The Knowe o’ Dale at Quandale, Rousay, is a large Bronze Age crecentric burnt mound. But did you know it is also a ‘trowie knowe’ – occupied by trows who do their best to lure strangers into their lair. I tell visitors the following story, ‘Jock in the Knowe’, and also advise them to dance a jig on the crest of the knowe so they do not fall foul of the trows’ dark intentions!
Two Rousay men were on their way home one evening from the fishing. The road they took went past a knowe. When they got near the knowe they thought they could hear music. On coming closer they could make out the sound of bagpipes coming from inside. They went round the mound, but could see nothing. Just as they were about to go, they saw a door standing open in the side of the knowe. They went to see what was inside, still carrying their heavies of fish on their backs. The one man had his knife in his hand and he stuck it above the door as he went in. His companion didn’t have a knife, but he went in as well.
As they stepped inside, and their eyes grew accustomed to the dark, they saw a host of fairies dressed in blue and white, dancing. The one man said, “Boy, Jock, it’s time to go.” He turned around, took his knife from above the door and left. His friend did not have a knife, and without steel he had no power to escape. The door closed and he was left inside. His friend got a party of men together and went to look for the knowe, but they could not find it.
A year later the same man was on his way home from the fishing once again. His journey took him on the same road as it had done the year before. Again he heard music, and found the knowe where he had lost his friend. He ran home and got two knives and an iron hoop from an old barrel and went back to the knowe as fast as he could. When he arrived he found the door, and there he saw Jock in the same place as he had left him, still with the heavie of fish on his back. He stuck the two knives above the door, entered, and threw the hoop right over Jock. As he did this the fairies all disappeared and the door closed when the two men came out. Jock thought that he had only been in the knowe for a few minutes, and it took some time to convince him that it was not so.
The fairies all set sail in eggshells across the sea. The ones from the parish of Sourin were crossing the Westray Firth to Westray when their eggshell boats sank, and they were all drowned. From that day forward there have been no fairies seen in Rousay.
Credit goes to Orkney Museum Exhibitions Officer Tom Muir for allowing me to reproduce this from his book ‘The Mermaid Bride and other Orkney folk tales.’ – the original being in Duncan J Robertson’s ‘Orkney Folklore’, published in Vol II Proceedings of the Orkney Antiquarian Society, 1923-24.