- 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."
Sixteenth Century Clergyman
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".
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Oh, my lad, you hail from that
lubber land where so many witches dwell.