"When the winter winds blow and the Yule fires
are lit, it is best to stay indoors, safely shut away from the
dark paths and the wild heaths. Those who wander out by themselves
during the Yule-nights may hear a sudden rustling through the
tops of the trees - a rustling that might be the wind, though
the rest of the wood is still.
"But then the barking of dogs fills the air,
and the host of wild souls sweeps down, fire flashing from the
eyes of the black hounds and the hooves of the black horses"
Kveldulf Hagen Gundarsson (Mountain Thunder)
In Orkney, indeed, across most of northern Europe,
belief in the Wild Hunt was once widespread. In the islands, little
remains of the belief today.
The form of the Wild Hunt, or Raging Host, varied
across each of the geographical locations/ in which the tradition
was found. But the basic idea was generally the same - a phantasmal
leader, accompanied by a horde of hounds and men, hurtled through
the night sky, their passing marked by a tumultuous racket of pounding
hooves, howling dogs and raging winds.
The quarry of this spectral horde also varies.
Norse legend, for example, suggests objects such as a boar, a wild
horse and even magical maidens.
Later Christian influences had the Wild Hunt summoning
the souls of evildoers, sinners and unbaptised infants.
But one theme was common to all - to see the Wild
Hunt was a very bad omen, usually foretelling a time of strife or
Before we consider how the Wild Hunt was found
in Orkney, we should first take a brief look at the tradition as
it was found elsewhere.
Odin's chase and the souls of the dead
At the root of the myth lies the Teutonic god
Woden, or Odin, to use his Norse name.
Odin, in his guise of wind-god, was thought to
rushing through the skies astride his eight-legged steed, Sleipnir.
As it was thought that the souls of the dead were
wafted away on the winds of a storm, Odin became regarded as the
leader of all disembodied spirits - the gatherer of the dead. Eventually,
storms became associated with his passing.
In this role he was known as the Wild Huntsman.
The passage of his hunt, known as Odin's Hunt, the Wild Ride, the
Raging Host or Asgardreia, was said to presage misfortune such as
pestilence, death or war.
Odin, followed by the ghosts of the dead, would
roam the skies, accompanied by furious winds, lightning and thunder.
To the believers, the tumult must surely have been evidence of the
Throughout the years, the mythology of the hunt
adapted to suit the geographical area and the time period. In the
Middle Ages, for example, the lead huntsman included Charlemagne,
Frederick Barbarossa and King Arthur.
A later folktale states that the leader was Hans
von Hackelnberg, a semi-historical figure who died in either 1521
or 1581. It was said he had slain a boar and was then injured on
the foot by the boar's tusk and died of poisoning.
As he died he declared that he had no wish to
enter heaven, but instead wanted to hunt. His wish was granted and
he was permitted, or perhaps cursed, to hunt in the night sky. Another
version of the tale has it that he was condemned to lead the Wild
Hunt as punishment for his sins.
But even behind this 16th century character, lies
a more ancient element, perhaps harking back to the original traditions
surrounding the hunt. Hackelnberg, it has been suggested, is simply
a corruption of "Hakolberand" - the Old Saxon epithet
Herne and other hunt leaders
But traditions of a Wild Hunt also existed in
areas away from Norse influence.
In Wales, for example, the leader of the Hunt
was Gwynn ap Nudd. The "Lord of the Dead", Gwynn ap Nudd
was followed by his pack of white hounds with blood-red ears.
These red-eared hounds are also found in northern
England, where they were known as Gabriel Hounds. Their appearance
was also a portent of doom.
In southern England, it was Herne the Hunter
who led the hunt, while elsewhere it is also referred to as "Herlathing"
- from the mythical King Herla, its supposed leader.
According to the 12th century write, Walter Map:
"This household of Herlethingus was
last seen in the marches of Wales and Hereford in the first year
of the reign of Henry II, about noonday: they travelled as we
do, with carts and sumpter horses, pack-saddles and panniers,
hawks and hounds, and a concourse of men and women.
"Those who saw them first raised the
whole country against them with horns and shouts, and . . . because
they were unable to wring a word from them by addressing them,
made ready to extort an answer with their weapons. They, however,
rose up into the air and vanished on a sudden."
Again this may have Odinic connections - some
suggest the element Herle relates to Herian, one of Odin's
many names, and refers particularly to his role as the leader of
the dead warrior who filled the Hall of Heroes - Valhalla.
That this Herla, or Herle, may have a distinct
root is evident from the number of similar variants. In 1123, for
example, it was referred to as the familia Herlechini by
Ordericus Vitalis. In France it was La Mesnie Herlequin while
in England we find Milites Herlewini.
The Orkney interpretation
Orkney had its own variant of the Wild Hunt, in
which the fairies, or trows, were, on occasions, seen out on midnight
rides, galloping furiously through the air on white horses, or bulwands.
They were often said to be seen driving a stolen cow before them.
For one such account, click
Across Europe, the Wild Hunt appears at various
times of the year, but most commonly over the Yule
season. This is not surprising as Yule was regarded as the season
in which supernatural visitations were most common. In particular,
the spirits of the dead were allowed to return.
This ties in with the idea that the hunt represented
a procession of the dead, and did so in Orkney too.
here, I believe the Orkney trow was originally regarded as an
undead spirit, or ghost. And not surprisingly, Orkney's trows were
at their most active on "rife" nights such as Yule, Halloween
and New Year's Eve.