Trows (Alternatively trowe; a Scots term for troll) live on the Shetland and Orkney Islands and are probably the best known, and widespread, element of Orkney folklore.
Similiar to the Scandinavian Trolls and like them, they live beneath the ground and have an aversion to daylight. In many cases indistinguishable from the fairy folklore found throughout Northern Europe, the archetypal trow was an ugly, mischievous, little creature that resided in the ancient mounds scattered across Orkney.Their traditional grotesque and outlandish appearance is confirmed by some of the names ascribed to them – names such as Truncherface (trencher face) and Bannafeet (bannock feet). Trows, like faeries in general, can be helpful to those they found favorable and offended by any gifts set out for them.
Although some tales declared that a trow could pass for a human – although usually old, wizened or deformed – in general they were said to be short, ugly, stunted creatures and considerably smaller than a man.
In what may be one of the earliest recorded trow tales, the creatures were said to be nocturnal and never appeared in daylight. If a trow is caught above ground when the sun rises he cannot return to his home until the sun sets again. Even when they emerged at night, to many they were invisible. This element of trow folklore echoes both the traditions that the Orkney fairy was invisible and that the Norwegian troll was unable to venture outside in sunlight.
Another account of invisible trows explains how an Orkneyman was unable to see the creatures dancing on the shore. Only by holding his wife’s hand, or placing his foot on hers, was he able to watch their exploits.
A practically identical account from Shetland explains that only certain people had the power to see the trows. “Normal” mortals could not see the creatures unless without touching one of these gifted individuals.
King Trows were exclusively male and would leave their homes to court and marry mortal women, though as soon as her baby was born the mother would die. They are frequently observed performing a curious lop-sided dance called ‘Henking’
In days past, trows were said to be frequent night-time visitors to the house. Once a household had retired for the night, the trows would enter the building and sit by the glowing fire. Numerous tales recount how the terrified farmer and his wife would lie in bed listening to their unwanted guests scuttling around in the other end of the house. This, together with the trows’ documented hatred of locked doors, strengthens opinion that the tradition is a remnant of the creatures’ origin as an undead spirit.
In Norse tradition, the ghosts of the family’s predecessors had to be welcomed into the house – a custom particularly prevalent at Yule, when later tradition has the trows at their most active and dangerous. At this time of the year, one of the last preparations on Yule Eve was to unlock every lock in the house.
Within their earthen mounds – known locally as howes or knowes – the dwelling-places of the trows were said to be sumptuous and dazzling. Gold, silver and previous materials were said to decorate the walls, while only fine food and drink was served at their tables. Deep inside these magical halls, the trows would satisfy their insatiable passion for music and dancing, very often luring mortal fiddlers inside to perform at their otherworldly celebrations.
But although the majority of trow tales come to us as mere folktales, there are still a few intriguing accounts that supposedly detail actual trow encounters. In the late 1960s, after the Orcadian folklorist Ernest Marwick published some stories about the trows in a Scottish magazine, an Englishman who had spent time in Hoy during World War Two wrote to describe:
“a never-to-be forgotten experience that would seem to lend weight to the belief in the existence of these supernatural creatures.”
Some Shetland fiddle tunes are said to have come to human fiddlers when they heard the trows playing. One example of such a “trowie tune,” Winyadepla, may be found in the playing of Tom Anderson on his album with Aly Bain, The Silver Bow.
… a troop of peerie folk came in. A woman took off the nappie from her baby and hung it on Gibbie’s leg, near the fire, to dry. Then one of the trows said, “What’ll we do ta da sleeper?” “Lat him aleen,” replied the woman, “he’s no a ill body. Tell Shanko ti gie him a ton.” Said Shanko, “A ton he sall hae, an we’ll drink his blaand.” After drinking, they trooped out of the mill, and danced on the green nearby …