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Changelings and Trowie Bairns

The Trow's Changeling: Illustration by Sigurd Towrie

Of all Orkney's supernatural inhabitants, Orkney's trows had a particularly dark, malevolent streak.

Aside from their mischievous, but generally harmless, pranks, the trows were renowned for their disturbing habit of stealing newborn babies!

Much like the fairy folklore throughout Northern Europe, the offspring of the trows were thought to be weak, sickly little creatures.

Because of this, the trows would go to any lengths to exchange their infants for healthy human children. This resulted in the widespread changeling folklore that comes to us today.

At the root of the changeling folklore is undoubtedly the need to understand why a child failed to develop, or was perhaps in some way different to its siblings.

To the Orcadian family of old, the concept of mental or physical abnormalities could be explained away simply. The "healthy child" must have been taken - switched at some point for one the unnatural offspring of the trows.

This belief distanced the parents from the child.

In their eyes, after all, it wasn't theirs but an unnatural creature - something that inevitably almost justified the punishment and abuse meted out to the unfortunate infant.

"Nothing will induce parents to show any attention to a child that they suspect of being a changeling. But there are persons who undertake to enter the hills and regain the lost child."
Thomas Keightley, The Fairy Mythology (1850)

The appearance of the sickly trow children led to the descriptive word "trowie" in Orcadian dialect which, when used to describe a person's appearance, means "pale" or "unwell". The same word is also used to describe any poor quality object.

Trow and Bairn: Illustration by Sigurd TowrieBut the trows were not only notorious child-stealers.

They had an equally terrible reputation for abducting adults - spiriting unfortunate mortals away to their homes hidden deep within the earth. Those said to be the most vulnerable were new brides, grooms and pregnant women.

The threat of being taken by the trows was so great that numerous precautions were taken to guard against such an eventuality.

Prior to every wedding, for example, elaborate rituals were carried out to drive away any malevolent trow and pregnant women went to incredible lengths to protect themselves and their unborn child.

Pregnant abductions

Pregnancies were carefully concealed so the trows would not be alerted to any woman's condition. Then, once a child had been safely delivered, family and neighbours took it in turns to rock the infant's cradle throughout the night. This constant vigil ensured the infant was not stolen away or replaced by a changeling.

No clear reason has made it on to paper as to why the trows were so anxious to steal away pregnant women and midwives. In Shetland, however, the notion that trows could only father male children was suggested.

In the island of Unst, the breed of trows afflicted by this condition went by the name of Kurnal-trows.

The Kurnal-trow was a sullen, dour creature, who, it was said, married human wives in order to produce healthy children. But as soon as the baby-trow was born, the unfortunate human mother was doomed to die.

The Shetlanders came to the conclusion that if the baby-trow's natural mother had died in childbirth, it was clear that the little creature required a wet-nurse - hence the abduction of the pregnant women or women in labour.

It was also argued that this was also the reason the trows would take the attending midwife. Did the trows depend on the midwife's skills to save the pregnant Kurnal-trow's wife from her doom?

One recorded tradition has it that when the trows entered the a house of a newborn infant to steal the mother they were known to sing this song:

Spinnan yet, spinnan yet
Go tae bed, go tae bed!
Cutty speun an' treelaidle
Gaad horse an' riven saiddle,
Strae-i an' strae-boggan,
Tae hi dal doodle, an'
tae hiddle del doo-dee.

which translates roughly as

Spinning yet, spinning yet?
Got to bed, go to bed!
Short spoon and wooden ladle
Unsound horse and torn saddle
In childbed and unwell;
To hi dal doodle, and
to hi del doo-dee

The significance of this little verse - if there was any - is now lost.

Trowie stocks

Where children were stolen, in most cases a trowie changeling was left in its place. But on the occasions where the trows abducted adults, or even farm animals, they were known to leave a likeness of the abductee - a thing known as a "stock".

In 1893, a writer in the prominent The Scotsman newspaper discussed the character and activities of Orkney's trows. They were, he observed:

"incredibly skilful in making images of human beings and animals. The stocks or likenesses, they left in a bed when they removed a man, woman, or child, or in a byre, when they removed a cow, defied detection except by the application of fire.

They were utter heathens and hated the Bible.

A leaf from the Scriptures tied around a cow's horn was a sufficient protection and they were so afraid of steel that they would on no account enter a house above the door of which a knife was stuck.

They were lovers of fire and had their underground dwellings well lighted. When the household fires went out, they would renew them from the nearest human dwelling."

Trow encounters