Orkney Folktales: A Close Tongue Keeps a Safe Head

by Childe Hassam – National Gallery of Art – CC0

Orkney and the Finfolk

Orkney, also known as the Orkney Islands, is an archipelago that is part of the Northern Isles. It is situated off the north coast of Scotland  consisting of about 70 islands, of which 20 are inhabited.  Over time the islands evolved their own folklore with Scottish, Celtic and Norse influences. An important part of that folklore are the tales of the Finfolk who have an underwater city named Finfolkaheem.  They were said to spend the winter in Finfolkaheem and summer on a  magical hidden island paradise called Hildaland.  The Finfolk were a dark mysterious race of humanoid amphibians who moved easily between sea and land.   The following is a retelling of an Orcadian folktale from various sources listed below that tells of a strange encounter an Orkney boatman had with one of the Finfolk that he would regret for the rest of his life.

A Close Tongue Keeps a Safe Head

In Kirkwall, on Mainland, the main island of the Orkney archipelago, the Lammas fair was a popular event that brought people together from the other islands. Many, many, years ago at one such gathering a local boat owner named Tom, struck a deal with a tall, dark morose-looking stranger.  The stranger wanted him to ferry a cow to somewhere east of another island called Sanday. Maybe Tom should have insisted the stranger be more specific in his destination but as he offered twice the normal fee he was pleased to accept. With the agreement concluded and to the surprise of the boatman the stranger, without hesitation, easily lifted the cow off the ground and carried it on to the boat. Tom was astounded by the strength of the stranger but once all was ready set sail as was agreed. 

Tom was an amiable, affable person who liked to chat.  To begin with he chattered away to the stranger who simply glowered back in silence. Eventually he growled,

“A close tongue keeps a safe head.”

Tom was staggered at his rudeness but he was getting a good price so he ceased trying to be friendly and sociable and concentrated on sailing.  The sullen stranger was not good company and he began to feel embarrassed and uneasy.

The stranger would only speak to direct the boatman to sail to the east of each island they passed. At last the boatman, puzzled by the route he was being instructed to take asked exactly where he was taking them. The stranger turned his dark glowering eyes upon him and  growled,

“A close tongue keeps a safe head.”

Once again, although upset by his abruptness, Tom thought of his fee and decided to keep quiet and follow the  instructions of the surly stranger.

After a while they came into a thick fog which persisted for some distance and then quickly lifted.  As it lifted Tom saw before them a magical island that basked in a shimmering light.  He could hear the sweet singing of the mermaids who had sensed the presence of a human male and the possibility of a husband.   

As he eased his boat towards the shore the stranger insisted on  blindfolding him. It  dawned on him that the silent stranger was none other than one of the feared Finmen of local legend and he asked if that was so.  The strange gave his usual surely reply,

“A close tongue keeps a safe head.”

Wanting to fulfill his contract with the stranger as quickly as possible Tom agreed to the blindfold but as it went on he noticed how the mermaids stopped their beautiful singing and began shrieking and wailing. 

The blindfolded boatman could not see how easily the Finman lifted the cow from the boat and placed it on shore before returning to drop a bag of coins beside him.  The Finman then turned the boat widdershins against the course of the sun and against all sea lore and with a mighty shove pushed it out to sea.  No human mariner would have done such a thing and Tom was angry at the Finman for breaking the lore of the sea.

 When he took the blindfold off he found the enchanted island was gone but found the bag of coins by his side.  When he reached home he checked the bag finding the money was exactly what was agreed though all the coins were copper.  The Finmen will not part with their silver.

Twelve months passed and Tom again visited the Lammas Fair at Kirkwall.  To his surprise he was approached by the same stranger he met the previous year at the fair and invited him to drink a jar of ale with him. 

 “I am happy to see you again!”  

said Tom cheerfully to the stranger taking a long draught of ale. The stranger’s gloomy face grimaced and he growled, 

“Indeed, did you ever really see me?  Be sure you will never see me again!”

As he was speaking, he took out a small box containing a mysterious white powder.  Puffing his cheeks he blew some into the eyes of the stunned boatman.  After promptly downing his ale the stranger left.  The powder covered the eyes of Tom and from that day on he was blind and for the rest of his life bitterly lamented the day he had met the dark, sullen stranger.

© 20/05/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright May 20th 2020 zteve t evans

15 thoughts on “Orkney Folktales: A Close Tongue Keeps a Safe Head

  1. Your blog is so amazing and has so many interesting stories to tell. I can keep reading all day. It is like a fantasy book and through the stories are so many teachings.

    Best wishes from The Strong Traveller and have a great day.

    Do have a look at my blog whenever you find the time. There are some travel and lifestyle content which you may find interesting. Your thoughts will surely be very valuable. 🙂

  2. Thanks for introducing me to this story. It’s a cracker. I also tracked down storyteller Daniel Allison’s retelling of it and listened to the difference between the oral and written form. I first heard him tell in 2016 at the Scottish Storytelling Festival. He was good then and he’s grown since then. A good start to my day. Thanks again, zteve, Meg

  3. Ah, I ran into a reference on Finfolk researching my last post! Apparently only they can ride the Orkney water horse, the Nuggle. From this tale, that ability could be from their shared aquatic nature, the great strength of the Finfolk, or from their shared grouchy temperament. Very interesting!

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