Tom Muir takes you on a magical journey through the mysterious Orkney Islands, where the past and present meet. Using the ancient stories that were told by the firesides of the Picts and Vikings, we hear how the islands were created from the teeth of a monster, how a giant created lochs and hills in his greed for fertile land, and how the waves are controlled by the hand of a goddess. Here ancient standing stones walk and burial mounds are the home of the trows. Invisible islands are encountered, home to fin folk and mermaids, while seals are not always what they seem to be. Witches raise storms and predict the outcome of a battle, ghosts seek revenge, and the devil sits in the rafters of St Magnus Cathedral, taking notes!
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Orkney Folk Tales
By Tom Muir, Sheila Faichney
The History PressCopyright © 2014 Tom Muir
All rights reserved.
Earth, Sea and Sky
When the Vikings came to Orkney they brought with them their stories, including this one, which is a great favourite of mine. You can see the origin of it in the myth of the Midgarth Serpent; one of the monstrous offspring of the evil god Loki. This huge sea serpent had grown so large that it was wrapped right around the world and bit its own tail. It would eventually be slain by the god Thor at Ragnorok, the battle at the end of time, but the poison that it spewed over him would also bring about his death.
Assipattle and the Stoor Worm
There was once a farmer who lived in a fine farm called Leegarth, which lay in a valley by the side of a stream. The farmer had a wife and seven sons, and they all worked hard on the farm. Well, that's not strictly true, you see, the parents and six elder sons worked hard, but the youngest son did nothing but lie beside the fire, raking through the ashes, so they called him Assipattle, which means ash raker. Assipattle regularly became covered with ashes and when he went out the ash would blow from him like smoke from a bonfire. The boy was also a great storyteller although in his stories he was always the hero who killed the dragon and married the princess. His brothers hated him and they would kick him on their way out the door, while his parents would just shake their heads sadly when they looked at him.
Now, one day a terrible thing happened; the Stoor Worm arrived at the land where Assipattle lived. This was no ordinary stoor worm, but the Mester Stoor Worm, the oldest, biggest and baddest stoor worm in the sea. A sea monster so big that it was wrapped right around the world, and when it moved it caused earthquakes and tidal waves. It could crush the mightiest ship between the forks of its tongue, or sweep whole villages into its mouth, and if that wasn't bad enough, its breath was poisonous and would kill any living thing it touched. What was worse, it was now lying off the coast of the land where Assipattle lived and it had started to yawn. This was a bad sign because it didn't mean that the Stoor Worm was tired, it meant that it was hungry and it wanted to be fed.
The king gathered together all his advisers and asked them what could be done. No one had any idea, but one of them, who was slightly smarter than the rest, suggested that they ask the Spaeman who lived on the side of the mountain. A spaeman is a wizard, and this one was the cleverest man in all the kingdom. He had a long white beard and carried a staff in his hand. He gave the problem much thought before speaking, saying:
Your Majesty, the Stoor Worm has travelled all over the world and eaten all sorts of exotic people, but now it is old and has developed a bit of a sweet tooth. If you were to feed it seven maidens for its breakfast every Saturday morning, then it would spare the rest of the kingdom.
So, every Saturday morning seven maidens were bound hand and foot and placed on a flat rock in front of the Stoor Worm's head. When it woke, it yawned seven great yawns and then flicked out its tongue and picked the girls up, one by one, between the forks of its tongue, gobbling them up like sweeties.
One Saturday morning, Assipattle and his family went to see the Stoor Worm eat his terrible breakfast. The old man went white. 'There will soon be no more girls left in this land,' he cried, 'and I have seven sons. Who will they marry? Who will look after us in our old age if there are no more children?'
'Don't worry,' said Assipattle, 'I'll fight the Stoor Worm, and kill it!'
His brothers laughed and threw stones at him until he ran away.
That evening his mother told Assipattle to go to the barn where his brothers were threshing corn and tell them to come in for their supper. Assipattle went to the barn calling, 'Eh, boys; supper's ready.'
'Get him!' shouted his eldest brother, and they all jumped on top of him and covered him with straw.
