance from South Ronaldsay. There, at the beginning of the 20th century, James Thomson of Quoys told the Reverend Craven that the Reverend Edward Richardson, a previous incumbent of South Ronaldsay who lived in the middle of the 17th century, had an unusual deformity - three thumbs on each hand.

This is an extraordinary example of the power of folk memory, which had handed down knowledge over a period of two and a half centuries! It is impossible that James Thomson had read such a fact.

Walter Traill Dennison recalled details of the wrecking of the Spanish Armada in Orkney - tales which went back 300 years at the time they were written. In 19th century Sandwick, local people knew that one of the Kirkness family had been a knight and subsequent historical research proved indeed that Sir Thomas Kirkness had lived at the end of the 14th century.

We would have to conclude, therefore, that there is a slim chance that local people could have known that Kolbein Hrúga had inhabited the castle on Wyre. However, there are several strong arguments against equating him with Cubbie Roo.

Apart from several saga references, the earliest reference to the castle in Wyre is found in Jo Ben's Descriptio Insularum Orchadiarum, a document dating from the first quarter of the 16th century.

He writes of the castle in Wyre:

"Here in times past lived a tall giant, and the foundation of his house yet remains."

Notice that there is no mention of Kolbein Hrúga here. Ben does say, however, that the occupier was "a tall giant".

Kolbein's nickname hrúga meant that he was a big "heap" of a man. Did 16th century locals know the castle had been inhabited by a big man but no one at that point in time could remember his name? Or was the term "giant" used in the sense of a huge mythical being?

Kolbein - the first clue

Of all the Norse first names associated with Orkney, Kolbein has the longest history.

We find it as an element in the island of Copinsay, which we can safely assume to mean the "island of Kolbein" and which could place the appearance of the name as early as the 9th century.

From the 15th century onwards the name crops up again and again, eventually establishing itself as the surname Cobban.

Writing in 1900, Hossack, in his book Kirkwall in the Orkneys, talks of the "late Miss Cobban" who lived in Kirkwall's Victoria Street. As can be seen, the interesting thing about the development of the name Kolbein is that, though it loses the '"l", it never loses the "n". For this reason alone we would have to reject Cubbie Roo as being the same person as Kolbein Hrúga.

But let us consider the possibility that, at different times, two different people occupied the castle - one being Kolbein Hrúga, the other being Cubbie Roo.

The most convincing argument that Cubbie Roo has nothing to do with Kolbein Hrúga is Cubbie Roo's association with many physical features in the Orkney landscape.

Cubbie Roo's Lade, a pile of stones on the beach near Rothiesholm Head, in Stronsay, and supposedly the beginning of a bridge from Stronsay to Shapinsay, derives from the Old Norse trolla-hlad, a giant's causeway.

Cubbie Roo's Burn, in Shapinsay, flows through a channel by the name Trolldgeo. Most remarkable is the number of large stones in Orkney which, it is alleged, have been thrown or dropped by Cubbie Roo. These are found in Stronsay, Eday, Shapinsay, Rousay and Evie. Sometimes he dropped a load of stones that he was carrying. It is said that the Skerry o the Sound, in Evie, was formed due to Cubbie's carelessness!

Throughout the length and breadth of Britain, and indeed Europe, similar tales are told of giants, or of the Devil, wandering around with an overladen apron of stones! In Orkney dialect the phrase "tae cairry a deil's burden" is to carry such a large load that something is sure to fall off!

Cubbie's name is also associated with ancient man-made features in the landscape.

Cubbie Roo's Burden is a chambered cairn in the Brinyan district of Rousay and Cubbie Roo's Castle was, until it was taken into care, an enigmatic heap of stones in Wyre!

But Cubbie Roo has nothing to do with Kolbein Hrúga.

By the greatest of coincidences, Kolbein's name approximates the name of a mythical spirit - giant, troll, monster, devil, whatever you like to call him - whom our Norse ancestors believed was responsible for what might be described as superhuman creations in the landscape.

Cubbie Roo - Norse chieftain or supernatural spirit?

Let us take a close look at the name Cubbie Roo.

As we noted at the beginning, Barry referred to him as Coppirow or Cubbirow. Up until the beginning of the last century, the last element was always written "row" and not "roo".

