Folklore was a huge part of Shetland’s society and culture in pre-modern times. Many of the folktales have been written down and, although many have now been forgotten, they can still be found in books and literature.
The dramatic coastline and moorland expanses have given rise to a rich and deep-rooted culture of folklore, superstition and deeply-embedded traditions.
In the past, education, literature and access to news was limited, even within the isles. Travel for pleasure was almost unheard of, and a venture out into the neighbouring parish or district was a novelty. Friends and neighbours, particularly in winter, would gather together beside the fireside and share stories and tales of the past to occupy the long winter nights. This blog looks at giants in Shetland.
Giants are another prominent player in tales of Shetland’s lore and even today, these are the stories that I tell my children as we pass through the places giants are said to have lived. Many of the features of our landscape that, today, we explain with science and geology were, in the past, explained in far more imaginative ways.
When we see boulders in the hill, on their own and standing tall and proud like solitary statues, we know that they are ‘erratics’ – moved by the power of ice and deposited in the landscape. We know this because geology tells us that. But, folklore offers up far more interesting stories that capture the imagination and live on, passing from generation to generation like a treasured heirloom. Out at sea, the rocky skerries and baas [sunken rocks] are those that were either thrown by giants from land into the sea, or carefully placed there so that they could fish without getting their feet wet.
Folklore tells us that many of these are the result of spates between giants who lived here many, many years ago. Giants were often quarreling and squabbling amongst themselves and, when things got particularly heated, they would hurl great boulders – or erratics – at each other.
As you come into Voe, a large erratic stands by the roadside, a boulder thrown by a giant who lived a few miles south in the Kames. He threw this great boulder in exasperation of the trows who endlessly pestered him at Petta Water, about as far from the sea as you can be in Shetland – trowie land. The giant lived here, alongside the trows, however they were endlessly harassing him as he tried to sleep, day and night they hounded him, whispering in his ears and pulling at his whiskers. The giant resolved to rid the area of the trows. He made a kishie [straw basket, carried on the back] and began gathering the trows up, loading them carefully into the kishie. Once he was happy that they were all rounded up he began to carry them, with the intention of tossing them out to sea. Unfortunately for the giant, the cumulative weight of the trows was enough to cause the bottom to fall out of the kishie, and all the trows fell to the ground and dispersed in all directions. Utterly fed up, the giant packed up his bits and pieces and left. It’s said he crossed the North Sea and went to Norway, leaving only his footprint in the form of Petta Water and a hollow in the hill – known as Kneefell – where he stooped down and landed his knee. He also left that boulder in Voe, of course.
Standing stones – as well as having trowie connotations – are treated in the same way and, rather than being explained by archaeology, are given fanciful and mythical stories. Standing stones are sometimes markers, again, of where a giant was caught by the light as night passed into day and was turned to stone. At the beorgs of Housetter in the North Mainland are two standing stones of rough granite; they are five-and-a-half metres apart and two metres high and are said to mark the grave of a giant.
Two of Shetland’s most famous giants lived in the north of Unst. Herman and Saxa were sworn enemies and each controlled an opposing headland; Herman on Hermaness and Saxa on Saxa Vord. Each headland flanked the long inlet – or voe – at Burrafirth. These two giants quarreled all the time and the evidence of those quarrels exist to this day in the form of ‘Saxa’s Baa’ [a sunken rock in the sea] and Herman’s Hellyac’ [a flat rock]. Both giants were said to be in love with a mermaid who was a real temptress. She lured them into the water, challenging them to follow her to the North Pole. She said that the one who could swim after her and meet her there would win her heart. Neither giant could swim, and both drowned. That was the end of Herman and Saxa, although they still live on in the names of the headlands they once dominated.
Another story involves an area near Collafirth (Northmavine) called the ‘meshi o’ stanes’. Folklore tells us that a giant was transporting stones to Yell in a meshi [a net made from bent or flos, designed for carrying corn or hay], and when he went to make the jump across Yell Sound, the handles gave way, spilling the contents out on the landscape. Further up through the hill, the giant’s garden offers a large green space in the otherwise tundra-like debris of stone that punctuate the landscape of this area.
The notorious Ve-Skerries, a rocky outcrop of stones off Shetland’s west coast, that have seen many shipwrecks over the years is said to have been made by a giant called Atla. Atla lived in Weisdale and would amuse himself by hurling great boulders many miles out to sea. Where his boulders landed, eventually formed the Ve-Skerries.
There are no longer giants in Shetland, but their folklore lives on in the stories that have been passed down, through the generations, from a land of giants.
If you enjoyed this blog you might also like the other blogs in this series that explores trows and creatures from the sea in Shetland's culture and folklore.
A little about Laurie
Hello, and welcome to my blog. I hope that you find what you're looking for, whether you are planning that perfect holiday or maybe you're from Shetland and looking for some inspiration. Hopefully, there is something here for everyone.