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  Witchcraft in the Orkney Islands

Orkney - The Witches' Haven

"A witch is one who worketh by the Devil or by some curious art either healing or revealing things secret, or foretelling things to come which the Devil hath devised to ensnare men's souls withal into damnation. The conjurer, the enchanter, the sorcerer, the diviner, and whatever else is encompassed within this circle."
George Gifford
Sixteenth Century Clergyman

Candle and Book: Illustration by Sigurd Towrie

For a long time, Orkney had a fearful reputation as a haven for witches and warlocks.

King James VI of Scotland - later James I of England - wrote in his 1597 book, Daemonologia, that the special power of the devil in Orkney, as well as Lapland, Finland and Shetland was due to the fact that the "ignorance of people and that the audacity of the Devil in these areas was greatest".

But this fearful reputation probably stems from the numerous benign beliefs, superstitions and practices that lingered in Orkney for centuries.

In Orcadian lore we can generally divide witch folklore into two distinct strands.

The first, and by far the best known, contains the stereotypical tales of malevolent old hags, who, in return for pledging their soul to the Devil, were granted the power of "granderie" - sorcery.

Although there is no doubt that these tales have their roots in considerably earlier traditions, their main source was the zealous witch-trials of the 17th century, and the subsequent superstitions and fears surrounding the practitioners of the so-called Dark Arts.

The second category co-exists with the first and it is often hard to differentiate between the two. This group contains the ancient lore surrounding Orkney's spae-women, the revered characters once common across the islands.

Primarily regarded as healers, these women were indispensable members of their communities and afforded rank and respect by those who dealt with them. Although these wise-women, with their herb-lore and pagan charms were no doubt the basis for many of the later fanciful yarns of witchcraft, they should actually be regarded separately and as such will be dealt with elsewhere.

But it is the tales concerning the first category - the malevolent witches - that Orkney was particularly famed for. The Orkney folklorist, Water Traill Dennison, documented an incident from his childhood that vividly portrays this.

When visiting a port on the Scottish mainland, the young Dennison was asked by one of the sailors where he was from. Upon replying "Orkney", the man “shrank back” muttering:

“Oh, my lad, you hail from that lubber land where so many witches dwell.”

Section Contents

Documented Accounts and Trials

See Also

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