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  The ketthontla - a lost ogress?
Kit Huntling's Steps
The Burn o' Kithuntlins - an ogress' haunt?

A creature that has long since disappeared from Orkney folklore went by the name "kedhontla", or "ketthontla".

The only surviving memory, to my knowledge, of this entity is a single placename in the Orkney Mainland.

The Burn o' Kithuntlins, or Kit Huntlin's Burn, flows through the marshlands of the Birsay hills, close to the Harray parish border.

On first glance, this seems to be a fairly unremarkable, possessive placename.

Local tradition explains that Kit, or Kate, Huntling, or Huntly, was an 18th century woman who outsmarted a press gang attempting to "recruit" her son into the King's Navy.

But although this Kit Huntling may have been based on actual historical person, given her name's similarity to a creature of myth, it is more likely that her story was an attempt to explain the etymology of a perplexing placename.

In my opinion, behind the name, and the later tales of the enigmatic Ms Huntling, is the ketthontla. I believe that the Birsay and Harray hills were once thought to be the haunt of the creature.

Speaking from personal experience, the area surrounding Kithuntlin's Burn remains one of the hardest areas in Orkney to access. The peat-bogs surrounding the burn are treacherous and hard to cross in all but the driest weather.

In this landscape, it would not be hard to imagine mothers of yesteryear warning their children to stay away from the bogs – or risk an encounter with the ketthontla.

The cat ogress?

Nothing survives in Orcadian folklore that can shed any light on the ketthontla, or the stories surrounding it. All we know is that it was probably some form of ogress, or troll-woman. As we will see later, she appears to have dwelled in marshy pools – and, in Birsay, the burn that later took her name.

From her name, an apparent corruption of the Old Norse "kett-hyndla", meaning "cat-bitch", we could suggest she was a monstrous hybrid of dog and cat.

There seems to be an obvious connection with the Scandinavian creature known as the "ketta".

The taloned ketta, described a "she-cat", is generally found in literature as the mother of the undead mound-dweller, the draugr. She was, however, considered to be even more dangerous than her formidable offspring.

A Beowulf connection?

In off the moors, down through the mist-bands
God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping.
The bane of the race of men roamed forth,
hunting for a prey in the high hall.
Beowulf. Seamus Heaney translation.

Perhaps the best-known variant of the ketta appears in the epic Anglo Saxon poem Beowulf - composed between the middle of the 7th and the end of the 10th century AD.

In Beowulf, the monster, Grendel, lives with his mother - described by Seamus Heaney, in his translation, as a "troll-dam" - within a murky pool in the middle of a treacherous marsh. It is this marsh that also sees Grendel’s mother referred to as the “merewyf” – “marsh/bog woman”

After Beowulf slays Grendel, his mother seeks revenge. She is, however, eventually defeated after Beowulf finds a magical blade in her lair.

The protective mother

Kit Huntling's Steps
Kithuntlin's Burn, Birsay

This motif of the protective mother is particularly interesting when we return to the legend of Orkney's Kit Huntling. She was a formidable, bog-dwelling, woman whose only remembered exploit was saving her son from the clutches of a Napoleonic press gang.

So in the case of Kit Huntlin's Burn, do we have a situation where ancient stories of a monstrous, fearsome mother-beast, and her undead son, gave the area the name Ketthontla's Burn?

As the years passed, and the less-widespread aspects of lore were forgotten, was the mortal Kit Huntling created to explain away the name and the vague memories still remaining?

See Also

See Also
Gyro Night - The Night of the Ogress
Customs and Traditions

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