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  • Inuit in Orkney? February 2, 2013

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback


    James Wallace was minister of Kirkwall in Orkney (Scotland). In 1688 he wrote the following account, though this was not published till 1693, by which time the good minister was dead.

    Sometimes about this country are seen these men they call Finnmen. In the year 1682, one was seen in his little Boat, at the south end of the Isle of Eda, most of the people of the Isle flocked to see him, and when they adventur’d to put out a Boat with men to see if they could apprehend him, he presently fled away most swiftly. And in the year 1684, another was seen from Westra, and for a while after they got few or no Fishes for they have this Remark here, that these Finnmen drive away the fishes from the place to which they come. These Finnmen seem to be some of those people that dwell about the Fretum Davis [Davis Strait] a full account of whom may be seen in the natural and moral History of the Antilles chap. 18. One of their boats sent from Orkney to Edinburgh is to be seen in the Physitians [sic] hall, with the Oar and Art he makes use of for killing Fish.

    Later Brand (the travel writer) had this to say of the same region in 1701:

    There are frequently Finnmen seen here upon the Coasts, as one about a year ago on Stronsa and another within these few months on Westra, a Gentleman with many others in the Isle looking on him nigh to the shore, but when any endeavour to apprehend them they flee away most swiftly; which is very strange, that one Man sitting in his little Boat, should come some hundred of leagues, from their own Coasts, as they reckon Finland to be from Orkney.

    Brand goes on to show that, without any doubt, he had read Wallace. But the sightings he describes seem to be different. After all Wallace had not mentioned Stronsa and though Westra is repeated it seems to be a second Finnman episode as it was ‘within these few months’. We, therefore, have four sightings of these Finnmen in the space of about fifteen years (1682 to 1701): one on Stronsa, two on Westra and one on Eda.

    All this demands that we explain what in God’s name these Finnmen were. Here we’ve come up with four explanations found in various articles on and off line.

    1) The Finnmen were Inuit who had been blown south and who had ended in the Orkney islands.

    2) The Finnmen were Inuit who had been taken on board European ships and then thrown in the water with their kayaks when they arrived in Orkney.

    3) The Finnmen were Sami from Finland, hence the name and they had been blown southwards.

    4) The Finnmen were a Fortean phenomenon of some kind: call them fairies, illusions, delusions, mermaids, Spring Heeled Eskimos… It doesn’t much matter.

    Let’s very briefly enjoy and then dismiss each of these. (1) is the most obvious solution, but this would mean not only that the Inuit could arrive in Orkney in a kayak but that they could arrive alive: the Finnmen are seen canoeing up and down, even being able to escape their pursuers. We have looked before at the very good evidence for an Amerindian landing in Ireland in the late fifteenth century. But the two ‘crew’ there had some form of wooden boat: and may not, in any case, have arrived alive.  A kayak can stay in the water without being dried for just a few days, perhaps a week at most if well greased. It seems unlikely that an Inuit would have arrived in Orkney and then thrashed energetically around. (2) In 1720 the Dutch government put heavy fines on any ship bringing Inuit to Europe. Isn’t it possible that these were released by a Dutch crew, who on second thoughts, had decided not to risk a fine from the Dutch government? The problem here is the date – we are too early. There is also the difficulty that we need at least four Dutch ships to have let the Inuit go with their kayaks in the same way. And if you had decided to get rid of your recent Inuit captive surely you would have thrown him in the water or, if you had a heart, on land? You would not have let his valuable kayak go as well, that wasn’t illegal at any date: money is money. (3) The Sami explanation just doesn’t work. None of the descriptions is compatible with a Sami visit. (4) The Fortean explanation is problematic because Fortean explanations always are but perhaps it is the best choice. Rural societies and, in some very rare instances, urban societies, do have moments of collective intoxication (this at least is how this writer would see them) where whole groups experience peculiar phenomenon: note the fact that these Finnmen constantly escape from attempts to capture them.

    We should just finish with two further thoughts. (i) Kayaks were to be found in churches and museums throughout Scotland at this date including Orkney. (ii) Finnmen were, in Viking belief, the Sami and they were particularly associated with magic.

