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  The Hogboon - Orkney's Mound Dweller

Howe: Illustration by Sigurd TowrieAfter reading about Orkney's trows, finmen and fairy-folk, you would be forgiven for thinking that all the islands' supernatural inhabitants were abhorrent creatures!

This, however, was not always the case.

Throughout Orcadian trow lore there are occasional episodes that refer to a trow that appears to be reasonably friendly towards its human neighbours.

Compared with the main body of trow folktales, these accounts seem distinctly out of character - a fact that hints that the tales of the pleasant mound-dwelling trow actually stem from a case of mistaken identity.

The ancestral mound dweller

In Orkney folklore there exists another supernatural being not recorded in Shetland lore - at least not going by its original name. This creature - known variously as the "hogboon" or "hogboy" - is more likely to be the source of the original benign mound-dweller.

Over the years this once distinct spirit seems to have been enveloped by the mass of trow tales. Eventually, the distinction between the two became lost and the terms "trow" and "hogboon" became interchangeable.

Orkney's "hogboon" is a corruption of the Old Norse "haug-bui", or "haug-buinn", roughly translated as "mound-dweller" or "mound-farmer".

At one time almost every mound in Orkney was said to house a hogboon. Even Maeshowe, the largest and most famous of Orkney's howes, was the residence of a particularly unpleasant one. For more details of Maeshowe's mound-dweller, click here.

Like the trow, the origin of the Orcadian hogboon can be traced back to the ancient beliefs the islands' Norse settlers.

They believed that after death a person's spirit continued to live on, or near, the family farm. This particularly applied to the "founding-father" of the estate, over whose body a large "haugr", or burial mound, was constructed. This revered ancestor's spirit remained "living" in his mound, usually becoming the family, or farm, guardian.

This guardian was, however, a somewhat fickle benefactor and therefore treated with an awed, if not fearful, respect. He kept a watchful eye over the property that had once been his and resented the slightest liberty that might be taken on, or near, his resting place.

Minor infractions, such as children playing nearby or livestock grazing on the mound, would cause great outbursts, and woe betide anyone who attempted to enter the hogboon's mound in the hope of finding his treasure. This foolish individual inevitably took their lives in their hands.

Transplanted legends

So, it is likely that when the Norsemen came, they brought with them the belief in the haug-bui. In this new and foreign land they placed their homesteads close to the many conspicuous mounds that covered the landscape, hoping to gain the protection of the dweller they believed resided within.

To this day houses, which were built, and rebuilt, can still be seen in the shadow of these mounds.