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Trow Encounters

Trow Waiting: Illustration by Sigurd TowrieThe procedure to follow if confronted by a band of wandering trows was once vital knowledge for anyone who travelled around the islands.

Like most of Orkney's supernatural inhabitants, the trows despised the power of iron or steel. As such an iron blade was usually sufficient to send the creatures scurrying back to their hollow hills.

According to one old account:

"Whoever meets a trow should draw a circle around him and bid 'Gjud be about me', or lie down and stick a knife in the ground at his head."

But even knowing what to do was no guarantee of safety.

One story tells how one islander, strolling past a large knowe - mound - on a dark winter's night, was surrounded by a mischievous looking collection of hill-folk. The man searched frantically through his pockets and, finding the leg of a pair of shears, threw himself on his knees and scratched a circle around him.

The power of iron and steel

Remaining within the confines of the protective circle, he drew another circle, and then another - continuing like this until the cock crew. Then the trows vanished.

Unfortunately, however, the man in this tale later died from the effects of the night's terror and exposure. But before he died, he declared that the moment the trows had touched his steel-drawn circle they were hurled back and were powerless to cross the line.

His dying advice was that no-one should wander at night without a good steel knife in his pocket.

But strangely enough, in some tales of trow encounters the roles are reversed and the mortal chooses not to flee but instead tries to prevent the trows from escaping.

One such account, recorded in Shetland, explains that upon meeting a trow if the mortal met the trow's gaze and refused to look away, the creature would be unable to escape.

According to the story, the trow in question had entered a house at night and was sitting by the fire when a young boy caught it. He stared at the trow woman, his steady gaze holding her entranced and unable to leave. But the trowie-wife was cunning. Heating a set of tongs in the fire, she threatened to put out the eyes of her young captor.

Needless to say the boy blinked and the trow made her swift escape.

Tradition dictates that although the trows were often seen as a mere nuisance throughout the year, they were most active around the midwinter festival of Yule - a time when they were also at their most dangerous.

At Yule, the hordes of trows were "given permission" to come above ground - a tradition echoing the midwinter festival's original role as a festival of the dead.

This connection between the trows and Yule is at the core of my theory that the trow of the Northern Isles is actually a corruption of the Norse undead mound-dwelling spirit known as the draugr. For more details, click here.

Because of the increased activity at Yule, when darkness lay across the islands, further precautions had to be taken to protect not only life but also property.

"One of the most important of all Yule observances was the sainin required to guard life and property from the trows.

At dayset on Tulya's E'en (seven days before Yule Day) two straws were plucked from the stored provender and laid in the form of a cross at the stiggie (style) leading to the yard where the stacks of corn and hay were kept.

A hair from the tail of each cow, or other beast about the place, was pleated and fastened over the byre door; and a 'lowan taund ' - a burning peat - was carried through all out-houses."

It is possible that the preparations to thwart the trows at Yule are symbolic of the tensions that once existed between the remnants of the Norsemen's pagan faith and the new Christian faith. Did the Christian church seek to drive out the overtly pagan elements of the Yule festivities? Were the once-welcomed spirits of the family's dead demonised to become malevolent creatures over which only the power of the cross had any power?

A story from Tingwall in Shetland, illustrates this conflict perfectly. Click here to read

Trowie Magic