Orkney Folklore: The Strange Story of Annie Norn and the Finfolk

THE FINFOLK

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.

ANNIE NORN

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. 

HILDALAND

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!” 

THE FEAST

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. 

HOMEWARD BOUND

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

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Copyright January 20, 2022 zteve t evans

Scottish Folklore: The Battle of the Sea Mither and Teran

Image by Наталья Коллегова from Pixabay

The Northern Isles

The Northern Isles of Scotland generally refers to the two archipelagos of Orkney and Shetland.  The islands have been inhabited since very early times and have many ancient archaeological sites with human activity going back to the Mesolithic Age.  There are still many Pictish and Norse influences which have combined to create a rich tradition of mythology and folklore on the islands.

Folklore and Tradition

One such tradition tells of an annual battle between the forces of summer and winter for supremacy.  This battle is expressed in folklore with summer being represented by a mythical female spirit called the Sea Mither, or Mither of the Sea.  Her opponent is called Teran, a mythical spirit of the winter who sends the wild waves, storms and high winds at sea and the death of vegetation on land.  Both spirits are invisible to humans directly but their force is experienced in the weather and seasons around the islands that play an integral part of island life.

The Sea Mither

The Sea Mither brings growth, renewal, rebirth and harvest.  The  word “Mither” is the Orcadian way of saying  “mother” so she is the mother of the sea in the sense she gives birth to all living creatures in the sea.

It is the power of the Sea Mither that reawakens the world after the harsh, barren wilderness days of winter, driving out darkness and bringing warmth and light.  She brings growth and fertility to the sea and land giving life to all living things and calms the stormy seas.  

Teran

Her enemy, Teran, brings the cold and dark and causes the winter gales and winds.  It is he who causes the waves to rise wildly and dash against the rugged coastline of the islands and it is his voice who rises above the wind in anger that the islanders hear in the winter gales.

 Vore Tully – the Spring Struggle

Around the time of the vernal equinox, about mid-March, there begins a titanic struggle for supremacy between the Teran and the Sea Mither when she returns to challenge him.  For weeks the seas all around become a frothing, churning cauldron as the battle between the two foes ensues.  Finally Teran is overcome and the Sea Mither confines him to the ocean’s depths.  Every so often he attempts to break free which manifest as spring and summer storms.  

During this period the power of the Sea Mither quells the storms and seas allowing growth and renewal to take place all around.  The continued stress of keeping Teran confined and  maintaining the summer seas and weather  begins to wear down the Sea Mither.  

 Gore Vellye – The Autumn Tumult 

Around the time of the autumn equinox when the Sea Mither is at her weakest and Teran has regained his strength the conflict is renewed.  He breaks free from his prison and challenges the Sea Mither to regain supremacy and gain control of the weather and seas.  The Sea Mither having used up her strength in renewal, calming the seas and keeping her foe in check is defeated and Teran rules the seas and the weather.  

The Cycle

However, as was the case with Teran, defeat is temporary.  Come the vernal equinox she will be ready to take up the fight again and win back the sea and land and spring and summer will come again.

It is in the battle of the Sea Mither and Teran that the local people made sense of the forces that brought the changing seas and weather.  To personify these unseen forces makes them easier to understand and to come to terms with.  It is a tactic that is used all around the world by many different human cultures in an attempt to explain the invisible forces that bring such dramatic and crucial changes to their environment.

Balance and Harmony

This cycle was seen as important because although it is natural to want continuous and permanent summer that is not how nature works.  Neither does it work by providing continuous and permanent winter.  Each has its time of precedence and decline which comes in cycles and is necessary to provide balance and harmony to the earth.  In their own way one is essential as the other to the well-being of the Earth and life on the planet.   Although  lacking modern science and technology, the ancients knew this making sense of it and giving it due respect in their own way.

© 17/06/2020 zteve t evans

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Copyright June 17th, 2020 zteve t evans

Azorean Folktales: Saint Brendan’s Wondrous Island

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Saint Brendan

There are many myths and legends that tell how Saint Brendan the Navigator set sail in a boat with a band of followers to find a wondrous island and eventually succeeded. His followers returned but he did not. Many others after tried to find it but few succeeded.  On many old maps Saint Brendan’s Isle is shown as clear as day, but if you look on any modern ones you will not see it.

They say that  if you sail your  boat beyond the horizon and into the setting sun  you eventually come to a wondrous island kept by a single gardener and the gardener is Saint Brendan.  But to do that requires faith, like he had. He once lived in Ireland but followed his heart and was led to this wondrous place where God spoke to him and  told him he should stay and take care of the plants, flowers and trees. Since his arrival on the island long ages ago only those that have have faith in the good saint have managed to find this marvelous place. 

The following story is a retelling of a tale from the island of Terceira in the Azores originally called, Saint Brendan’s Island –  The Story of a Little Maid who Found  it, and was published in a collection called The Islands of Magic,  Legends, Folk and Fairy Tales from the Azores – by Elsie Spicer Eells and illustrated by E. L. Brock. 

