and Trowie Bairns
all Orkney's supernatural inhabitants, Orkney's trows had a particularly dark, malevolent
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.
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.
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
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
But the trows were not only notorious
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.
threat of being taken by the trows was so great that numerous precautions were
taken to guard against such an eventuality.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
Cutty speun an' treelaidle
Gaad horse an' riven saiddle,
Tae hi dal doodle, an'
tae hiddle del doo-dee.
translates roughly as
Got to bed, go to bed!
Short spoon and wooden ladle
Unsound horse and torn saddle
In childbed and unwell;
To hi dal doodle,
to hi del doo-dee
The significance of this little verse - if there was any - is now lost.
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".
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.
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."