A trow is a bitter, naughty fairy or spirit in the folklore traditions of the Orkney or Shetland islands. They are usually small, spiteful, suspicious creatures.
They live in burrows in the earth called “trowie knowes” and come out at night into people’s homes. They also cause havoc with the animals in the fields.
If a cow quickly becomes ill, in the north of Scotland, it is generally said to have succumbed to “elf-shot”. Injured by a stone arrow from the bow of a nasty nymph. Even though no entry mark was ever seen, some folk alleged they could find where the flesh was pierced just by rubbing their hands over the cow’s skin. The animal was often healed by certain words chanted over the cow’s head.
Another remedy was to take a cinder, from the fire, and wrap it in a page from a psalm-book and then tie it to the cow’s hair. This never failed and also gave the animal added protection from more bewitchment and further abuse.
When a new calf was born a cat was put on its neck and pulled down its back. Then, tail first, the cat was dragged up and down the sides of the mother cow. This ritual “enclosed the calf in a magic circle” thus stopping it being taken away by a trow while it was delicate and defenseless.
Although small, the trows were believed to have huge appetites. Some folk who glanced into a ‘trowie knowes’ allegedly saw a calf dead and half eaten. While others saw the identical calf lying lifeless at the bottom of a cliff, however, pushed there by a mysterious hand.
Trows lived, reared their young and died. If a trow expired during childbirth or was of a higher standard than the others, and not expected to nurse its young, they went in search of nannies. Village women who had just given birth were especially protected, by the community, so as not to be captured by the trows to nurse their young.
Many believe the trow may have originated from the, “Norwegian Troll”. Although, a troll is a huge, hideous, flesh-eating monster. The Norse landed on Orkney in the eighth century and would then have been acquainted with the Scottish tales of the impish, nasty fellow, that resided in the bowls of the earth.
It is more likely the Norse associated it with a deeper, darker beast they called a “drow” or “draugr”. This was a ‘ghost or spirit’ of the dead who usually lived, with the deceased, in the cavernous burial grounds, but could prowl among the living whenever they wanted too. Overtime ‘drow’ probably became ‘trow’ and the solemn habits of this apparition developed into the wicked antics of this elfish demon.