It would seem that once the sagas became widely available and readers noted that Kolbein Hrúga had lived in Wyre, it was assumed that "roo" had to be the correct pronunciation. In fact, the second name Row represents the Old Norse word raud meaning red. So Cubbie Row becomes Cubbie Red and this helps greatly in the interpretation of the name.

Cubbie Roo is in fact a spirit. A being of enormous power who, in common with many such supernatural creatures, was believed to be red in colour.

Redcap is an evil goblin who lives in the Scottish borders and Redshanks are Somerset spirits. The horde of evil spirits who followed in the train of Lusse, the evil monster of Norwegian folklore, wore red hoods and the so-called kaboutermannekin, brownie-type figures from Holland, also wore red caps.

A spirit which haunted the coast of the West Mainland of Orkney, and whose name is recorded in a number of caves, is known as Watty or Walter Red. The colour red is symbolic of the blood of the spirit's victims. Redcap, the evil spirit of Scottish folklore, periodically redyed his cap red with human blood.

Rawhead or Bloody Bone(s) was a hideous spectre with blood streaming down his face who was believed to inhabit the wilder parts of the north of England. Raw in this instance may also be the Old Norse raud since in some of the placenames of northern England, such as Rawmarsh in Yorkshire and Rawcliffe in Lancashire, for example, it is known that the original forms of raw come from the Norse for red.

A "heap" of a man?

So much for Roo, the second element of Cubbie Roo's name. What of the first element, Cubbie, or as it was earlier written Cobbie?

Cobbie as a spirit is a roundish, heavy figure. In English dialect, the word cob has a variety of meanings, which includes "big strong man".

The same cobbie-type element is found in Dutch kaboutermannekin and German kobold, both relating to supernatural creatures. This latter word came into French in the corrupted form gobelin and into English as goblin.

The German and Dutch names for this spirit might help us to understand a little more about the spirit Cobbie. It is believed that the German word Kobold originally took the form Kobwalt, where the last element means power, as in Norwegian vald or English wield.

What is of particular interest here is that the same element - walt - also occurs in the name of that other Orkney demon, Watty or Walter Red. It would be reasonable to conclude that Cobbie, meaning spirit, falls into the same group as the German kobold and Dutch kaboutermannekin who, it will be remembered, wore red caps!

By the greatest of coincidences, Kolbein Hrúga's name was very close to that of a local demon, whose name would have approximated kobvald raudr, alias Cobbie Row. It was in this way that the castle, which had become no more than a heap of stones, came to be called Cubbie Roo's Castle!

In the West Mainland of Orkney, kobvald raudr became Valdi Red, Watty Red or Walter Red, and one of the caves in which he lived can still be seen on the Brough o Birsay.

He had another cave on the Stromness shore and sometimes favoured a hole on the Heddle Hill in Firth! He also seems to have been referred to merely by the name Row, since we have the Hole o Row in Sandwick and the Hole o Row in Flotta.

Cubbie Roo and Walter Red were also known by the name Gunni. The goblin name Gunni is found in a variety of spelt forms in Sweden, Shetland and on the island of Tiree on the west coast of Scotland. In Wiltshire, a Bronze age tomb is known as Gun's church!

In Orkney, Gunni sometimes took up residence in Gunnie's Geo, a cleft in the rocks in Rousay but sometimes he chose Gunyasilya, a cave on the Birsay coast. He also spent some time in a saddle in the Orphir Hills.

Any doubt in my mind that Cubbie Roo was really a spirit was dispelled when, some years ago, I was at a wedding in Norfolk and, by sheer coincidence, found myself sitting beside an old lady who had been born in Westray but who left as a young child.

Cubbie Roo's name is not recorded in Westray but he must have been well known there for local folklore tells us that it was from here that he launched some of his largest missiles.

Once we had got over the shock of having a common homeland, the lady recalled some of her earliest childhood memories. She tried to remember a little bedtime saying of her mother's and after several attempts came out with this remarkable little rhyme:

"Hush thee bairn,
An dinna fret thee,
Cubbie Roo'll
Nivver git thee."

Section Contents

See Also
Kolbein Hrúga - The Historical Cubbie Roo?
Orcadian Giant Lore

Back a page