They would have smothered him if their father hadn't gone out to see what was going on. He wasn't very happy, because it's kind of bad form to try to kill your brother. He gave them a smack on the lug as they went past him and he sent them to the house. He was still scolding them later at the table, but Assipattle said, 'It's all right father, if you hadn't come in when you did I was just about to give them all a damned good thrashing!'
'Well, why didn't you?' sneered his eldest brother.
'Because I'm saving my strength.'
'You? Saving your strength?' Laughed his brother. 'What are you saving your strength for?'
'For when I fight the Stoor Worm, of course!' said Assipattle.
His father shook his head and said, 'You'll fight the Stoor Worm when I make spoons from the horns of the moon!'
Time passed, and more maidens were fed to the Stoor Worm. Soon the people complained that this couldn't be allowed to carry on. The king called the Spaeman back to his palace and asked him what could be done to get rid of the monster for once and for all.
'Well,' said the Spaeman, 'there is one thing that would satisfy the Stoor Worm, but it is too terrible to say.'
'Say it,' shouted the king, 'and that is an order!'
'Well,' said the Spaeman, 'if you were to feed it the most beautiful maiden in the land; your daughter, the Princess Gem de Lovely, then it would go away and spare your kingdom.'
'No!' shouted the court officials. 'That is too high a price to pay.'
But the king raised his hand and said, 'No; it is only right that my daughter, my only child, descended from the god Odin and heir to my kingdom, should die so that her people can live. But, I crave one indulgence. Give me three weeks to find a hero who can fight and kill the Stoor Worm. If anyone can do that I will give him my magic sword, Sikkersnapper, my kingdom and my daughter's hand in marriage.'
A proclamation went throughout the land asking for a hero to fight the Stoor Worm. Thirty-six brave knights rode into town, but when the first dozen saw the size of the Stoor Worm they rode right through the town, out the other side of the town and away home again. The second dozen fainted, and had to be carried out on stretchers, boots first. The third dozen sank into a deep depression and skulked in the king's castle, drinking his beer and wine. The king looked at them and he was disgusted, because the blood of an older and nobler race ran through his veins!
'Bring me my sword, Sikkersnapper,' he ordered, 'and make ready a boat. Tomorrow at dawn I will fight the Stoor Worm, or die in the attempt.'
News of this spread like wildfire throughout the kingdom; the king was going to fight the Stoor Worm. At Leegarth Assipattle was lying by the side of the fire. He was listening to his parents who were lying in their bed, and they were arguing.
'So, the king is going to fight the Stoor Worm,' said Assipattle's father, 'we can take my horse Teetgong; he's the fastest horse in the land, you know.'
'Yeah!' snorted his wife, in a disapproving voice.
'What's up with you tonight?' asked Assipattle's father. 'You're in a very sour mood.'
'And so I might be,' retorted his wife.
'Why? What have I done now?' asked the poor old man.
'You are keeping secrets from me, and I don't like it!'
'Why? What secrets am I keeping? I don't have any secrets from you, my dear.'
'Well, that horse of yours.'
'Teetgong; fastest horse in the land, you know!'
'I know,' she snapped, 'but there's something that you do that makes that horse run so fast, and I want to know what it is.'
'But, my dear, I can't tell you that.'
'And why not?'
'Well – because – you see – it's a – kind of – a – secret.'
'Ah, ha!' said his wife, triumphantly. 'I thought as much! And if you have one secret then maybe you have others!'
'Oh, I don't have any secrets from you my dear.'
This went on for some time, and Assipattle was listening. After a while his father gave in and said, 'All right, I'll tell you the secret of Teetgong's speed. If I want him to stand still, I pat him on the left shoulder. If I want him to run fast, I pat him on the right shoulder, but if I want him to run as fast as the wind, I blow through a goose's thrapple (windpipe); I keep one in my coat pocket in case of emergencies.'
Once she had heard this she was contented and soon they were both fast asleep, snoring away merrily. Assipattle got up from the side of the fire and went over to where his father's coat was hanging. He took out the goose's thrapple and slipped silently outside and headed to the stable. When Teetgong saw him he started to neigh, rear up and kick, because this was not his master who was coming, but Assipattle gave him a pat on the left shoulder and he stood still. Assipattle got up on his back and gave him a pat on the right shoulder and away he ran, giving a loud neigh as he went. The sound of this woke up his father and he shouted to his sons to get horses and to ride after him.
