About Orkney
 About the Site
 Search Site 
  Yule - The Midwinter Festival

Tulya's E'en - the dead return

Despite the uncertainties of other accounts, Mrs Jessie Saxby, a 19th century Shetlander, had no doubts as to when Yule began. She declared that the festivities began on Tulya's E'en - a night seven days before Yule day.

But the date of Tulya's E'en, or even what it marked, remains unclear.

The Orkney folklorist Ernest Marwick suggested it may be a corruption of Tolyigi's E'en, itself a corruption of St Thorlak's Eve. St Thorlak was an Icelandic saint, whose feast day was celebrated on December 23.

The battle begins?

However, I wonder whether Tulya's E'en has more to do with the dialect word tulye or tulyo, meaning a battle or struggle in combat?

For this to make sense, we must remember that it was on Tulya's E'en that the trows were free to leave:

“the heart of the earth and dwell, if it so pleased them, above the ground.”

Tulya's E'en heralded the start of a period in which the supernatural spirits were let loose - free to continue their age-old struggle with man. So feared were these spirits that it was not considered safe to venture outside after dark. At least not without first taking some protective steps.

These precautions formed one of the most important of all the Yule traditions - the absolute necessity to protect life and property from the influence of the trows. At one time, this was at the forefront of every superstitious islander's thoughts and was as much a part of Yule as the festivities, drinking and merry-making.

Yuletide precautions

The most effective way of protecting against the trows was sainin' - the act of making the sign of the cross. Both livestock and property had to be sained to prevent them becoming targets for the attention of the trows.

Other preventative measures included placing a cross, made from two pieces of "strae" (straw), outside the yard and plaiting a hair from the tail of each cow or "beast of burden". This platted hair was then hung over the byre door and ensured the protection of the animals within.

It seems likely that in Orkney, like in Norway, crosses were also put over food and ale and a sheaf of corn placed on the roof of the house to ensure protection from malevolent spirits.

Yule - a feast of the dead

Yule's strong association with mischievous creatures such as trows and hogboons, undoubtedly stems from its origin as a feast for the dead. Much like the Celtic Samhain, Yule was a festival for honouring the dead, who were thought to be vital for luck as well as the well being of the livestock and family.

Over time, the memories of these powerful ancestral spirits, who were permitted to leave their gravemounds at Yule to return to the realm of the living, degenerated into the creatures we know as trows today. For more on the connection to trows and the ancestor spirits, click here.

But it was not only the trows who were rife over Yule. Orkney's hogboon also required special attention over the Yule period. It was imperative that the hogboon, a corruption of the Norse mound-dweller and practically identical to the Norwegian nisse, be brought offerings of food and drink at Yule.

Helya's Night