The Finfolk, in the folklore of the Orkney Isles were a mysterious race of amphibious beings often presented as having a dour and sinister character with a reputation for the abduction of unwary islanders. The males of the race are known as Finmen and the females as Finwives who can resemble mermaids. Both were believed to be responsible for abducting islanders they take a shine to having a liking for a human spouse. They had a magical city under the sea in an unknown location where they tended to spend winter. In the summer they spent time on hidden islands such as Hether Blether, Hildaland or Eynhallow before it was taken from them by humans. Presented here is a retelling of a folktale found in an article in,“The Scottish antiquary, or, Northern notes & queries” by Traill Dennison which presents the Finfolk in a more positive light than many other tales.
On the Mainland, the largest island of the Orkney Isles, there once lived an attractive lass named Annie Norn. One evening she needed salt water to cook the supper, but salt on the Mainland was in short supply and expensive. Therefore, like other islanders, she would go down to the seashore for saltwater, a chore Annie had done more times than she could remember. However, on this occasion, to the dismay of her family and friends, Annie never returned with the seawater. Her family, friends, and neighbors searched frantically, but they could not find a sign of her anywhere.
The old folk shook their heads sorrowfully, declaring her to have been stolen away by the mysterious Finfolk. They issued solemn warnings to children,
“Beware, beware the salt seashore, Between high tide and low, As the sun goes down, As the sun goes down, Then the Finfolk come, To steal away, To steal away, Forsaken and alone, Forsaken and alone!” zteve t evans
In this way, they hoped to warn children to keep away from the dangerous seas that surrounded their island home. Sadly, they never found Annie, but her memory was used to reinforce this warning for years, possibly saving many children’s lives.
WILLIE NORN AND THE STORM
The world turned, and several years after the mysterious disappearance of Annie, an Orkney sailing ship returning from Norway was caught in a violent storm. The vessel was tossed wildly and dangerously around the North Sea, entirely out of the crew’s control. Onboard was a sailor named Willie Norn, a cousin of Annie’s.
The crew was hard-pressed to keep their vessel afloat and were frightened and exhausted. Making matters worse, they could not see the sun or stars through the dark flying clouds above to fix a bearing, so they were utterly lost in the wild seas. When the storm finally abated, thick fog enveloped the ship, so they still could not find a mark in the sky to fix their position. Then, strangely, they saw from the sails there was a breeze, but to their shock and bewilderment, despite this wind, the ship remained dead in the water.
Sailors are superstitious folk, and these feared they were now bewitched. They had heard of unfortunate ships that remained in one spot on the ocean, never moving an inch. Eventually, all aboard perished, and the vessel became a rotting skeleton ship haunted by the ghosts of her crew. This, they feared, would surely be their doom.
As they lamented their fate, they became dimly aware of someone, or something, approaching through the thick vapors. As it drew near they saw it was a small boat rowed by a lone woman.
The superstitious sailors feared she was some kind of witch such as they had heard about on their travels across the North Sea. They considered that if they allowed her aboard, she would possibly bring harm or bad luck, as if there could be any worse than that they already endured!
While they discussed these thoughts, the boat drew alongside. Then, to their shock, the woman as agile as a cat, sprang onto their vessel to stand before them, ending their need for further debate. Willie Norn instantly recognized her and cried, “Good Lord! Can it be Annie? – It’s my cousin Annie Norn! We thought ye were lost to the sea, Annie!”
ANNIE TO THE RESCUE!
“Aye, Cousin Willie, it’s me, and how are my folks and kin at home doing now? Ye can thank thy lucky stars blood is thicker than water, or ye would not have seen me this day, and ye would have been lost to the sea yourself!” And without further adieu seized the helm, turned the ship around, and began barking out orders to the crew. “Well, don’t stand gawping and glowering at me, as if I am some sea witch! Get ye bodies moving, fools!” she cried, issuing orders to the crew and skipper who hastened to obey.
Under her direction, the ship was set on a course and made good headway. Soon the crew saw the fog lifting to reveal a bright sunny day and a fair silver island before them. Annie directed them into a sheltered bay where the water was as calm as a lake and overlooked by lush green hills and dales. Many clear and sparkling brooks ran down into the verdant valleys, and each one seemed to sing its own unique song as it flowed to the sea. High in the clean, fresh air, skylarks hovered and played, singing sweet songs of joy and happiness. Indeed, to these exhausted, storm-tossed sailors, this island seemed very much like a paradise – a haven of peace, safety, and bliss.
Annie invited them to her home to enjoy a good meal and rest. She jumped lithely ashore while the crew followed with less agility but glad to be off the vessel and on solid ground. Pointing further up the shore, she led them to a large handsome house she said was her home. On hearing this, Cousin Willie piped up, “I swear by my faith, Annie for you must be very well to do and wealthy to have a house as fine and grand as this for your home!”
