Sacred Texts  Sagas and Legends  Celtic  Index  Previous  Next 


Well, since we are welcome to Yule,
Up wi 't Lightfoot, link it awa', boys!
Send for a fiddler, play up Foula reel,
The Shaalds will pay for a', boys.
DR. HIBBERT's valuable work on the Shetland Islands [a] fortunately enables us to give a tolerably complete account of the fairy system of these islands.
The Shetlanders, he informs us, believe in two kinds of Trows, as they call the Scandinavian Trolls, those of the land and those of the sea.
The former, whom, like the Scots, they also term the guid folk and guid neighbours, they conceive to inhabit the interior of green hills. Persons who have been brought into their habitations have been dazzled with the splendour of what they saw there. All the interior walls are adorned with gold and silver, and the domestic utensils resemble the strange things that are found sometimes lying on the hills. These persons have always entered the hill on one side and gone out at the other.
They marry and have children, like their northern kindred. A woman of the island of Yell, who died not long since, at the advanced age of more than a hundred years, said, that she once met some fairy children, accompanied by a little dog, playing like other boys and girls, on the top of a hill. Another time she happened one night to raise herself up in the bed, when she saw a little boy with a white nightcap on his head, sitting at the fire. She asked him who he was. "I am Trippa's son," said he. When she heard this, she instantly sained, i. e. blessed herself, and Trippa's son vanished.
Saining is the grand protection against them; a Shetlander always sains himself when passing by their hills.
The Trows are of a diminutive stature, and they are usually dressed in gay green garments. When travelling from one place to another they may be seen mounted on bulrushes, and riding through the air. If a person should happen to meet them when on these journeys, he should, if be has not a bible in his pocket, draw a circle round him on the ground, and in God's name forbid their approach. They then generally disappear. [b]
They are fond of music and dancing, and it is their dancing that forms the fairy rings. A Shetlander lying awake in bed before day one morning, heard the noise of a party of Trows passing by his door. They were preceded by a piper, who was playing away lustily. The man happened to have a good ear for music, so he picked up the tune he heard played, and used often after to repeat it for his friends under the name of the Fairy-tune.
The Trows are not free from disease, but they are possessed of infallible remedies, which they sometimes bestow on their favourites. A man in the island of Unst had an earthen pot that contained an ointment of marvellous power. This he said he got from the hills, and, like the widow's cruise, its contents never failed.
They have all the picking and stealing propensities of the Scandinavian Trolls. The dairy-maid sometimes detects a Trow-woman secretly milking the cows in the byre. She sains herself; and the thief takes to flight so precipitately as to leave behind her a copper pan of a form never seen before
When they want beef or mutton on any festal occasion, they betake themselves to the Shetlanders' scatholds or town-mails, and with elf-arrows bring down their game. On these occasions they delude the eyes of the owner with the appearance of something exactly resembling the animal whom they have carried off, and by its apparent violent death by some accident. it is on this account that the flesh of such animals as have met a sudden or violent death is regarded as improper food.
A Shetlander, who is probably still alive, affirmed that he was once taken into a hill by the Trows. Here one of the first objects that met his view was one of his own cows, that was brought in to furnish materials for a banquet. He regarded himself as being in rather a ticklish situation if it were not for the protection of the Trow-women, by whose favour he had been admitted within the hill. On returning home, he learned, to his great surprise, that at the very moment he saw the cow brought into the hill, others had seen her falling over the rocks.
Lying-in-women and "unchristened bairns" they regard as lawful prize. The former they employ as wet-nurses, the latter they of course rear up as their own. Nothing will induce parents to show any attention to a child that they suspect of being a changeling. But there are persons who undertake to enter the hills and regain the lost child.
A tailor, not long since, related the following story. He was employed to work at a farm-house where there was a child that was an idiot, and who was supposed to have been left there by the Trows instead of some proper child, whom they had taken into the hills. One night, after he had retired to his bed, leaving the idiot asleep by the lire, he was suddenly waked out of his sleep by the sound of music, and on looking about him he saw the whole room full of fairies, who were dancing away their rounds most joyously. Suddenly the idiot jumped up and joined in the dance, and showed such a degree of acquaintance with the various steps and movements as plainly testified that it must have been a long time since be first went under the hands of the dancing-master. The tailor looked on for some time with admiration, but at last he grew alarmed and sained himself. On hearing this, the Trows all fled in the utmost disorder, but one of them, a woman, was so incensed at this interruption of their revels, that as she went out she touched the big toe of the tailor, and he lost the power of ever after moving it. [c]
In these cases of paralysis they believe that the Trows have taken away the sound member and left a log behind. They even sometimes sear the part, and from the want of sensation in it boast of the correctness of this opinion. [d]
With respect to the Sea-Trows, it is the belief of the Shetlanders that they inhabit a region of their own at the bottom of the sea. [e] They here respire a peculiar atmosphere, and live in habitations constructed of the choicest submarine productions. When they visit the upper world on occasions of business or curiosity, they are obliged to enter the skin of some animal capable of respiring in the water. One of the shapes they assume is that of what is commonly called a merman or mermaid, human from the waist upwards, terminating below in the tail of a fish. But their most favourite vehicle is the skin of the larger seal or Haaf fish, for as this animal is amphibious they can land on some rock, and there cast off their sea-dress and assume their own shape, and amuse themselves as they will in the upper world. They must, however, take especial care of their skins, as each has but one, and if that should be lost, the owner can never re-descend, but must become an inhabitant of the supramarine world.
The following Shetland tales will illustrate this:

[a] Description of the Shetland Islands. Edinburgh, 1822.
[b] Edmonston's View, &c., of Zetland IsIands. Edin. 1809.
[c] We need hardly to remind the reader that in what precedes Dr. Hibbert is to be regarded as the narrator in 1822.
[d] Edmonston, ut supra.
[e] Dr. Hibbert says he could get but little satisfaction from the Shetlanders respecting this submarine country.

Next: Gioga's Son