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  Witchcraft in the Orkney Islands

The Witch's Charm

Moonlit Shore: Sigurd TowrieRecording the rapidly disappearing folklore and traditions of Sanday in the 1880s, folklorist Walter Traill Dennison documented the ritual carried out by would-be sorcerers to gain their magical powers.

His account detailed a sophisticated ritual, through which the witch would pledge herself to the powers of Darkness.

The witch had to first wait for a full moon. Then she would go to a solitary beach at midnight where she had to turn three times against the sun (anticlockwise) before lying prostrate on the ebb - the area between the limits of high and low tide.

She then had to stretch out her arms and legs, and place stones beside them. Further stones were also placed at her head, on her chest and over her heart.

Once enclosed by the circle of seven stones, the witch spoke aloud:

O' Mester King o' a' that's ill,
Come fill me wi' the Warlock Skill,
An' I shall serve wi' all me will.
Trow tak me gin I sinno!
Trow tak me gin I winno!
Trow tak me whin I cinno!
Come tak me noo, an tak me a',
Tak lights an' liver, pluck an' ga,
Tak me, tak me, noo I say,
Fae de how o' da heed, tae da tip o' da tae.
Tak a' dats oot an' in o' me.
Tak hare an hide an a' tae thee.
Tak hert, an harns, flesh, bleud an banes,
Tak a' atween the seeven stanes,
I' de name o' da muckle black Wallowa!

"The person must lie quiet for a little time after repeating the Incantation. Then opening his eyes he should turn on his left side, arise, and fling the stones used in the operation into the sea. Each stone must be flung singly; and with the throwing of each a certain malediction was said."

Like the Orcadian scholar Hugh Marwick, I suspect elements of the rite - the ebb, the anticlockwise turns and the positioning of the stones - represent an actual Orcadian tradition.

Certain lines, however, seem awkward and do not fit with the rest of the charm. Marwick was of the opinion that some these may have been later additions, specifically added to impart an air of "evil" to the incantation.

Marwick felt that the key to the charm lay in the lines:

"Tak me noo, an tak me a',
Tak lights an' liver, pluck an' ga',
Tak a' dats oot an' in o' me,
Tak hide an' hair an a' tae thee,
I' de nam o' de muckle black Wallowa!"

The oath sections calling upon the trows also seem at odds to the idea that the Incantation called upon the power of Satan - the Mester King - so much so that Marwick suggested the first two lines were dramatic additions to an older charm, adding an association with the Devil that was never there in the original traditions.

One question remains, however, and that is the identity of the "de muckle black Wallowa".

Although the word "Wallowa" or "Wallaway" is found in mainland Scottish dialect referring to the Devil, is seems more likely, given the other elements of the verse, that it is a corruption of a Norse term, "scotticised" into a word recognised by the recorder.

In this case we need look no further than the Old Norse "volva" - a prophetess or witch - a word whose Orcadian pronunciation could easily be mistaken for the Scots "Wallowa".

So now we can clearly connect the charm with older pagan, natural elements found throughout Orkney folklore - a charm that has nothing to do with Satan but instead calls on power of the "great dark witch".