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  The Trows

Early Accounts of the 'Trow'

Although the draugr of Norse folklore was originally a revenant, over time it too seems to have corrupted so that later tradition has it as the wandering spirit of those drowned at sea. In other cases, "draug" became a term used to describe any supernatural sea-being.

By the middle of the 16th century, this evolution of the draugr seems to have taken place within Orkney as well, although by now the term “trow” appears to have taken root.

Writing his Descriptio Insularum Orchadiarum, sometime between 1529 and 1657, the enigmatic author Jo Ben described his travels in Orkney.

Within this Latin document he tells us of the "trowis" found in Stronsay:

"Furthermore sea-monsters called Trowis very often go with the women living there…..This is a description of that monster. It is clad in seaweed, in its whole body it is like a foal, with curly hair, it has a member like that of a horse and large testicles."

So here we have the term “trow” being used exactly in the same manner as its Norwegian counterpart “draug”.

It is hard to say whether Ben’s record shows that the term “trow” was in common use or whether Ben simply had difficulty “translating” the Orcadian accent - “dr” and “tr” can be hard to distinguish, even more so in a time when the rural population would have been speaking Norn.

Ben’s description of the Stronsay creature has absolutely no resemblance to the trow found in folklore these days and it would be tempting to suggest that he was, perhaps, using some poetic licence in his description of the creature. However, the fact remains that it his “monster” does bear a slight resemblance to the horse-like appearance of the dreaded Nuckelavee. The seaweed also brings to mind the appearance of the typical sea-trow of our folklore.

What we can definitely take from Jo Ben’s description, however, is that, at the time, the word "trow" or “drow” was clearly being used to describe any spirit, or supernatural creature.

This makes more sense, but Ben’s next statement confirms the connection between the trows and the ancient beliefs concerning the spirits of the dead.

Within this passage, Jo Ben declares that the people of Stronsay:

“...say that folk who die suddenly spend their lives thereafter with them [trows], although I do not believe it."

A clear reference to the idea that the trows were, at one time, equated with the dead, or at least some form of afterlife.

Not only did the Norse settlers believe in the draugr but, as is detailed on the pages dealing with the hogboon, they also brought with them a belief that, after death, a person’s spirit continued to live on the family farm, or near it.

This applied, in particular, to the founding-father of the estate, over whose body a large "haugr" or burial mound was often constructed. The revered ancestor's spirit was thought to remain within this mound, becoming the family, or farm’s, guardian.

Thousands of years before the Norsemen took the islands, it is likely that the Neolithic Orcadians also participated in some form of ancestor worship. The remains of their venerated dead were stored within purpose-built chambered tombs — tombs that became the "hollow hills" of later lore.

The actual details of the Neolithic ceremonies, and beliefs, can only be guessed at but it is likely that the tombs, which were sealed after each use, were regarded as the home of the ancestors. This place, where time has no meaning, is echoed within the folklore tales of mortals tempted into the mounds of trows. The unfortunate mortal enters for one night and upon leaving the next morning realises that several years had flown by.

To a certain extent, some of the documented descriptions of trows as bad tempered old men hint at this idea of ancestral-spirits.