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The origin of the Orkney trow

Leaping Trow: Illustration by Sigurd TowrieIn early accounts of Orkney folklore, the word “trow” was a generic term used to refer to a wide range of supernatural creatures.

Although there are clear elements of fairy folklore mixed in among the mythology of the trow, there are a few distinct differences. These variations hint at the fact that the trow, as it comes to us today, developed from a number of distinct sources.

Regarding the development of the trow mythology, scholars of Orcadian folklore have, over the years, proposed two theories as to its origin:

Theory 1: The shrunken troll

The first theory is the most widespread. It has been propounded for a number of years but is, in my opinion, too simplistic and does not stand up to close scrutiny.

This theory has it that the Orkney trow is merely a "shrunken" version of the Norwegian troll. It suggests that when the Norse settled in Orkney and Shetland they brought with them the tales of the monstrous, gigantic trolls of their homeland.

Over time, it suggests, these stories adapted to fit Orkney's gentler landscape. So, the monstrous trolls, who once stalked Norway's dramatic glacial scenery, shrank to a size suitable for Orkney's low rolling hills.

With this transformation they eventually became known as trows, the word explained away simply as an Orcadian corruption of the word "troll".

Although some elements of the Norwegian troll can be found within trow lore, I find this explanation unsatisfactory.

The antics of Orkney's trows bear little or no resemblance to the fearsome tales of Norway's gigantic trolls - monstrous, flesh-eating beasts that dined on human flesh.

Theory 2: Spirits of the Hill

Much more feasible, in my opinion, is the idea that strands of Norse folklore, imported by the settlers, merged with an indigenous body of Orcadian tradition.

As you will see elsewhere on this site, the tales of Orkney's trows are practically indistinguishable from those of fairy folk found across Britain and Ireland. Throughout Orcadian folklore the terms "hill-folk", "trows", "peedie folk" and "fairyfolk" have become interchangeable and the creatures' characteristics are more or less the same.

The trows were generally smaller than the average man and, although descriptions vary, they usually wore rags or grey clothing. Although there are some instances in which a single trow was encountered alone, most tales have the creatures travelling in groups and living in small raucous communities, mostly in knolls, mounds or caverns found within the depths of hills.

So, given the similarity between the tales of fairy folk in other parts of Britain, it seems more likely that some elements of the Orkney's trow lies in a pre-Norse tradition.

When the Norse settlers began arriving in Orkney the 8th century, they were probably exposed to a multitude of tales dealing with the mischievous, sometimes malicious, child-stealing "spirits" living within the hills and mounds. It may be that they used the word "troll" - in the sense that it can mean "spirit" - to describe them.

However, this theory still doesn’t explain why "troll" became "trow".

The linguistic explanation that it is corruption is not sufficient. If "troll" corrupted to "trow" why do we still find the word "troll" as an element in some placenames? Trollashun, for example.

For the answer to that question, we need look at another altogether darker area of Norse folklore, the undead creature known as the draugr - the true predecessor of the trow.

For more on this theory, click here.

Trow changelings