Saint Brendan lived between 484 – 577 AD, and this story tells how he left Ireland to find the wondrous island.  It then moves forward in time to the 15th century to tell how a maiden from the island of Terceira and a young man from the Mediterranean island of Rhodes, through their faith in Saint Brendan, made it to the island to join the good saint there.

The Hermit’s Tale

The story begins way back in time in Ireland where a monk by the name of  Saint Brendan lived. One day he received a visit from a hermit who told him all about the most mysterious and wonderful island he had just returned from visiting.   On this marvelous island the sun shone all the time and the birds wore crowns on their heads and had the ability to speak to humans. Brendan could smell the wonderful fragrance of the island which clung to the hermit’s clothes so he believed him.  

The hermit spoke so enthusiastically about the island it piqued the saint’s curiosity.  He yearned to see it for himself and asked the hermit many questions about it. The more he heard the more he wanted to see  to see if all the wonderful things were true that the hermit had told him about. At last the hermit had no more to say but Brendan had heard enough and yearned to visit it  to experience all of the marvels for himself.

That night he dreamed he visited the island and it was every bit as marvellous as the hermit had described. In that dream a voice spoke to him saying, 

“On this wondrous isle there was no one else but God who could hear is prayers so he could speak from the pureness of his heart and with faith his prayers would be answered.”

Therefore, the next morning,  he gathered together a small group of his most devoted disciples and told them about the marvellous island and his desire to find it.  Despite the dangers his disciples were also fascinated by the place and having faith in him were keen to accompany him on his quest.

The Voyage of Saint Brendan

They built a large coracle of wattle, skins and tar and fitted it  with oars and a sail and enough seating for them all. They loaded the craft with as much food, water and necessary items that it could safely carry.  

They all realised it would be a difficult and dangerous voyage but they had faith.  After saying their goodbyes to the large crowd of family, friends and well-wishers who had come to see them off they set sail across the wild Atlantic Ocean to find the wonderful island.   The crowd on the shore waved them goodbye but secretly many feared they would never see them again. 

Saint Brendan and his followers sailed the wide uncharted ocean facing many dangers and having many adventures but sustained by faith they sailed on.  Back home in Ireland people looked out for their return. After two years of absence people feared the worst as they looked across the sea hoping to see their return.  After five years they were completely forgotten.

Return of the Voyagers

After they had left Saint Brendan and his followers had trusted in the Lord and allowed the wind and currents to take them where they would.  After seven years the small vessel carrying the forgotten voyagers appeared on the horizon off the Irish coast where they had set out from. As the small craft sailed in from the blue a small crowd gathered at the harbour both pleased and astounded to see the intrepid voyagers again.  

Of course, everyone wanted to know all about the voyage and their adventures but were disconcerted to see that Saint Brendan was not among those that had returned.  They asked earnestly about his well-being were told that the adventurers had found the wondrous island and it was every bit as wonderful as the hermit had said. Furthermore, they told the people that Saint Brendan had stayed behind as he had been instructed by God to become the  gardener of the island and ensure it thrived and remained fertile for those faithful enough to find it in the vastness of the open sea.

The Wondrous Island

The people wanted to know all about the island and the disciples told them of all the wonders they had seen and experienced while they were there.  If anything they spoke more enthusiastically than the hermit who had first spoken to Saint Brendan.  Many people, like Saint Brendan before them, were overcome with curiosity and desire to visit the island see the wonders for themselves.  The disciples urged them to go and many set out on the voyage and spent many years at sea in search of the wondrous place. None of them ever  found it and returned forlornly to their home in Ireland on the shore of the wild Atlantic.

From what was said by those who accompanied Saint Brendan the island was a floating Island and floated from place to place making it difficult to find and  only those who had faith would be successful. They also said that Saint Brendan will not die but remain on the island caring for it.  

Maria’s Dream

That is the story of how Saint Brendan found the Wondrous island and happened many centuries ago.   We must now move forward to the 15th century to the island of Terceira in the archipelago of the Azores in the vastness of the wild Atlantic Ocean.

On this island there lived a young maid named Maria.  She had been told all about Saint Brendan and the marvelous island by an old monk.  Like the good Saint before her she had been enthralled by the island and highly impressed by the faith of Saint Brendan.  She was fascinated by everything she heard about it and prayed each morning and night to the good Saint for guidance. 

She would often dream of walking under the beautiful trees as he told her all about the wonderful place.   In one dream he took her to a mountaintop where she could look across the sea towards her home. He told her,

“In  this place there was no one else but God and himself who could hear her prayers so she could speak from the pureness of her heart and with faith her prayers would be answered.”

In the waking world she would often walk the hillside of Monte Brasil looking out across the sea, hoping to catch a glimpse of that enchanted place. Sometimes she would sit and gaze wistfully across the water letting her imagination take her there.

