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  The Sea in Orkney Folklore

"The people of the Orkney Islands have drawn from the sea a host of legendary creatures to be feared, revered or placated."

Selkie Girl: Illustration by Sigurd TowrieBeing an island community, it will come as no surprise to hear that the sea has always been a major part of Orkney life.

The Orkney coastline, lashed by furious storms and shrouded by frequent mists, form the origin of many old and curious legends.

The 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.

The seascapes across Orkney have eerie, dramatic and forbidding qualities that even the onshore landscape of tombs and megaliths cannot match.

To 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 ago.

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.

"Further than Hoy...the mermaids whisper
through ivory shells.. a-babble with vowels"
George Mackay Brown

The 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.

But 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.

But these Orcadians were not foolish.

They knew 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 Orkney.

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.

Other examples?

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.

Or was the occurrence of an unwed pregnancy the result of a union brought about by the bewitching charms of a selkie man?

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