Episodes 30: The Trows’ Christmas

“Trows are excessively fond of dancing….”

A short episode about the loveable little Trows of Orkney and their delightfully happy Christmas adventures. Where nothing bad happens at all.

Content warning: bad things happening.

Story in summary (Warning – contains spoilers!)

The story in brief, without the detail or discussion – not a transcript.

If you’ve already listened and just want a refresh, only want the bare bones of the story, or really don’t care about spoilers then please do click below to read on…

It was the night before Christmas. And something rather larger a mouse was stirring.

In Orkney Yule was the time of year when the barriers between the worlds were weakest.

When the creatures that live on the edge of the human world could venture far more easily into it, should they want to. And want to they did. For the humans had much to attract them. Above all else there was lights and music and dancing.

These creatures were known as Trows. Their appearance was subject to a fair degree of change, as a result of their magical nature, but they generally appeared humanoid to some degree. Sometimes more and sometimes less, altering themselves to suit the situation.

Despite their enjoyment of music and dancing humans found them to be intimidating, malevolent creatures: whose love of fun often appeared to have a sadistic bent, or at the very least they were careless when it came to hurt they might cause.

So the humans used their own crude magics against the Trows, in order to repel them. They had a number of techniques for saining, as the practice of placing protective charms is known in Orkney. the simple making the sign of the cross or putting up straw crosses for an extra layer of protection.

A plucked hair from every cow and horse, woven together and hung over the barn kept the animals safe. As Yule itself got closer and the Trows got stronger more magics were needed: burning peat was carried through the outbuildings and in the house itself all locks were to be left open, a lamp was left burning, an unsheathed iron blade was laid on a table close to the door.

At least that’s what you were meant to do. But Yule was a busy time, just as Christmas is now. And it was easy to overlook all the tasks. Especially if you were concentrating on getting everything ready for the next day and the kids to bed early so you could go off to the shindig that was happening at the neighbours barn.

As one unnamed couple were. Off they went to their dance. And a short time after that… in came the Trows.

It was a great party – work was finished for Yule eve and the people could really let their hair down. There was drinking and singing and general merriment. The fiddler was giving it his all and the barn was filled with whirling dancers.

Into this came the children. Two boys – but three and five years old. Wide eyed they looked around until spotted by those closest to the door.

“You’ve come to join?” an intoxicated guest asked as the fiddle started up again. And as it did the boys cracked beaming smiles. And join in they did. And how.

The small feet of the two kept in perfect time with the reel. And as the tempo picked up, they moved with it. Swinging around and around to the impressed eyes of those around them. Faster and faster they whirled until at the very height of the tune came a loud startled cry from a woman, which stopped the fiddler. “God save me !” she shouted.

She being the mother who had left the boys in their beds not two hours before. Who had spied them dancing in a way she knew was well beyond them. “God bless me bairns, are you alright?” she asked, rushing to them.

No sooner had the name of the lord passed her lips than the two recoiled in horror and they fled from her. Out of the barn and into the night.

Even more concerned now the Mother rushed to follow them. But when she got into the snowy, chilly night there was no one there at all.

There was no one in the children’s beds when they went back to the house. The un-sained house. The community came together, as communities are want to at terrible times such as this, and party-goers and dancers turned into a large determined search party.

A search party who found the boys some hours deep into the night. In a ravine, arms wrapped around each other, almost buried under the snow. Of the Trows who had imitated the boys forms there was no sign.

And none in that village forgot the saining for many a year after that.

The End
This is an image of trolls not trow, but trow images are few and far between and I think this conveys an appropriately winter feel. By Swedish illustrator John Bauer


So I really only touched on the very basics of Trows here – the amount of folklore concerning them is quite vast, varied and somewhat contradictory. They fulfil a very similair role to fhe fairies in other folklores – so there are huge numbers of different things ascribed to them, no common agreement on exactly what they are and some pretty outlandish reports that seem to just come from one particularly inventive person’s imagination running away with them.

It’s not impossible I’ll end up discussing them again, but here are some of my selected trow highlights:

  • They ride bulrushes through the air – presumably like broomsticks
  • The Trows write the best tunes and one sure-fire route to being a successful composer of banging tunes was to overhear a Trow tune, copy it and then bring it to the human world as your own
  • The trows live around Brochs – Iron age stone buildings unique to the North of Scotland and the Islands
  • There’s a story about the Trows that describes a girl visiting them in the “saucy merriment of youth”. That’s the fact. I just love that phrase.
  • According to some sources Trows always walk backwards. This is not widely believed. Possibly because it’s pretty stupid.
  • Trows and Giants had serious beef which sometimes broke out into all out scrapes
  • The Trows have now left Mainland (the largest island in Orkney) now but some say they still live on at the Dwarfie Stone on Hoy.
Trows are still said to inhabit the Dwarfie Stone and environs

But if you really want to know as much as possible you can’t do better than this essay at The faery folklorist, which is a site I generally recommend: The Trows of Orkney and Shetland

The Ring of Brodgar

This does not feature in the story but it’s in Orkney, one of the biggest stone circle’s in Britain or Ireland and generally a magical place. So I’m mentioning it here.

A very Merry Christmas and a happy New Year from Tales of Britain and Ireland!

Always remember to raise you hat to the Yule log. It’s just respectful

Selected Sources

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