“Why, Cousin Willie, ’tis refreshing to hear an oath again. Ever since I left humankind behind, I have yet to hear one of the Finfolk swear once during my entire time here. The Finfolk never swear or waste breath on oaths and I give ye all good warning. While sojourning on Hildaland, swear not, keep words clean before the Finfolk, for they look darkly on such things. Remember, while on Hildaland, a close tongue keeps a safe head, for the Finfolk can be perilous when roused!”
She escorted them up to her house and into a spacious hall furnished with a large wooden table in its center carved with strange designs. Around the table were placed many chairs. Bidding them rest themselves and relax while she went out to organize a good and satisfying welcome meal for them. After they had eaten, she found them all a bed, and they slept soundly and gratefully, not knowing how long they spent in dreams. On finally awakening, they found another feast prepared more extensive and more varied than the welcome meal. Other Fin-folk had been invited, and some arrived on huge sea horses from out of the sea.
Annie introduced her Willie and the crew to her husband and the Finfolk, and the feast began. She sat next to her husband, closely observing the mariners with satisfaction as they tucked in. After everyone was fully satiated with food and drink, Annie stood up and addressed the sailors, telling them that it was now time they returned to their ship and sailed for home.
Willie and the rest of the crew looked at one another bemused, and then the skipper stood up and said, “We thank ye for the rescue of us and for providing generous food and hospitality. However, although we yearn for home, we have no idea of our whereabouts and how to find our own island.”
Annie’s husband stood up smiling and said, “Ye need not worry that has been anticipated. We will gladly send a pilot to guide ye safely home. There is a fee of one silver shilling each, which must be drop into his boat as ye board your own.”
This now explained and agreed Annie led them back to their ship. While the others prepared to depart, Annie conversed with her cousin, Willie Norn who was trying hard to persuade her to return home with them. Annie laughed and asked him to give news of her well-being to her family. “Tell my mother and father I am married to one of the Finmen who is good to me and that I am well off. Tell them I have three bonny bairns of my own to take care of who I love dearly and can never leave. My place is now with them, and my husband. I no longer belong in the world of humans.”
Taking her purse out, she presented Willie with a strange necklace made of platted otter hair saying cannily, “Willie lad, I know ye are a-courting Mary Forbister. I know she is yet uncertain of thee, for she is an attractive lass and has many suitors and many offers. I also know thee to be truly smitten by her. Therefore, when ye arrive home and the very next time ye see her, place this necklace about her neck. I promise from then on she will never see a more handsome, finer, or better man than thee!”
When the ship was ready to leave after saying their last farewells to Annie, her husband, and the Finfolk, Willie and the crew went aboard, dropping a silver shilling into the pilot’s boat. With that done, he said, “Ye have said your thanks and farewells to Annie, her husband, and the Finfolk and paid your silver shilling. It is time to leave, and I will guide thee safely home. Now, there is one favor I ask of thee. I have always wanted to play a human at a game of cards. Now, I wonder, would ye be as kind as to play a round or two with me before we sail?”
“Aye, we will do that, and it will be good. I have a deck in my cabin which I will fetch, and we will play a round or two with thee.” replied the skipper. He soon returned with the cards, and they all settled down to a game.
A GAME OF CARDS
And so they played cards with the pilot. Whether it was the feasting they had enjoyed earlier or a spell of the pilot’s, none could say, but as they played, they all fell into a deep sleep. Some lay sprawled across the table, others nodded in chairs, and some fell to the floor and slept. They were all insensible to the world and had no notion of how long they slept.
The skipper was the first to awake and went to the deck for air. To his surprise, the first thing he saw was the familiar scenery of his home island. Quickly he roused the rest of the crew and led them on deck to show them the wonder. Joyfully, they found their ship was anchored safe and sound in the harbor of their home island.
There was no sign of the pilot or his boat, and he had taken the skipper’s pack of cards. Now, what he would want them for is unknown. In many quarters playing cards are regarded as the Devil’s books, and folk with an ungenerous nature might think he intended some devilry with them. However, the skipper was a generous man. He was not the least concerned about the loss of his cards, saying the pilot was welcome to them as a small token of gratitude for bringing them and his ship safely home.
Annie’s cousin, Willie Norn, went to see Mary Forbister and wasted no time placing the necklace Annie had given him over her neck. Just as Annie had said, from that moment, Willie appeared to Mary as the most handsome, the finest, and best man in the world, and six weeks later, they were married. They had a long and happy life and brought many beautiful children into the world. Happily, their ancestors can still be found living in the Orkney Islands to this day. As for Annie Norn, she was never heard of again and disappeared from human knowledge forever.
© 20/01/2022 zteve t evans
Publications by zteve t evans
References, Attributions and Further Reading
Copyright January 20, 2022 zteve t evans
- W. Traill Dennison in The Scottish antiquary, or, Northern notes & queries“ 477. Orkney Folk-Lore. Sea Myths (vol. vii. p. 81). — 9. Hilda-land.
- Orkney – Wikipedia
- Orkneyjar – The Folklore of the Orkney Islands – The Sea in Orkney Folklore – The Sorcerous Finfolk
- Cornelia Paczka-Wagner, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons