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

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

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Copyright May 20th 2020 zteve t evans