Orkney Outreach Research

Raggie’s quest for tales of places and surnames

Dr Ragnhild Ljosland updates us on her "Vikings, Pirates, and Shipwrecked Princesses" project.

By Ragnhild Ljosland

Bay of Skaill, Orkney

It’s getting to the stage of this research project now where I have turning into my research subject – a shipwrecked princess!

Vikings, Pirates, and Shipwrecked Princesses is in its sixth month and my spreadsheet contains 200 stories – short and long legends about how different families and places in Orkney got their names. I have been around islands and heritage centres, holding storytelling events and speaking with people who have supplied me with stories.

Last week, I went to Westray to hold a story sharing session, in collaboration with the Westray Heritage Centre.

This event was one of a series in which a local community hall or heritage centre invites people to come and listen to some of the stories I have gathered in the project. The participants also get an opportunity to tell me about any stories they know and have them included in the big spreadsheet and eventually the planned book.

Westray again showed itself to be a welcoming community and I had a good day in the heritage centre and walking about trying to find locations where legends are set. However, the day had an unexpectedly dramatic ending when the ferry ran aground! I was on the pier ready to board when the ferry stopped instead of docking. There was confusion on the pier, with people phoning and trying to find out what was happening.

At this point, I worried I wouldn’t get home and had nowhere to stay overnight. But I needn’t have worried! The Westray community rallied around the “shipwrecked princess” and made sure I was very well looked after until Orkney Ferries were able to send a replacement vessel. Heartwarming!

Rackwick bay, north of Pierowall in Westray. (Ragnhild Ljosland)
Rackwick, Westray. (Ragnhild Ljosland)

Rackwick bay, north of Pierowall in Westray, is the setting of two legends. It is where the Russian ship Archangel was wrecked, whose only survivor was a baby boy, who was tied to his mother in a shawl.

The infant was found by the inhabitants of Sea Quoy and Wheelin Stane, adopted and named Archie Angel. From him came the Angel family. Out in the sea off Rackwick, there is also a good fishing spot called the Gullie Bank. This, according to legend, is where two fishermen accidentally lost a knife – a “gullie” – in the sea, which they had taken off a sheep thief on the kelp green earlier that morning.

Now that I have 200 tales collected, I have tagged them for themes and patterns have started to become apparent.

It is evident that stories gravitate towards and cluster around defining moments in history. These clusters form a collective tale of cultural memory, showing what people in Orkney feel are the important events in history; how Orkney connects to the countries around them such as Scotland, England, Scandinavia, mainland Europe, and Russia; and how Orkney understands its own cultural identity.

An early cluster on this mythological timeline centres on the encounters between Picts and Vikings, where several families are said to stem from those engaged in the initial battle, who, afterwards, received a share of land, or else from the Old Norse gods.

Shipwrecked Norwegian princesses also turn up here, in a vaguely defined Norse-Medieval period, as do other characters associated with the Norse, such as warriors and chieftains and the famous pirate Sveinn (Sweyn) Asleifarson.

There are stories which relate to the change from Catholicism to Protestantism – a large cluster within these being tales of the Spanish Armada, its various wreck sites and survivors.

Many places with “don” in the name commemorate the conflict between Spain and England and wrecking of the Armada in 1588, and several Orkney families tell of their descent from one of the survivors.

The name Muir, for example, is said to be from a Moor, a Muslim on board one of the Catholic Armada ships, who was shipwrecked on Start Point in Sanday, while the Sabiston family supposedly comes from Sebastian, from a survivor who came ashore at Yolnageo, in Yesnaby, on the West Mainland.

Another set of tales in the Reformation Era concern the Covenanters, who had been arrested and sent on the ship The Crown to be sold in America as slaves. This ship was wrecked off Deerness and several families count their descent from its survivors.

These people were in danger of recapture, so they took on new names, either from the place they landed or by altering their old names, and went on to start a new life in Orkney.

Raggie (left) at a story sharing session in the Sanday Heritage Centre on July 9, 2022.

In the 18th century, Orkney became embroiled in the Jacobite rebellion.

The tall tales of adventurous escapes from capture by King George’s soldiers have given us names such as Gentlemen’s Cave (Westray), Gentlemen’s Geo (Westray) and Patie’s Hole (Stronsay).

Legendary Jacobite heroes from Scottish folklore turn up in Orkney too, with their own Orkney twist. Notably the famous Allan “Breck” Stewart, who, in Scottish legend, is said to have escaped to either France or Ireland. In Orkney he is said to have found a new life on Swona, where to protect himself he changed his name around to Stewart Allan and became the ancestor of the Allans.

It has been great fun to collect these tales and to go around different isles and halls to tell them.

Raggie (left) and professional storyteller Marita Lück (right) at Orkney College for a #BookWeekScotland event. Marita gave a glittering performance of myths, of a dragon tamer, the Fin Folk, women with magical powers, and Norse gods, all giving names to places around Orkney. We also had a similar event with Neil Leask in South Ronaldsay a few days before, which focused more on family legends.

This week, we celebrated #BookWeekScotland and the Scottish Book Trust had chosen Scotland’s Stories as the theme for the 2022 festival as part of the larger celebration of the Year of Scotland’s Stories.

For Book Week we invited a professional storyteller, Marita Lück, to Orkney College. Not only did she bring stories from the project collection to life with a spirited and vivid performance, she also contributed by doing her own research and bringing in stories that I had not yet collected.

Marita’s main interest lies in mythology and fairy tales, and there are some of these in the Orkney naming-legends too. Marita, among other things, told a lovely tale of how Carlin Skerry in Orphir was made by women who carried stones for the building of St Magnus Cathedral in their aprons.

As part of the project, I have had the immense pleasure of collaborating with Orkney Blide Trust.

This is a membership organisation promoting good mental health, and they have kindly taken on Vikings, Pirates, and Shipwrecked Princesses as an activity that members can opt into.

A group of members joined me as assistant researchers, and they have come out on visits to interview people and capture stories. They have also helped take notes and transcribe.

An important aim of the project is to share the stories with the community, and one of the ways in which we are doing this is through audio recordings.

Not the raw data recordings with members of the public who have contributed stories, but rehearsed recordings made for uploading online.

Orkney Blide Trust members and I recorded a radio theatre version of the tale of how Snoosgarth, by the Bay of Skaill, Sandwick, got its name. We used a theatre script dramatised by Aine King, from Tom Muir’s book The Mermaid Bride.

We all had great fun getting into character as the Spae Wife and the Fin King, but even greater fun going out to the beach to record sound effects of waves lashing, the screams of terrified people as the Fin King attacked, the roar of the monster, and the smashing of ale kegs. Intrigued?

Why not listen to the story …

Chris Kelly in the process of recording sound effects for a radio theatre version of the tale of how Snoosgarth was named.

If, after reading this, you can think of a legend about how a family or place in Orkney was named, you can contribute to the project by writing it in the online survey, here: https://uhi.onlinesurveys.ac.uk/vikings-pirates-and-shipwrecked-princesses-2