Myths & Legends from Orkney and Shetland

Listen to tales about shape-shifting seals, werewolf-like creatures and Finfolk in mystical tales from Scotland's most northerly islands

Old Man of Hoy (1818) by William DaniellNational Library of Scotland

The Legend of Eynhallow and the Fin Folk

Hear the story of an uninhabited island  off the west coast of Orkney that was once called Hildaland, where  a race of sea-dwelling, shape-shifting sorcerers called the Fin Folk lived in the summer.  

The Finfolk (2021) by Jordan HunterNational Library of Scotland

The Finfolk of Orkney part 1
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Legend tells that the uninhabited island of Eynhallow, or ‘holy island' off the West Mainland was once called Hildaland. It was the summer home of the Finfolk, a race of sea-dwelling, shape-shifting sorcerers. Hildaland was invisible to the human eye. 

Goodman of Thorodale (2021) by Jordan HunterNational Library of Scotland

The Finfolk of Orkney part 2
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A widower with three sons called the Goodman of Thorodale lived on the mainland. In time he married again but one day, when Thorodale and his new wife were collecting shellfish by the shore, a Fin man carried her away in a boat and disappeared. Thorodale swore revenge. 

Old Man of Hoy (1818) by William DaniellNational Library of Scotland

The Finfolk of Orkney part 3
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One day, while out fishing, he heard his wife singing. Her song told him to seek advice from the wise woman of Hoy. The woman told him that the best revenge was to take Hildaland. She also told him to walk nine times around the Odin stone at each full moon for nine months.

Orkney Islands (1914)National Library of Scotland

The Finfolk of Orkney part 4
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On the ninth full moon, Thorodale filled a chest with salt, collected three baskets, and called to his three sons. They sailed towards Hildaland. The Finfolk put three obstacles in Thorodale’s way – a pod of whales, some sea sirens, and a huge monster. 

Ness of Sound, Lerwick (1870)National Library of Scotland

The Finfolk of Orkney part 5
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When Thorodale threw salt at them and showed a cross, they disappeared. On reaching the island, Thorodale claimed the land with nine rings of salt which his three sons brought. With this, the Finfolk lost their beloved Hildaland, and it became known as Eynhallow.

A new hydrographical survey of the islands of Shetland (1781) by Preston, Thomas (fl. 1743-1744)National Library of Scotland

The Shetland Wulver

In her 1933 book Shetland Traditional Lore, folklorist and author Jessie Saxby described the Wulver as 'a creature like a man with a wolf's head with short brown hair all over his body but is the tale the product of imagination or did the Wulver really exist?

Wulver (2021) by Jordan HunterNational Library of Scotland

The Shetland Wulver part 1
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The Wulver was said to live alone in a cave on Shetland and enjoyed a peaceful life. Such is the strength of this Shetland tale, that the last reported sighting of the Wulver is said to have been in the early 20th century.

Painted wooden mask in the form of a wolfBritish Museum

The Shetland Wulver part 2
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Unlike his werewolf counterparts, the Wulver is not a shape-shifter but rather a kind of immortal spirit. The ancient Celts believed that the Wulver evolved from wolves, and that the Wulver symbolizes the in-between stage of man and wolf.  

Still Life with Golden Bream (1808 - 1812) by Francisco de GoyaThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The Shetland Wulver part 3
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In the book Shetland Lore, Jessie Saxby writes: He was fond of fishing, and had a small rock in the deep water which is known to this day as the "Wulver's Stane" (Wolf Stone). There he would sit fishing for hour after hour and afterward leave fish on the windowsills of the needy

Broadside titled 'An Elegy' (1724) by William Gibson (author)National Library of Scotland

The Shetland Wulver part 4
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As a result there are few bad stories connected with the Wulver and is why many believe an encounter is a good sign that may lead a person to a treasure buried amongst ancient ruins. Others however, view Wulver sightings as omens of imminent death.  

Selkie child (2021) by Jordan HunterNational Library of Scotland

The Selkie of Sule Skerry

The best known of the Orkney ballads, also known as The Selkie of Sule Skerry, tells of a selkie, a shapeshifting creature  living on the rocky cliff of Sule. Skerry comes from the Norse “sker” which means rock in the sea .  

Selkie (2021) by Jordan HunterNational Library of Scotland

The Selkie of Sule Skerry part 1
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Selkie’ is the Scots word for a ‘seal’, but in Scottish mythology it also refers to a shapeshifting creature that is half-human, half-seal. There are many legends of the selkie folk, but this one is linked with Sule Skerry, a remote island west of mainland Orkney.

Woman with child (2021) by Jordan HunterNational Library of Scotland

The Selkie of Sule Skerry part 2
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In this story, a young woman falls in love with a stranger she meets on the seashore. She knows neither his name, nor his origins. In time, she has a child by him, but he disappears, leaving her alone with the baby boy.

Orkney IslandsNational Library of Scotland

The Selkie of Sule Skerry part 3
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One night, someone appears by her bed. It is her lover, and the father of her child. He reveals he is a selkie, ‘a man upon the land, and a selkie in the sea’ who lives on the rocky island of Sule Skerry. 

Gold breast chain (600/650)British Museum

The Selkie of Sule Skerry part 4
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He presents a gold chain for the baby to wear around his neck and says he will return in seven years.

Selkie child (2021) by Jordan HunterNational Library of Scotland

The Selkie of Sule Skerry part 5
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After seven years, the selkie man returns and takes the young boy to live with him in the sea. He tells the woman that she will be able to recognise her son by the gold chain worn around his neck. He also predicts that the woman will marry a gunner, a seal hunter.

Two seals (2020) by Walter BaxterNational Library of Scotland

The Selkie of Sule Skerry part 6
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In time, the woman does marry a gunner. One May morning, he goes out in his boat and returns with two seal skins. One of the skins belongs to an old, grey seal and the other to a much younger animal. Around the neck of the younger one is a gold chain. 

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