'Stop! Thief!' they cried, because they didn't know that it was Assipattle.
After a short time his father was catching up, and he shouted, 'Hi, hi, ho! Teetgong, whoa!'
Teetgong stopped dead in his tracks, but Assipattle pulled out the goose's thrapple from his pocket and blew through it.
As soon as Teetgong heard the sound that it made he pricked up his ears and shot over the horizon, like an arrow from a bow. The old man and his sons gave up and turned their horses towards home. Assipattle clung on to Teetgong, who was well named, as in Orkney a Teetgong is a sudden gust of wind, and this horse could run as fast as any wind.
Eventually they came to a hill and down below them they saw a wide bay, and in that bay there was a big black island. However, it wasn't an island; it was the Stoor Worm's head. Assipattle rode down to the bay where he found a small house and went inside. There he saw an old woman lying asleep in her box bed with her grey cat curled up at her feet. The fire had been 'rested' for the night. In those days is was considered to be very bad luck to let your fire go out, as the luck of the house could go with it, so the fire was kept smouldering by putting damp peats on top of it. In the morning you just put some dry peats on top, gave it a puff with the bellows and away it would go. Assipattle took an iron pot from the side of the fire and he picked up a glowing peat with the fire tongs and put it into the pot and then ran outside.
Down by the shore he saw the king's boat with a guard standing in it and he was blue with cold.
'Hello,' said Assipattle, 'what like?'
'Cold!' grumbled the guard.
'Well, I'm just going to light a fire to boil some limpets for my breakfast; would you like to have a warm by my fire?'
'Better not,' said the guard, 'I can't leave my post or I'll get into trouble.'
'Better stay where you are then,' said Assipattle and he started to dig a hole, like he was making a hearth to shelter his fire in. Suddenly he started to shout, 'Gold! Gold! There's gold here!'
'Gold?' said the guard. 'Where?'
The guard jumped out of the boat and ran over to where Assipattle was, pushed him out of the way and started to dig in the ground like a dog. Assipattle picked up the pot with the peat in it, jumped into the king's boat, cast off the rope, hoisted the sail and was away across the bay before the guard knew what had happened. When he looked around he saw the king and his men arrive, just as the sun appeared over the horizon. As the first rays of the sun kissed the Stoor Worm's eyes it started to wake up and it gave the first of its seven great yawns. Assipattle positioned the boat alongside the monster's mouth so that when it yawned again the boat was carried into the Stoor Worm's mouth with the water that rushed inside and he went right down the Stoor Worm's throat. Down, down, deeper and deeper inside the Stoor Worm went Assipattle and the boat.
Now, I don't suppose that you are familiar with the internal plumbing of a stoor worm, so I had better explain. There was a large tunnel that ran right through the Stoor Worm, but here and there were smaller tunnels running off the big one and some of the water ran this way, some that way, until the water got shallower and shallower and the boat grounded. The inside of the monster glowed with a green, phosphorescent light, so Assipattle could easily see where he was going. He grabbed the pot with the peat in it and jumped out of the boat. Leaving the boat behind he ran and he better ran until he found what he was looking for; the Stoor Worm's liver! Well, you know how much oil there is in a fish's liver, so imagine the amount of oil in the Stoor Worm's liver. It would be enough to solve our energy requirements forever. Assipattle took a knife from his belt with which he cut a hole in the Stoor Worm's liver. Into the hole he put the burning peat and he blew and he better blew until the oil spluttered into flames and then he ran back to his boat.
Meanwhile, back on the shore, the king was having a bad day. First he'd had to get up really early in order to fight the Stoor Worm and meet certain death (which would be enough to put me in a bad mood for the rest of the day) and then he arrived just in time to see some idiot steal his boat, sail across the bay and get swallowed by the Stoor Worm. Oh great! It just doesn't get any better than that, does it? As he stood by the shore, fuming with rage, one of his men said, 'Eh, Your Majesty, I've never seen the Stoor Worm do that before.'
'Do what?' snapped the king, looking the other way.
