Thursday 22 August 2019

Wild Orkney

Today's Folklore Thursday theme is 'wild men, wild women, wild places.'

One wild place in Orkney is the island of Swona.

Swona is an island situated in the Pentland Firth, south of Orkney and to the West of South Ronaldsay. It is often confused with Stroma which is further South and therefore seen as part of Caithness.

This island has been uninhabited since 1974 when batchelor Jim Rosie left and there were only ever about 8 houses on the island. Its position in the Pentland Firth means that it is not easily accessible and therefore it is rarely visited.

People who have made the trip have returned with descriptions of houses left as if the occupants had meant to return moments later. Pictures are still on the walls and the tables are set for tea.

The only inhabitants are a herd of beef cattle which are now feral and have become a seperate species. Apparently, these cattle forage for seaweed and move around the island in one unit like a scary cow gang. As somone who is already scared of cows, I have made a mental note to never visit this island.

As for wild men and women, the amphibious, shape-shifting Finfolk were said to live in Finfolkaheem, described variously as either a vanishing island, a city at the bottom of the sea, or perhaps the island of Eynhallow.

'The sand of that country was gold dust, its palaces, built of coral and crystal and adorned with pearls and precious stones, shone like stars in the weird light of that magic land; all furniture and utensils were silver and gold; the halls were hung with gorgeous curtains, the colours of which were like the aurora borealis in most brilliant coruscations.'

Sanday man Arthur Deerness was apparently dragged down to this magical submarine land and enchanted by a mermaid named Auga. He forgot all about his family, home and fiancé Clara Peace.

Clara was distraught at his appearance and the local speywife, Marion of Grindalay determined to help her. Locking herself away for the night, Marion emerged in the morning looking spent yet cheerful.

Meanwhile, Arthur's first night in Finfolkaheem had been full of rich foods, fine wines and the bed of Auga. The only irritation had been a black cat which stole some food, spilt his wine and came between him and his mermaid bride in their matrimonial bed. The cat later appeared whilst the couple sat together and, grabbing Arthur's finger, traced a cross on Auga's brow.

The enchantment was instantly broken and Arthur found himself on the rocks at Hamaness, the exact spot he'd disappeared from, free to return to Clara's waiting arms.

Image of Swona's feral cattle taken from article Feral Cattle of Swona, Orkney Islands, by S. J. G. Hall and G. F. Moore.

Finfolkaheem story taken from Walter Traill Dennison's Orkney Folklore and Traditions and information on Fin Folk taken from The Folklore of Orkney and Shetland by Ernest W. Marwick.

Friday 16 August 2019

A Stack in Time

Our Palaeography Group is now heading towards its 20th week. We have enjoyed finding out about life in the 17th century from all the documents we have read and transcribed. One in particular stands out in our minds as being a bit unusual. An unlucky Kirkwall resident got more than he bargained for when he tried to bend the rules involving peat stacks. Peat is used as a fuel in Orkney instead of wood.

A cart carrying peat, 1904 photographed by Tom Kent (Ref: TK1153)
It was written in 1686 and is a Supplication by Magnus Moir, a prisoner in the Tolbooth, to the Magistrates of Kirkwall asking for liberty from his confinement for stealing peats.

But from Mr Moir's explanation below you find that he didn't exactly steal peat:
"Unto the much honoured Lord provost ballies and counsell of the brugh (burgh) house of Kirkwall

The humble supplication of your poor distressed prisoner Magnus Moir indweller thair


Broad Street, Kirkwall showing a later tolbooth on the left.
That whair it hath been your ho[nour]s pleasure to incarserat me within your tolbuith (prison) of Kirkwall for my contemning (despising) your authorities in building up of peats upon my stack standing upon the... pier grounds of that pairt of the toune of Kirkwall called the brugh (burgh)  

Extract of original document D10/12/1 transcribed in the paragraph below

Where to your ho[nour]s has now the onlie good and indutable right and in which peat stack I having simplie taken out some peats out of the middle thereof and made up an emptie pleace therein for sheltering therein ane kow (cow) for a nights tyme or tuo (two) to stand until such tyme as she was killed for my necces[a]r[y] mentenance

Yet nevertheless it has pleased your ho[nour]s to look upon this as ane act of great crueltie and highist contempt against your priviledges
A stack of peat, c1900 photographed by Tom Kent (ref: TK2328)

Though before I presume to attempt any such thing either in building peats or utherwayes I demanded libertie from my Lord Dean of Guild and tuo of the present magistrates who gave me libertie for that effect:

And sieng (seeing) it hath been your pleasure not only to impose upon me ane fyne for so doeing But also to punish my person by imprisonment now be the space of tuelve dayes bygone wherethrough I have sustained seickness in my old infirme persone and loss in my household affairs.

Extract of original document D10/12/1 transcribed in the paragraph below

May it therefore please your ho[nour]s to take the hail premiss to your serious consideration and look upon my sadde conditione as a poor Christian doeth deserve and to permit me the libertie of freedome from your tolbuith dureing which space yow shall think fit to the effect I may care for and look after the sadde conditione that my starving wyff and famillie at home 

Extract of original document D10/12/1 transcribed in the paragraph below

I being most willing for my liberation to find good and suffitient cautione actit in your ho[nour]s toune court book not onlie to re-enter to persone againe when ye shall appoynt But also to be lyable in payment and satisfactione of what soumes (sums) your ho[nour]s shall think fitt to impos upon me for my presumptowows (presumptuous) contemning (despising) your auth[orties] in maner foresaid And for all uther causes and esceaps I shall be found guiltie off in tyme by gone and your ho[nour]s answer is humblie beggit and craved with your best convenience by your supplicants poor petitioner who shall ever pray.

Magnus Moir

Extract from the original document D10/12/2 transcribed in the paragraph below.

Kirkwall the seventeen day of Nov[embe]r 1686

The magistrates and counsell haveing taken [the] thereafter written supplicatione to their consideration they ordanes him to pay this day to the thesaurer (treasurer) of the brugh (burgh) tuentie pounds Scotts money."

It must have been a very large stack of peats to hollow out for a cow for a couple of nights. But then a stack built on the pier could have been made up of tax paid in kind by the tenants of Orkney to the magistrates of Kirkwall and used to fuel the fires of the residents of Kirkwall.

In the Kirkwall Town Council minutes of 19th January 1687 is the following statement:

"1T.viH Four scoir six yeirs (1686 years), qch (which) recept is daittit (dated) the twentie day of No[vembe]r last past, at the qlk tyme that sowme with the twentie pounds mo[n[ey fors[ai]d produceit be Thomas Brown qch he receaved from Mags Moir for his fine"

So Magnus Moir paid his fine 3 days later, and presumably gained his release from the Tolbooth (prison).

It is great to be able to decipher this old faded document and share it with a new audience. Let us know what you think in the comments below.

Sources used:
D10/12/2 - 1686: Supplication by Magnus Moir (Collected by James Tait, cabinetmaker); Original (K1/1/3) and book (2285924) - Kirkwall Town Council minutes transcribed by Morris Pottinger. Picture of Broad Street, c 1780 from book Kirkwall in the Orkneys by B H Hossack, 1900. Photos by Tom Kent: TK1153 and TK2328