In English, Scottish, and Irish mythology, mounded tombs are thought to be doorways into Faerie. Inside you might find the Unseelie court feasting and having party, and if you stayed you had to be careful not to eat anything, else you might never return. But the Norse vein in Orkney culture doesn’t really go for anything that fanciful. Orkney mythology is based in Old Norse. Orkney was part of Norway until the 15th century, and still is, technically; it’s just on loan to Scotland. Most of the place names here are derived from Orkney Norn, a dialect of Old Norse that was spoken here for a thousand years.
As for mounded tombs, instead of being a doorway into another world, here in Orkney, one must be careful of what might come out — namely, the trow.
A trow is an ugly, mischievous, little creature that resides in these ancient mounds. For years it was accepted that the word 'trow' was a linguistic corruption of the Norse word ‘troll’, but now it is thought that the pronunciation of the word “trow” is more similar to the old Orcadian word “drow", sounding more like the Old Norse "draugr", the "again-walker".
The pagan Norse believed that a body placed in its grave continued to live on. A "draugr" is this reanimated corpse. Like the trow, the draugr generally remained inside its burial mound, but was free to leave and wander among the living at will.
In days past, trows were said to be frequent night-time visitors to the house. Once a household had retired for the night, the trows would enter the building and sit by the glowing fire. Numerous tales recount how the terrified farmer and his wife would lie in bed listening to their unwanted guests scuttling around in the other end of the house. But you mustn't ever lock your door. Trows hated locked doors.
In Norse tradition, the ghosts of the family's predecessors had to be welcomed into the house - a custom particularly prevalent at Yule, when later tradition has the trows at their most active and dangerous. At this time of the year, one of the last preparations on Yule Eve was to unlock every lock in the house.
Maybe these stories of the dead coming in and out of the tombs is a remnant of the old practice of actually bringing the dead in and out of the tomb.
One of the big archaeological mysteries in Orkney is what was the Neolithic peoples’ relationship with their dead. Inside the mounded tombs, nineteenth-century archaeologists found only bones decoratively laid out. It's possible they practiced sky burial, in which the dead are laid outside on stone slabs and the birds and animals first pick them clean. It's also possible that they visited their dead frequently and moved them around, perhaps even brought them outside of the tomb on occasion like that culture in modern day Indonesia where corpses remain part of the family for many years.
We visited something called an earth house today, an underground chamber dating back to the Neolithic period. For a long time they were thought to be cold cellars, but there is no reason to go to the trouble of building one underground when Orkney’s average summertime temperature is 55 degrees. Now they think these were places for the dead, and that later inhabitants of Orkney, the Picts and the Norse, built their homes and farms around them so they could keep their dead close, sometimes right inside the house; and perhaps this was the practice of those who came before them. But it’s all just guess work. Nobody really knows. Maybe the trow is an expression of the collective guilt of not moving about the dead anymore. Another theory is that it was the Christian church that drove out the practice of welcoming the dead, specifically at Yule, and that the once-welcomed spirits of the family's dead were demonized and made into malevolent little creatures.
I'll be visiting more tombs today on the Island of Rousay. More to come.