'Well, he's kind of – he's sort of – smoking.'
'Smoking?' shouted the king.
'Aye, well, look!'
And sure enough, when the king looked out over the bay he could see black smoke starting to billow out of the Stoor Worm's nose and out of its mouth. Now, the Stoor Worm started to feel sick and it spewed up all the water that was inside of it, which headed towards the shore as a huge wave. The king and his men, the old woman from the cottage with her cat and all the horses ran up the hillside to safety as the wave drew nearer, with Assipattle in his boat riding the crest of it. The boat was cast up high and dry right by the side of the king.
The thick, black smoke filled the sky and blocked out the sun, turning day into night. In its dying agony the Stoor Worm shot out its huge forked tongue so high that it caught hold of the moon. It would have pulled it from the sky, but the fork of its tongue slipped over the horn of the moon and it came back down to earth with a thundering crash, leaving a huge hole in the surface of the world. Water poured into the hole and it cut off the land of the Danes from Norway and Sweden. There it remains to this day as the Baltic Sea, and if you look at a map you can still see the great forks of the Stoor Worm's tongue.
The Stoor Worm's days were finally over. It rose its head up out of the sea in dying agony and it came back down to earth with a crash, which knocked out a lot of its teeth. These teeth fell into the sea and there they remain as the Orkney Islands. The head rose again and crash! More teeth were knocked out and these became Shetland. A third time the head rose and fell with a crash and more teeth were knocked out to make the Faroe Islands. Then the Stoor Worm curled up into a great big lump and died, and there it still remains; only now we call it Iceland. The flames that you see shooting out of the mountains there and the boiling water gushing out of the ground is caused by the Stoor Worm's liver, which is still burning.
The king took Assipattle in his arms and called him his son. He strapped the sword Sikkersnapper to his side and said, 'My boy, my kingdom is yours, as is my daughter, if she will have you.'
The Princess Gem de Lovely came over and as soon as she saw Assipattle she fell in love with him, because he was actually a very handsome young man, under all the ashes. The two of them were soon married and they reigned over the kingdom for many years and if they are not dead, then they are living yet.
* * *
You could well believe that story to be true if you have visited all the places created from the Stoor Worm's teeth. Orkney must be its incisors, as the islands are fairly flat. Shetland is formed from its premolars, higher and rugged, while the mountainous Faroe Islands are its molars, huge islands rising sheer from the sea to jagged points.
While Orkney is relatively flat it does have hills and even an island that is almost mountainous. Hoy, the 'High Island' of the Vikings, has round-topped hills that can be seen from many parts of Orkney. It lies to the south, like a rampart protecting the islands. There is a story of how the hills came into being.
The Caithness Giant
There was once a giant who lived in Caithness and there was nothing that he liked better than his garden. Although the earth where he lived was not too bad he looked north to Orkney with envious eyes. There he saw the green and fertile islands lying like emeralds in the sea and he coveted the dark, rich soil that lay there. One day he slung a straw basket on his back, took his staff in his hand, and waded across the Pentland Firth towards Orkney. He was so big that the water hardly came up to his knees. He stopped when he found a likely looking spot and he slung the straw basket onto the ground. With one of his huge hands he took a scoop of earth and dumped it into the basket, then with his other huge hand he took another huge scoop of earth and dumped it into the basket, filling it to the brim. He had left two great holes where he had taken the earth from and water ran into them, creating the Stenness and Harray Lochs. He slung the basket on his back and started on his journey home. As he went a huge lump of turf fell into the sea with a great splash, and there it remains to this day as the island of Graemsay. He had not got much further when suddenly, disaster struck! The straw rope that held his basket in place broke, spilling all his earth on the ground. The giant was so annoyed that he left it where it was and returned home, and there it remains as the Hills of Hoy.
Excerpted from Orkney Folk Tales by Tom Muir, Sheila Faichney. Copyright © 2014 Tom Muir. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Map of the Isles,
1 Earth, Sea and Sky,
2 Giants and Dwarves,
3 Trows, Fairies and Hogboons,
5 Fin Folk and Vanishing Islands,
6 Selkie Folk,
7 Two Classics and a Travellers' Tale,
9 The Devil,
Notes and Explanations,