people of the Orkney Islands have drawn from the sea a host of legendary creatures
to be feared, revered or placated."
an island community, it will come as no surprise to hear that the sea has always
been a major part of Orkney life.
coastline, lashed by furious storms and shrouded by frequent mists, form the
origin of many old and curious legends.
sea provided storytellers with an ever-present, but unknown, realm. With its storms,
whirlpools, rip tides, skerries, stacks and caves, the magical realm of the ocean
has been a constant source of fascination to Orcadians for centuries.
seascapes across Orkney have eerie, dramatic and forbidding qualities that even
the onshore landscape of tombs and megaliths cannot match.
an inland dweller, the sheer power of the raging sea can not be fully understood
or appreciated. The sea's ability to snuff out life, as well as sustain it, is
a force that has to be respected - a fact that is as true today as it was centuries
To earlier generations of Orcadians,
the sea was first and foremost as a benefactor - a provider of not only food and
livelihood but other materials too.
than Hoy...the mermaids whisper
through ivory shells.. a-babble with vowels"
George Mackay Brown
seas around Orkney are arguably among the most dangerous on the planet and there
is a long and terrible history of shipwrecks around the rocky coasts.
as always in the scheme of things, one man's sorrow is another man's fortune and
the wreckage from these unfortunate vessels were a valued source of materials
and beach-combing was a necessary part of life.
these Orcadians were not foolish.
well enough that the sea was fickle, as quick to anger as it was to return to
glassy calm. What it provided generously one day it would callously, and without
remorse, take away the next.
Faced with these
elements, the ancient Orcadian imagination soon populated the unknown realm with
a plethora of supernatural inhabitants - the menacing Finman,
who wouldn't think twice about stealing away a mortal woman to become his bride;
the alluring mermaid, whose goal it was to entice a
husband beneath the waves; the seductive selkie-man;
the thieving sea-trow; sea-serpents
and monsters - all were said to have their homes in the waters surrounding
But above all, these creatures provided
the islanders with answers for events they could not comprehend and convenient
explanations for the events that affected their lives.
When, for example, a man was lost at sea, he had surely been taken by the Finmen,
or, perhaps tempted away by a mesmerising mermaid. These explanations may also
have offered grieving kin some form of consolation. Perhaps now they could clutch
tightly to the last glimmer of hope that he would return again one day.
A poor fishing trip had to be the
fault of the sea-trow that had either scared away the fish or had been brazen
enough to steal the catch from the hooks.
was the occurrence of an unwed pregnancy the result of a union brought about by
the bewitching charms of a selkie man?