Querns and Kelpies

After our Weir-d Walk at the start of June, I thought I’d share some of the stories (mostly with a milling theme, of course!) which emerged from the exercise. I wanted to show how our ancestors used place and setting as a way of explaining a very mysterious world.

In a (carefully-planned) coincidence, a paranormal investigation had been organised for that same night. Barry Mill with the lights off is a very different place to the one the visitors see, as our participants discovered! Dark is very conducive to the imagination, and heightens all our senses. It’s easy to speculate that many of our folktales would have been concocted by weary travellers wending their way home at night.

Some of the stories I’ve been looking at use magical imagery to explain the sort of things we now understand. How do you account for salt water and whirlpools, for example, if you don’t have access to a scientific explanation? The Pentland Firth, the stretch of water that divides Orkney from the Mainland, is well-known for the strength and speed of  its tides. The Swelkie is a tidal race and whirlpool at the north end of Stroma. The name derives from the Old Norse term Svalga, or ‘the swallower’.

Legend has it that two giantesses (or witches in some accounts) used an enchanted quernstone to grind salt into the sea. The full story can be read here:


It’s also interesting to note the use of everyday objects and activities. Every family would have been familiar with the process of hand-milling: the woman of the house would have performed ‘the daily grind’ to provide flour or meal for the household. As such narratives were no doubt originally part of an ancient oral tradition, the content would have been readily identifiable to all. Sometimes such tales served as a message or a warning- don’t sail too close to The Swelkie, perhaps!

We have lots of tales about the hidden dangers of water. The kelpie, or water-horse, is associated with most water courses in Scotland.

It was said to carry off small children- a brilliant deterrent, and a way of keeping youngsters away from the water’s edge. In the milling tradition, the kelpie had a more benign role. Each mill was believed to have a guardian kelpie, which could be captured with the aid of a bridle stamped with a cross. The tamed beast could then be used to carry out heavy tasks such as lifting the millstones, although I can’t help thinking this may have been wishful thinking on the part of the miller!


Women with quernstone’ Woodcut from Thomas Pennant’s 1772 book A Tour in Scotland.

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