Finfolk, Finmen, Saami or Inuit or both? Orkney Experiences, encounters with ”Finns”

Documented Finmen sightings

”Our skin-sewed Fin-boats lightly swim,
Over the sea like wind they skim.
Our ships are built without a nail;
Few ships like ours can row or sail.”

The above account, from the Heimskringla, or Chronicle of the Kings of Norway, refers to the vessels of the ”Laplanders” – boats which were constructed ”with deer sinews, without nails and with withes of willow instead of knees.”

Like the vessels of the Finfolk, these boats were so light that no ship could overtake them in the water.

This account, written in the late 12th or early 13th century, shows that the skin-boats had made an impact on the mind of the Vikings. This alone provides a good link to the folklore of the finfolk, but around 400 years later there came an interesting twist in the development of the legends.

In the 17th century, Orkney saw a spate of sightings around Orkney of people referred to in the contemporary accounts as “Finn-men”.

These kayak-paddling visitors were seen in Orkney and Shetland on a number of occasions and possibly resulted in new elements being grafted onto the existing finfolk and selkie-folk mythology.

For example, one was seen off Eday in 1682, but rowed away quickly when the islanders tried to catch him. In 1684 another was sighted off Westray and a ”Finn-man’s boat” was once housed in the Burray Kirk.

The paddlers were renowned for the speed of their vessels, and accounts of fruitless chases by the islanders were obviously the root of the traditions surrounding the finman and his unparalleled rowing ability. The kayak also accounts for folklore’s insistence that the finman’s magical boat travelled with no sail.

For examples of these sightings, click here.


PICTURE: Same site

Copyright © Sigurd Towrie, 1996-2015

Long ago, at the Lammas fair in Kirkwall, a boatman from the island ofSanday agreed with a dark stranger to ferry a cow to one of the North Isles.

The payment for the task was double the usual fare, so the boatman leaped at the opportunity and accepted.

Remaining silent, and much to the boatman’s surprise, the stranger hoisted his cow into his arms and was strong enough to carry the animal aboard the boat.

The stranger turned out to be a man of very few words, but as each island passed he ordered the bemused boatman to pass to the east of it.

The boatman, perplexed as to their final destination, asked his glowering passenger where they were heading..

”A close tongue keeps a safe head” snorted the dark man.

As they finally passed Sanday, a dense thick fog enveloped the boat and then thinned rapidly. When the fog cleared, in the evening sunlight lay an enchanted land. Sweet music could be heard as mermaids sang at the thought that one of them would now get a human husband.

The boatman immediately realised that the stranger was one of the dreaded Finmen. The mermaids’ lilting melodies soon turned to screeching wails when they learned the boatman was already married and had a family.

The boatman was blindfolded as the boat was pulled ashore on the enchanted island. The Finman’s cow was carefully landed and payment, in the form of a bag of coins, dropped into the bottom of the boat. Later on the boatman discovered that all the coins were of copper, for as it is well known, the Finmen cannot bring themselves to part with their beloved silver.

Having settled the account, the Finman turned the boat withershins (against the course of the sun), a thing no human mariner would permit.

Angered by his treatment, the boatman tore the blindfold from his eyes butonce again found himself to be surrounded by a magical mist. As he sailed the mist cleared and soon, from the starboard, he saw his home island of Sanday again.

A year passed uneventfully.

Then, at the next Lammas Fair, the boatman once again met the dark stranger and asked him to drink a cog of ale with him.

”I’m blithe to see you” said the boatman, taking a long draught from his ale.

A grim look came over the stranger’s dark and gloomy face. ”Did you ever see me?” he snapped. ”You’ll never have to say again that you saw me.”

As he spoke, the Finman pulled out a box with some powder in it and blew some into the boatman’s eyes. From that moment on, the boatman was blinded and remained so for the remainder of his life.