About Orkney
 About the Site
 Search Site 
  The Customs of Death

Omens of an impending death

"The mills grind slowly. The heavy stones turn, we are ground into dust, even while we draw breath....The quernstones of sun and earth."
George Mackay Brown.

Cathedral Skull and CrossbonesDeath, like birth and marriage, is a major rite of passage and, in Orkney, was regarded as a time when the living were vulnerable to the influences of the supernatural.

Here, the fears surrounding death were allayed somewhat by an elaborate series of rituals and customs.

These not only protected the living from the dead but, in some cases, ensured the spirits of the deceased moved safely from this world to the next.

In Orkney, the relationship between the dead and the living was ambivalent, varying from minor concern to mortal terror. In most cases, however, fear was the driving emotion.

The power of the deceased's spirit was greatly feared, in particular that it might return to plague the household as a ghost.

This might seem contrary to the anxieties surrounding birth and marriage, when the trows were the main objects of terror, but in truth I believe them to be the same. As is discussed elsewhere on this site, I am firmly of the opinion that Orkney's trows originally represented the returning spirits of the dead.

With this driving fear of the unknown, and when surrounded by the dead of countless centuries, it was inevitable that the old Orcadians not only took steps to protect themselves, but also tried to foresee, and perhaps stall, the return of death to their households.

In those times, the fear and inevitability of death was something we can now barely comprehend.

The reaper waited patiently in the shadows and his chances were many.... a poor harvest, widespread illness or a fierce storm at sea - all these, and more, provided the means for Death to claim yet another victim.

And if the unfortunate victim survived this time, Death was sure to have his chance again.

With this grim spectre ever present, signs that would give some clue as to when and where death would strike again were eagerly sought. All manner of events were thought to be omens of death. Climatic events, animals, noises, dreams and visions believed to foretell a death and reveal who would next be in the kirkyard.

As is common with much of Orcadian folk tradition, few customs surrounding death made it onto paper. This is probably for no other reason than the people of Orkney had no wish to share this knowledge with those who regarded them as superstitious or ignorant.

Foretelling doom

We do, however, have a few examples.

In much the same way that the appearance of a rainbow —  a bifrit in old Orcadian dialect — could foretell the birth of a child, it could also be interpreted as an omen of death.

When both ends of a rainbow were contained within the dyke that encircled the tunship, it was declared that someone within would soon die.

"There's a brig for een oot o' da toon!" was the exclamation on this occasion.

The same idea applied when both ends of the rainbow were seen on an island.

Perhaps the most common death omen in Orcadian households was a clicking sound, described by some as like "the ticking of a clock or the dripping of water". This sound, usually explained away as the noise caused by woodworm, was regarded as a signal that a death in the household would follow.

Birds were also common precursors of death, a superstition that remained throughout my childhood and may well still exist today.

In the Northern Isles, a number of birds could be omens of death, but the role fell particularly on the raven, crow or owl. Seeing either of these birds perched on a rooftop inevitably meant someone inside would soon pass away.

Staying with the birds, the unnatural sound of a cock crowing a midnight was another sign - a belief that may have something to do with the motif of the varden — as was a flying birrd striking a window pane.

Death dreams and white kail

Regarding dreams, for example, a vision of a ship travelling on dry land was an omen of your death, while to dream of losing a tooth meant losing a friend or relative.

Perhaps the strangest of these notions was the idea that the appearance of a white cabbage within the house's kailyard (cabbage patch) was a certain sign of death.

This was said to bring forth the exclamation: "We'll soon be hearing dead news!"