By Promote ShetlandNovember 17th 2021

Growing up, Marjolein Robertson was entranced by her father’s storytelling which brought to life the many characters described in Shetland tales. Her fascination with folklore continues to develop and here she shares some of her favourite winter stories.

Ertie and da Finnie Man

Finn, a magical being said to live on islands we can't see, wagers a Fetlar fisherman that he will not be able to catch a fish before Jül. There are continuous gales and eventually Ertie makes it out to sea, but when doing so is confronted by monstrous waves which he has to battle. Is this just another winter storm or the Finnie Man's magic at work?

Sigurd o' Gord

Crofter Sigurd goes fishing on Tulyas E'en, the winter's night when the trows are given the ability to dwell on land and their magic is most powerful. While walking home from the fishing, Sigurd is bidden to play a trowie wedding under the hills. They dance a display for him like the Mirrie Dancers. When he leaves the party and returns home everything has changed.

Da Dancing Changelings

A young couple go to a rant (parties held throughout January after Christmas) but forget to sain their children.

The youngsters appear in the byre, dancing with everyone at the party, but in an almost impossible fashion. The mother cries "God save wis, my bairns" and the children vanish, changelings. They hunt for the children and find their frozen bodies in the snow by a trowie knowe.

Herman, Saxie and da Mermaid

The giants Herman (of Hermaness) and Saxie (of Saxavord) were forever fighting by throwing rocks and roaring at one another, continuously disturbing the people of Unst.

A mermaid decides to help out the Unst folk by distracting the giants by first wooing them, then challenging them both to swim to the next land that can be found to the north, sending them both to their death in the Arctic Sea.

Sea Midder and Teran

This is said to be the oldest story from Orkney and Shetland.

Sea Midder is the oldest deity for the Northern Isles and beckons in warmth and fertility, she reigns from voar (spring) to summer. Teran is the Spirit of Winter and beats Sea Midder at the end of summer in a fight to take control and bring cold and death to Shetland and Orkney.

The cycle continues with Sea Midder defeating Teran again in March to bring in voar.

A lifelong passion for stories

As a bairn I would repeatedly ask Dad to tell me the story of the fiddler and the trows, where a fiddler is bidden to play a trowie wedding in their world under the hills. The fiddler remains there playing and enjoying himself for one night, but when he returns home, he finds 100 years have passed.

I was gripped by this tale and was forever looking for trows when out in the hills. As I grew older that story, along with many other folk and fairy tales ebbed away from my thoughts. It wasn't until I was in my mid 20s that, by chance, I picked up Ernest Marwick's Folklore of Orkney and Shetland and suddenly I learned about a world rich in magical creatures, tales and witchcraft. This world being our very own. Ever since that day I've been learning as much as I can about our folklore, from asking folk around Shetland and hunting through books. I read at first for interest, but the more I learned the more I wanted to share with others.

We have a beautiful mix in Shetland's folklore, much of it unique to ourselves and Orkney. Throughout the stories we come across some incredibly old tales and characters that may go as far back as the Picts. Then we find the presence of creatures and beliefs from our Nordic past as well as Scottish elements too.

Folklore is a wonderful tool to learn about other cultures as well as finding similarities between people from opposite ends of the earth.

I am a Shetlander, and used to love performing as part of Shetland Youth Theatre. Over the years I've been involved with creative ventures including Maddrim Media, a production company comprised entirely of teenagers, and the Heavy Metal Buffet, a podcast inspired by a passion for heavy metal music.

More recently I have turned to performing comedy full time both as a stand-up comedian and improviser spending a lot of my time south for gigs.

I was getting to a stage in comedy where I was pleased with how my gigs were going, performing full time, when lockdown came in and everyone's world changed in just a few short days. Before March 2020 I was gigging at least five nights a week. With no more work and so much uncertainty due to coronavirus I became incredibly anxious, as many did.

During this time I tried to find ways in isolation to distract myself. I always found that no matter what was happening in life, the second I walked on stage I was in a world of my own making, a safe place where you could lose yourself in your set. So I decided to start telling stories online, at first just to offer some escapism for myself and those watching.

I then found that there was an interest in Shetland from all around the world. Folklore is a wonderful tool to learn about other cultures as well as finding similarities between people from opposite ends of the earth. And there is a rich archive of Shetland stories to delve into.

During lockdown I told a Shetland folktale every night of the week, and I am currently storytelling online three nights a week. I have yet to repeat a story for repetition’s sake. All this time I've been finding a new tale every day.

I once heard that the late Shetland storyteller Lawrence Tulloch kent over 2,000 different Shetland folktales. At first I couldn't even imagine how there were so many; but with every passing day, learning a new tale, I can begin to understand just how many stories we have. There are so many more tales than I had ever expected, numerous spells and enchantments as well as so many different kinds of creatures.

Have you ever heard of the Filgee, the unseen entity that sings your song of death; or the Mukkelevi, a terrifying being that rises from the sea only ever kept at bay by our oldest deity Sea Midder? The stories don't just show the magical aspects of our home, but the historical as well. They explain practices in fishing, crofting and even courting. They show the same humour that has kept us going over times of hardships, through harsh winters and even in the face of death.

Over the course of the hairst (autumn) and winter I'll be sharing a story a month, each one tying in somewhat to the time of year it is shared.

From the story of the Fisherman Ertie and the Finnieman's wager, as Ertie desperately tries to go fishing before Yül (Christmas). Or the story set just before Christmas itself, Sigurd O' Gord, when Sigurd is taken by the trows on Tulya's E'en, a night were trows are given permission to leave their dwellings under the hill and walk upon the ground as we do.

Discover more about Shetland's storytelling traditions.

Delve into the literary archives to explore the folklore of Shetland.