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  Witchcraft in the Orkney Islands

The development of the Orkney 'witch"

"Sure these are but imaginary wiles,
And Lapland sorcerers inhabit here.”
William Shakespeare - The Comedy of Errors

Traditionally the first "witches" in the islands were said to have been "Finns".

It was said that these characters, probably the indigenous inhabitants of northern Norway, had travelled to the islands with the earliest Norwegian settlers, to whom they may have served as slaves.

The Finns were powerful sorcerers with renowned healing abilities, as well as power over the weather and sea. In most cases, they were regarded as benign - precursors of the later island wise-women.

The Finns were so ingrained into the folklore of Orkney that up until the early years of the 20th century, the appellation "Finn" was often attached to anyone known to , or suspected of, practising "granderie" - e.g. the Sanday witch, Baabie Finn.

Over time, however, the lore surrounding the Finns developed - or merged with an existing tradition - into the dreaded Finfolk and selkie-folk of sea-lore. This change probably coincided with the "demonisation" of these wise-women's arts.

On top of this was overlaid the lore of the Norse witch-like wise women found throughout the Icelandic sagas.

Saga magic influences

In the Icelandic sagas, the various practitioners of magic were highly respected individuals, valued by their communities. Although it was not unknown for a man to wield magical powers, the magical arts were generally the domain of the female.

Of the various distinct types of magic described in the sagas, only the type known as spá survived in a recognisable form - although it is likely that by the time of the folktales, the distinctions between the separate classes had all but vanished.

Spá is found referred to as spá-craft or spae-craft, the practitioners of the art being spá-kona or spae-wife. It was intrinsically an art of prophecy or foretelling.

Another term for practitioners of spá is völva. The völva had the ability to enter a trance and send her spirit to obtain information. Like the Orcadian spae-wife, the völva was often the centre of the community who dispensed advice on matters relating to the community's welfare, marriage and childbirth.

The völva appears within Norse myth when Odin, using his magic, consults a dead völva for knowledge.

The birth of the 'true witch'

Generally, the practices that the church came to refer to as "witchcraft" and "the Black Arts" were an accepted part of life in the islands up until the early 1600s. At this time, overzealous inquisitors sought to connect age-old traditions with the "Devil's Work" and the age of the witch trial began.

It was widely believed that wise-women obtained or learned their powers from the trows or the "folk of the hill" but before long the harmless old traditions and superstitions of the wise-woman became regarded as the "Devil's Work" and the true "witch" was born.

Numerous Orcadian women and men were executed in Kirkwall after being found guilty of witchcraft. On closer examination of the trial accounts however, in most cases the accused were charged with either healing a person, transferring an illness to a person or for "taking the profit" of cattle (in much the same way as the trows).

From this we can see the underlying traces of innocent old ritual and superstition that were distorted by the lawmen but managed to survive the hunts and flourish well into the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Of course, to say that all these women were benign, pleasant folk would be untrue and there is no doubt that Orkney must have had it's share of wise-women who used their "powers" for more unpleasant purposes.

We cannot tell how many of these stereotypical cackling crones had a basis in historical personages or simply the result of the inquisitors who sought desperately to find evidence the Devil's Work we can not tell.

I suspect the latter.