Outreach Research

Seeking stories of Orkney names for new folklore project

To mark Scotland’s Year of Stories, a new project to record Orcadian folktales is being led by Dr Ragnhild Ljosland of the UHI Archaeology Institute

To mark Scotland’s Year of Stories, a new project to record folklore attached to Orkney names is being led by Dr Ragnhild Ljosland of the UHI Archaeology Institute.

Entitled Vikings, Pirates, and Shipwrecked Princesses, the project will see Raggie work with volunteer researchers from the Orkney Blide Trust. Over the next few months, they hope to speak with as many people as possible to record stories that relate to surnames and placenames.

As well as interviewing people in person, they are also using an online survey to be sure of reaching as many potential contributors as possible.

In Orkney, many families have a story or legend that explains their surname or a placename.

In Westray, for example, there was a surname “Angel”. The story goes that a Russian ship came ashore on Westray, and the only survivor was a little boy. He couldn’t say his name, but the wrecked ship was named “Archangel” so the infant was called Archie Angel.

He grew up in Westray and later married a local girl, Jane Drever, and so Archie Angel became the ancestor of the Angels.

Another story relates to a Spanish Armada survivor called Sebastian. Orkney folk apparently found this Spanish name difficult to pronounce, so his descendants became known as the Sabistons. The Clouston family were, according to legend, descended from a baby who was found abandoned on a doorstep. He had a ball of wool – a “clew” – and a stone beside him, and therefore got the name Clew-Stone.

And why is there a place in Flotta called the King’s Hard? This is where King George V landed when visiting Flotta to inspect the troops during World War I.

Earl and the Raven (Sigurd Towrie)

The project is not limited to old stories; there are some lovely newer stories too. Maybe you have a story to tell? 

“Some of these stories are true, while others are legend, and that is fine,” explained Raggie. “In this project, the question of historical truth does not matter. Don’t worry if the story is “right” or not. This is not about family history and neither is it about correct etymology.

“The interesting thing is that people tell these stories and that they are alive in our community. If there are several slightly different versions of a story, then all the better. It also does not have to be a long story. Any snippet is valuable.  

“The aim of the project is to capture as many stories as possible and publish them. For the coming Orkney Storytelling Festival and Book Week the plan is to hold events where everyone is welcome to come and hear some of the stories that have been collected.

“After that, the plan is to upload some stories online recorded by an experienced storyteller, and finally to publish a book.”

Vikings, Pirates, and Shipwrecked Princesses is supported by the Orkney Islands Council Culture Fund and the Scottish Book Trust.

If you have a story to tell and would like to speak with Raggie in person, email shipwrecked.princesses@uhi.ac.uk to arrange a meeting. 

You can find the online survey here.