Storm’s Edge: Life, Death and Magic in the Islands of Orkney by Peter Marshall - review by John Keay

John Keay

Selkies, Trows & Calvinists

Storm’s Edge: Life, Death and Magic in the Islands of Orkney


William Collins 560pp £25

From St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, a lane once led through fields up to a small patch of grass. In the centre of this green, where formerly stood a stake, there is now a stone slab engraved: ‘in memory of those accused of witchcraft’. Convicted at trials held in the cathedral, the condemned were marched up the lane with hands bound, lashed to the stake and then ‘wyrried’ – that is strangled to death by the public executioner – and burned to ash. Other forms of execution were available; common criminals and traitors might also be wyrried but not reduced to ashes. Burning, however, was ‘cheust’ – ‘just’ – for witches. Yet the witches were otherwise quite undistinguished: ‘they wur cheust folk’ declares the slab’s main inscription in suitably Orcadian spelling. 

The memorial is new and was the idea of a local heritage group. In Storm’s Edge, an engrossing and near-faultless book about ‘life, death and magic’ in Orkney between the 16th and 18th centuries, Peter Marshall, professor of history at Warwick University and himself an Orcadian, endorses the slab’s sentiments. Trawling through the records of legal proceedings for the years 1594–1708, he identified ninety-seven witches, at least eighty-one of them women. As a proportion of the total population, roughly twice as many people were convicted of witchcraft in Orkney as in Scotland as a whole. ‘It is right to recognise the cruelty and injustice of proceedings against them,’ writes Marshall, for nearly all were ‘cheust folk’ – ‘simple, uneducated people, accused of crimes they could not possibly have committed yet could not plausibly deny’.

Nearby a cottage rejoices in the name of Gallow Ha’ (‘Hall’). With a similar ‘touch of grim humour’, on the more northerly island of Westray, a cave forty feet down a cliff has been named Gentlemen’s Ha’. In 1746–7 fugitive Jacobites spent an uncomfortable winter here. The names of both places reveal what Marshall calls the
‘characteristically Orcadian blend of reverence and irony. It encapsulates the tendency in Orkney for the landscape to serve as a repository of historical memory, the transient deeds of the islanders absorbed into the enduring elements of the earth.’ 

Witches were by no means unique to Orkney: the 1563 Witchcraft Act prescribed death for witchcraft throughout Scotland and would remain in force until 1736. Nor, in what Marshall calls the ‘magical economy’ of Orkney’s seventy-odd islands, were witches exceptional. They might be in cahoots with an assortment of other troublemakers. Fairies, more capricious than benevolent, invited ‘carnal dealing’ and might swap their offspring for your own. The ‘trow’ (a relation of the Nordic troll) was a terrifying sea creature with a foal’s pelt, though it was hard to see it because it was usually swathed in seaweed. ‘Selkies’, who took their name from the Scots word for ‘seal’, presented ‘tumtation’, into which Orcadians, in a local version of the Lord’s Prayer, asked not to be led. ‘Hogboons’, on the other hand, were strictly landlubbers. Sociable creatures – often too sociable – they lived in mounds.

Mystery and magic were ubiquitous. The traffic in charms, curses and spells was so considerable that it is difficult to disentangle it from the trade in traditional cures and harmless nostrums. Many of those accused of witchcraft were betrayed by rival practitioners in the black arts, a consideration that the courts all too often overlooked. Even so, Orkney in the 16th century was neither isolated nor mouldering in medieval barbarity. Rather, it was during this ‘intellectually inquisitive century’ that Orkney was ‘drawn into first Scottish and then British systems of law, politics and religion’.

Marshall starts with the first visit to Orkney by a Scottish sovereign in 1540, some seventy years after the islands and the neighbouring archipelago of Shetland had been effectively transferred from the kingdom of Norway to the Scottish crown. Orkney, only ninety minutes from the Scottish mainland by ferry, and Shetland, another seven hours away, had much in common. Both depended heavily on trading links with Scandinavia. Their populations spoke the same Norn language, shared the same bishop (when episcopacy was permitted) and were subjected to the same succession of rapacious earls exercising authority on behalf of the crown. Now known jointly as the Northern Isles, they perplex map-makers to this day with their extreme latitudes. On maps of Britain, they require their own boxed enclosures, which are typically superimposed on the North Sea. 

The islands’ association with the Ultima Thule (‘World’s End’) of classical mythology did them no favours. Marshall objects to adjectives like ‘marginal’, ‘peripheral’ and ‘liminal’ being applied to Orkney. The coast of Greenland could fairly be called ‘remote’ and forbidding, and so too the cliff-fringed moors of Shetland, but not Orkney. There the bishop had a palace and the earls built castles. Orcadians scorned fishing because their soil was so productive. Livestock thrived and harvests were reasonably dependable. The sea frequently disgorged its bounty in the form of stranded whales, shipwrecks and soil-enriching seaweed. When the two island groups were made over to the Scottish crown, their economies were already ill-matched. Orkney was valued at sixty thousand florins, Shetland at eight thousand. 

Both nevertheless underwent the same pressures of ‘Scottification’ and then ‘Anglification’. The milestones on what Marshall calls this ‘road to modernity’ came thick and fast following the start of the English Reformation and its Knoxian counterpart in mainland Scotland. Throughout Scotland, popery was as ruthlessly suppressed as witchcraft; king and kirk vied for supremacy. Covenants came and went; so did Parliamentarians and Royalists. The deposition of King James II and VII brought more strife and led inexorably to the 1707 union of parliaments. 

The emphasis in Storm’s Edge is on how the islands’ residents adapted to all this turmoil and even exploited it. Admittedly, those who profited most were ‘ferry-loupers’ – not another supernatural species but a derogatory term for non-Orcadians who ‘had louped or leaped onto ferries … and not louped back’. For official purposes, Norn was superseded by Scots and then English. Between 1640 and 1679, only five of the thirty-five ministers appointed to Orkney parishes were Orkney-born. 

Making exemplary use of the Kirk’s records, Marshall writes with deep understanding and the deftest turn of phrase. In Edwin Muir, Eric Linklater and George Mackay Brown, Orkney already boasts a roll call of distinguished writers. The list has cheust got longer.

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