About Orkney
 About the Site
 Search Site 
  The Trows

"A sad tale's best for winter: I have one
Of sprites and goblins."
William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale

Peeping Trow: Illustration by Sigurd TowrieThe tales of the trows are probably the best known, and widespread, element of Orkney folklore.

In many cases indistinguishable from the fairy folklore found throughout Northern Europe, the archetypal trow was an ugly, mischievous, little creature that resided in the ancient mounds scattered across Orkney.

Although some tales declared that a trow could pass for a human - although usually old, wizened or deformed - in general they were said to be short, ugly, stunted creatures and considerably smaller than a man.

Their traditional grotesque and outlandish appearance is confirmed by some of the names ascribed to them - names such as Truncherface (trencher face) and Bannafeet (bannock feet).

In what may be one of the earliest recorded trow tales, the creatures were said to be nocturnal and never appeared in daylight. Even when they emerged at night, to many they were invisible. This element of trow folklore echoes both the traditions that the Orkney fairy was invisible and that the Norwegian troll was unable to venture outside in sunlight.

Another account of invisible trows explains how an Orkneyman was unable to see the creatures dancing on the shore. Only by holding his wife's hand, or placing his foot on hers, was he able to watch their exploits.

A practically identical account from Shetland explains that only certain people had the power to see the trows. "Normal" mortals could not see the creatures unless without touching one of these gifted individuals.

Nocturnal visitors and spirits of the dead

In days past, trows were said to be frequent night-time visitors to the house.

Once a household had retired for the night, the trows would enter the building and sit by the glowing fire. Numerous tales recount how the terrified farmer and his wife would lie in bed listening to their unwanted guests scuttling around in the other end of the house.

This, together with the trows' documented hatred of locked doors, strengthens my opinion that the tradition is a remnant of the creatures' origin as an undead spirit.

In Norse tradition, the ghosts of the family's predecessors had to be welcomed into the house - a custom particularly prevalent at Yule, when later tradition has the trows at their most active and dangerous. At this time of the year, one of the last preparations on Yule Eve was to unlock every lock in the house.

Howes, knowes and trows

Within their earthen mounds - known locally as howes or knowes - the dwelling-places of the trows were said to be sumptuous and dazzling. Gold, silver and previous materials were said to decorate the walls, while only fine food and drink was served at their tables.

Deep inside these magical halls, the trows would satisfy their insatiable passion for music and dancing, very often luring mortal fiddlers inside to perform at their otherworldly celebrations.

But although the majority of trow tales come to us as mere folktales, there are still a few intriguing accounts that supposedly detail actual trow encounters.

In the late 1960s, after the Orcadian folklorist Ernest Marwick published some stories about the trows in a Scottish magazine, an Englishman who had spent time in Hoy during World War Two wrote to describe:

"a never-to-be forgotten experience that would seem to lend weight to the belief in the existence of these supernatural creatures."

Click here to read his account.

The origin of the Trow

Section Contents

See Also

The dialect term 'trow' is pronounced 'tr-au' and rhymes with 'cow'.

For years it has been accepted that the word 'trow' is a linguistic corruption of the Norse word 'troll'.

I disagree with this. Instead, I suggest Orkney's trows have more to with the creature known as the 'draugr' (pronounced drow).

Click here
for more.

In Shetland, one distinctive trait of the trow was that they were said to walk backwards.
As is mentioned within the text, trows were known to enter the houses of mortals at night.

One recorded tradition was that the trows required every hearth to be swept on a Saturday night and that "no-one shall be near it".

Ample clean water had also to be left out.

Because of the numerous tales told of trows, many trow names are still held on record. Examples are Hill Johnnie, Horny, Eddy o' Annis, Bollick, Peesteraleeti, Skoodem Humpi, Kellbrue, Belia, Gimp, Kork and Tring.  
Back a page