    Any other solutions? Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    First up is an old friend of this blog and an expert of the north, Leif:  The term ‘Finnmen’ could mean several different things, depending on the local dialect. In most of Scandinavia, it referred to people from Finland, In the Orkneys, the term referred to a fairy race, similar to the Norse huldrefolk. In North Norway ‘Finn’ used to refer to the Sami, who are of course very real.  Norway’s most northern province is called ‘Finnmark’. There, the term was common until the beginning of the 19th century (see the discussion in Buch, below– including the ‘reason’ the term fell out of use). Traditionally, these ‘Finns’ were associated with sorcery. Among other things, Finns could be ‘wind sellers’– who for a price could conjure winds favorable to sailors.  Quite possibly, the ‘Finnmen’ of Orkney and the Shetlands were a memory of the Sami, handed down from the times their ancestors lived in Norway. The Orkney Finns were also associated with magic–living under the sea or on vanishing islands, and spiriting away Christian folk. (Web reference: the folktales are worth reading). Of course, none of this explains the sightings you mention. But the term ‘Finnmen’ indicates that the Reverend Wallace associated the sightings with a phantasmagorical race.’ And here is the a longer reference from Leif:   von Buch, Leopold (author). Black, John (translator). Travels through Norway and Lapland during the years 1806, 1807, 1808. London. Henry Colburn, British and foreign public library. 1814. (available through google books. ) To this parish several hundred Laplanders settled in the interior of the Tysfiord also belong; but the Laplanders who descend from Sweden in summer are looked upon as strangers, and not included in the enumeration of the inhabitants of Lodingen. They belong to the Swedish Pastorates of Gellivara and Jockmock, both in Luleo-Lappmarck. They generally cross, the mountains about the 14th of April, and draw downwards towards the water. When they approach the sea-shore, the rein deer run in crowds to the Fiord, and immediately drink the salt water with great eagerness. This is believed by the Laplanders to be necessary for the health of their rein deer; but notwithstanding the pleasure which they find in it, these animals never drink this water more than once. The Laplanders then drive them upwards towards the mountains and upland vallies not inhabited by the Norwegians; and as the summer advances, and the snow melts, they ascend higher and higher up the mountains. By St. Oluf’s day, in the middle of August, they again leave these regions, hover for a few weeks on the borders, and bury themselves at last, in harvest, in the woods which surround the church and clergyman’s house of the pastorate. They preserve the principal part of their property, however, at their winter station, as winter is in general more convenient to transport themselves and baggage on Skyer and Pulker*, when vallies and hills are levelled, and lakes and marshes are firm. Hence every father of a family generally possesses a small building in the neighbourhood of the church, in which he deposits, during summer his valuable goods and. his winter implements. It may be easily conceived, therefore, that they consider their journey over the mountains as a real absence from their home, and consider themselves as only resident where they pass their winter, in the same manner as the citizen who passes four or five months of the year at his country-house near town looks upon himself as then absent, and does not believe himself at home again till he gets to his house in town. Those men who thus cross the mountains are called in Norway Laplanders (Lappen), probably because they are so called in Sweden ; for it appears highly singular to a stranger, that in all Norway no Laplanders are known. The people who receive this appellation from the rest of the world are called Finns (Tinner) by the Norwegians ; not in one small district alone, but from Roraas (the southernmost point inhabited by Laplanders) up to the North Cape. Moreover, as far back as the most ancient accounts go, this custom has always prevailed; and the inhabitants of the north side of the Kiolen mountains, from the White Sea down to Drontheim, have never been named Laplanders by any writer of the country, or any foreign writers who have followed them. Should we suppose therefore that the Swedish name is new, and was not used in ancient times ? This is not possible, however ; for Fundinn Noregur, an old Saga, in whom Schwinning and Suhm place great reliance, relates that Norr on his passage from Finland to Drontheim was obliged to combat the Laplanders to the north of the Bothnian gulph.* So this name was not known in the old poems from which the Saga is believed to be composed, still it was known in the twelfth century, the age of the supposed author. It has not therefore been invented in Sweden; for in that time the Swedes did not ascend as high as Lapland. Both appellations are unknown to the people themselves. It is certain, however, that if we cannot trace the origin of the custom, it creates a great deal of embarrassment when we speak of the same people, differing among themselves in no respect, under two different names. Two nations thus receive the common name of Finns, which at present, at least, have nothing in common with each other. It is an error, although affirmed by Schi6nning,j- that in Norway thoss of the nation who dwell by the sea are only called Finns, and that all those among the mountains are called Laplanders ; for those who live on the mountains of Drontheim, at Roraas, and in Nummedalen, are not called Laplanders, but Finns, although they never come near the sea; and the inhabitants of Kautokeino are metamorphosed, from Swedish Laplanders, which they were formerly, to Norwegian Finns. All the Finns are Norwegian subjects, and all the Laplanders belong to Sweden. But where the people are spoken of in general, it is no longer now allowed to call them Finns. The active and industrious inhabitants of the great principality of Finland, who have an equal right and prescription to use this name, would with reason feel a repugnance to be thrown into the same class with Laplanders. Next is JB who writes: I do not know if this is a possibility but could the Little Ice Age have anything to do with the Inuit sightings? Since the Little Ice Age pushed the Norse out of Greenland could it not have displaced some Inuit as well?’ I’m no expert unfortunately but lots of sources point to the greater cold allowing ice floes to come south. Is it possible, some argue, that the Inuit were washed out to sea and then climbed on the ice floes until their boats dried out again? Thanks JB and Leif

    21 Mar 2015: Alan F writes in ‘Was enjoying your ‘Inuit in Orkney’ post, but am surprised by your rejection of the possible Scandinavian connection.

    There has been a fair amount uncovered about the Sea Sami of late. These, apparently, were a race of seal and fish hunters who lived on the Norwegian Coast, distantly related to the reindeer-herding Sami inland.

    There was a discussion about this in the Fortean Times about 15 years ago that I can’t seem to find, which made allusion to recent discoveries by Norwegian researchers about the peripatetic nature of the Sea Sami, following migrating seals along the coasts of Scandinavia.

    Their kayak skills seem to have been as impressive as those of the Inuit. Modern day kayakers Patrick Winterton and Mick Berwick made a 256-mile paddle from Stornoway to the Faroe Isles in 2009, so perhaps visits across the North Sea to Orkney and Scotland are not so far-fetched. Some even postulate that the Sea Sami had a base on Sule Skerry, a lonely rock to the west of Orkney.

    Also, the Marischal Museum in Aberdeen has a kayak reputed to have belonged to one of these visitors from around the year 1700, which used wood rather than the whalebone used in Inuit kayaks.

    Here’s a recent book on the topic you might find interesting.’

    Thanks Alan

    29 Sep 2017: Jim writes in, ‘Hiya Dr BC. I’ve just read your article and thought I may have a piece of the puzzle. My family are from Orkney, (Sanday). We have an oral tradition that, one of our ancestors was an Inuit. The tale is of 2 brothers that were blown south. One died, one stayed in Orkney as was considered to be the best fisherman on the island. It has only been a story, until my DNA revealed that I have 6% Greenland Inuit. The family left Orkney in 1870s to peruse the whaling industry. Later to become the manager of the Leith whaling station in South Georgia. The Fin-men live on.’