The Arrival of Vitale

One day a caravel anchored off Terceira. It had sailed from Rhodes carrying a young man named Vitale and in his possession he carried sacred relics of Saint Brendan that his grandfather had passed on to him. He was on a quest to seek out and find the wonderful island of Saint Brendan and had called in at Terceira on his way.   Proudly displayed upon his doublet was an eight pointed star and a scarlet silk band with the motto “By Faith” boldly displayed upon it. Indeed,  it was by faith alone that he had set out upon the mission of his life for he had no idea how he would accomplish it.

When Maria heard of his arrival and the sacred relics he bore she rushed down to the ship to see him for herself.   She was extremely impressed with the way he carried himself and his good looks, but was overwhelmed by the passion he showed for his quest and she quickly fell in love with him. Indeed she revered him as if he had been the good Saint himself and would sit quiet and still with her dark eyes downcast not caring to glance at him while he told of his quest for the Saint and the Wondrous Island.

The young man in turn was fascinated by this demure young maiden and confessed his love for her.  Willingly, he gave her his grandfather’s sacred relics and asked that in return she might speak her true feelings towards him.   Maria replied, “To speak my of my love for you in full and in truth I would need to be in a place where God alone could hear me. Only then could I speak from the purity of my heart.” 

A Jealous Suitor

You see  this was true for Maria because on Terceira there lived a young man of the island who had long admired her.  He was the son of the Lord of the district and for a long time he had been infatuated by her beauty and her manner.  He had begged her for her hand in marriage several times but each time she had demurely and sensitively declined.  She hated having to do it but she could not marry a man she did not love. Now she was worried because she knew that if her unwanted suitor ever found out about her love for Vitale he would fly into a jealous rage and feared what he would do.  Indeed she had good cause to fear for Terceira was a small island with a close knit community and it was not long before her unwanted suitor heard of her relationship with Vitale. 

Rushing to her in a jealous rage he demanded that she marry him immediately.  Maria sensitively and with all kindness gently told him she could not. Angrily he told her, “If you do not marry me I shall have my father lock you in the tower of Saint Louis on the hillside and there you shall stay until you change your mind!’

  ‘I am sorry,” she replied, “but I would prefer to remain locked in the tower for the rest of my days than be your wife.  Why can you not see it and just leave me in peace with my relics of Saint Brendan?”

The Tower of Saint Louis

This further enraged the young man and he had her marched to the tower of Saint Louis where she was locked in its uppermost chamber.  Although small and bare the chamber at least had a window where she would sit and look down upon the city of Angra below.

“All my life I have prayed to the blessed Saint Brendan and loved God.  Now my world has been destroyed by unwanted love!’ she cried in despair.

With that despairing cry which rang out over the city below, the earth shook and trembled and the great stone tower quivered as if was but paper.

Not far from the tower two beautiful white doves were perched on the branches of a cedar tree.

“Look at the tower,” said one, “It will surely fall and the fair maid who weeps inside will die.”

“She shall not die!  Let us rescue her,” said the other , “and take her to a place of safety.”

As they flew into the air the earth shuddered and the tower began to fall and Maria stood weeping in fear at the window.  Faster than the wind the doves swooped down and each clasping one of Maria’s hands carried her through the air as the falling tower collapsed.

Over the treetops, over the rooftops and churches of Angra they carried her and out across the sea.  They continued flying over the horizon and into the setting sun and through the dark night until the sun came up in the morning. 

Saint Brendan’s Wondrous Isle

With the growing light Maria could see they were heading towards an island shrouded in morning mist.  As they drew closer the mist lifted and upon a silver shore there was someone who appeared to be waiting.  Carried by the doves she could see that the island was abundant with the most beautiful trees and gorgeous flowers.  As they descended, she saw that it was a truly wondrous place. As the doves gently set her down before the waiting figure to her joy and wonder she saw that it was Saint Brendan and that he was the gardener of the island.

Back on Terceira the earthquake had caused great damage to the city of Angra and the Tower of Saint Louis had been completely destroyed.  Everyone thought poor Maria had been buried in the rubble and mourned. Vitale had been grief stricken and without her saw his life on the island as being empty and devoid of purpose. 

Therefore he took to his caravel and set sail resuming his quest to find the blessed Isle of Saint Brendan.  For long days and nights he sailed through foul and fine weather until he sailed into a bank of thick fog. He could see no more than a foot before him whichever way he looked. Having no idea of his direction he allowed his ship to drift with the current.  Eventually, sustained by faith alone, he came through the fog to find himself looking at a beautiful sunset. As he looked he saw the clouds descending from heaven to earth like a long white ladder.  

Further on in the distance he saw an island with a silver shore and a green and beautiful land beyond. In his heart he knew this was Saint Brendan’s wondrous island and current took his vessel gently to the shore.  As he approached he saw his beloved Maria standing with her arms outstretched towards him, smiling and her eyes shining. All around her there glowed a gentle auro of pure white light. Stepping ashore, he ran to her outstretched arms and as he approached she said, 

“At last, in this place  I can speak my love for you  from my heart with no one but God and Saint Brendan and you, my dear Vitale, to hear!”

© 03/10/2019 zteve t evans

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Copyright October 3rd, 2019 zteve t evans