‘The Ministry and Magic In Early Modern Orkney’

By Bernie Bell

I check the Orkney Archaeology Society Facebook page https://en-gb.facebook.com/OrkneyArchaeologySociety/  most days.  I’m not on Facebook so I can’t interact with it, but I can look at what’s there and click on links which look interesting.  When I saw this, I was definitely interested….


It’s an on-line talk by Professor Peter Marshall of the University of Warwick,  hosted by the Institute for Northern Studies, UHI, entitled ‘The Ministry and Magic In Early Modern Orkney’, and the content is described thus…..

“This paper explores practices and attitudes around access to supernatural power in early modern Orkney, from the later sixteenth century to the beginning of the nineteenth. It seeks to ask what parish ministers thought of the persistence of magical beliefs within their congregations, and also what people in those congregations may have thought of the powers and potential of their ministers. The investigation involves a new look at the Orkney witch trials, and the significance of an unusually close connection in the islands between witchcraft accusations and healing practices of various kinds. It also considers the extent to which the slow demise and prolonged afterlife of the Norn language helped shape an alternative world of custom and belief, inviting comparison with other places where Protestant reform took place in a bi-lingual society. Challenging the conventional notion that the Reformation in Orkney was a bit of a non-event, the paper examines how profound, but often unexpected, patterns of cultural change were shaped in the prolonged encounter between clerical incomers and indigenous parishioners.”

And that’s what caught my interest.  I’m not Orcadian, I’m of Irish descent, and am from a long line of people who might be considered to be….different, including some with abilities such as healing – whether etheric, herbal or both.

I’m not aware of any of my ancestors or family having been in trouble about this – the Irish can more accepting of the old ways than some nations are.  This might have been helped by the mystical aspects and rituals of Catholicism sometimes being akin to and being layered onto the old beliefs. My Mum splashing us with Holy Water in a thunder storm and asking for protection for us.

I’m reminded of a story by T.H. Whyte  – ‘The Godstone and the Blackymor’ in which an old stone figurine was viewed with suspicion by the clergy to the point where it’s said that a priest had it smashed and thrown into the sea. The people quietly rescued it, and carried on reverencing it.  https://leavesandpages.com/2015/01/03/the-godstone-and-the-blackymor-by-t-h-white/

I have previously written of the attitude of the clergy to people who were labelled witches – often folk who were just…… different, or who had a lot of knowledge, but knowledge which those with more limited minds found intimidating, and therefore not to be tolerated.  https://theorkneynews.scot/2019/10/04/when-people-put-people-outside-the-pale-outside-society/

There have been a number of articles in The Orkney News about the Orkney Witch Trials…. https://theorkneynews.scot/?s=Orkney+Witch+trials

And the writings of George Mackay Brown often feature a blending of the old and new beliefs and ways of being.  In ‘Greenvoe’ the old observances carry the people right through the destruction caused by ‘progress’ and ‘development’.

This is a huge subject, which I think I’ll leave to those who have actually researched it to go into more fully.  I’ll finish with a song by ‘The Unthanks’…..

“Now, the priest he says we’re wicked
To worship the devil’s bird
Ah but we respect the old ways
And we disregard his word.”

.Pentagram in Happy Valley, Orkney

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