The Orkney Finnmen Legends From Early Modern Science to Modern Myth

At the end of the 17th century there appeared the first noting of a mysterious kayak-paddling “Finnman” seen in Orkney waters. Jonathan Westaway explores the subsequent explanations and how early modern science's fascination with unfamiliar objects, and the “out-of-place” in general, helped conjure the idea of an Inuit presence in the region and, in turn, a new chapter of Scottish folklore.


November 11, 2020

orkney map 17th century

Map of Orkney featured in Description of the Islands of Orkney and Zetland ( 1711) published by Sir Robert Sibbald — Source.

Published in Edinburgh in 1693, A Description of the Isles of Orkney by the Rev. James Wallace of Kirkwall, Orkney, contains the first known mention in print of the term “Finnmen”, although what the text meant by the term Finnmen was unclear. Enigmatic and compelling, the text of the Description seems to imply a connection between these Finnmen sightings and the idea of Inuit peoples being present in Orkney waters, hinting at an unheimlich form of reverse colonization, a preternatural encounter with Arctic cultures and peoples. It is an account that appears to reverse the flow of empire’s relentless western expansion, a piece of historical antimatter that has led to endless speculation by antiquarians, folklorists, and historians in later centuries. Various theories were proposed to explain how the Inuit could have possibly got to Orkney: some suggested that they might have travelled autonomously, island-hopping across the North Atlantic. Others drew attention to the well documented widespread practice of abducting Inuit for commercial and scientific purposes in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Some were not convinced of such far-flung origins, and argued that “Finnmen” referred to “Finns” from Finland or Finnmark in Norway, others that it signified a lost autochthonous race. Whatever the explanation, the Finnmen legend has long since embedded itself into the folkways of the Northern Isles, underpinning regional identity and a sense of exceptionalism in Orkney.

The Description reports that “Sometime about this Country are seen these men which are called Finnmen”. The text mentions an eyewitness seeing one sailing and rowing a little boat at the south end of the island of Eday who fled when the inhabitants chased him in boats. Soon afterwards, another was seen from the island of Westray and “for a while after they got few or no fishes”. The Description then speculates that “these Finnmen seem to be some of these people that dwell about the Fratum Davis”,1 a reference to the Davis Strait that lies between Greenland and Baffin Island, Arctic islands populated by Inuit peoples. The Description cites a textual authority, Charles de Rochefort’s 1658 Histoire naturelle et morale des îles Antilles de l'Amerique, a book with a complex and obscure publishing history with very little to say about the Inuit.2 The author of the Description concludes his observations on the Finnmen by saying: “One of their boats sent from Orkney to Edinburgh is to be seen in the Physistians hall with the Oar and the Dart he makes use of for killing Fish.”3

In 1700, the Rev. James Wallace’s son, Dr James Wallace F.R.S., published An Account of the Islands of Orkney, an extensive reworking of his father’s published text that further embedded the notion that Finnmen could be equated with the Inuit. Dr Wallace speculated that “they must probably be driven by Storms from home” but was not explicit about where that home was. He then described an Inuit kayak, noting “their Boat being made of Fish Skins, are so contrived that he can never sink, but is like a Sea-gull swimming on the top of the Water. His shirt he has is so fastned to the Boat, that no Water can come into his Boat to do him damage.” He concludes by noting that a full account of the Finnmen can be found in Rochefort’s “L'histoire naturelle & moralle des Antilles Chap.18.” He further expanded on the account contained in the Description by concluding that “One of their Boats which was catched in Orkney, was sent from thence to Edinburgh, and is to be seen in the Physicians Hall, with the Oar and Dart he makes use of for killing Fish”,4 subtly altering the words of the Description, seemingly implying the boat was “caught” in Orkney waters in pursuit of the Finnmen.

inuit kayaker in rochefort

A kayaker encountered in the Davis Strait, as pictured in Charles de Rochefort's Histoire naturelle et morale des iles Antilles de l'Amerique (1658) — Source.

And thirdly, in 1701 the Rev. John Brand of Bo’ness published A Brief Description of Orkney, Zetland, Pightland-Firth & Caithness, the work deriving from a visitation to Orkney and Shetland he undertook on behalf of the Church of Scotland. Replicating some of the chorographic and antiquarian interests seen in both Rev. Wallace’s Description and Dr Wallace’s Account, Brand’s focus was on the incompleteness of the Reformation in the Northern Isles and the survival of “Popery” and superstition. Brand’s Brief Description contains an account of the Finnmen story that is largely a reformulation of Dr Wallace’s narrative, reproducing information about Inuit skin-on-frame kayaks and a description of the kayak roll. Adding to the speculation about their origins, Brand commented on how strange it was that the Finnmen could travel from Finland, “sitting in his little Boat”. He describes them as “Finland-men” as well as “Finmen”,5 encouraging subsequent commentators to speculate that Finnmen could be linked via the Norse diaspora with the Finns/Lapps (Saami) of northern Norway and Finland.

By 1701 these three books had firmly established the idea that Inuit and perhaps other Arctic indigenous peoples had been encountered in Orkney waters. These three source texts form the sole basis for the Finnmen legends, contributing to a distinctive mythos in the Northern Isles that survives to the present day, with explanations of “who” or “what” Finnmen were hovering between the mystical and the mundane. Across the Northern and Western Isles today you can find local history books that generously mix fact and folklore, claiming, for instance, that the Norse Lords of the Isles resettled Inuit on remote islands in the Hebrides or that the Finnmen were a lost band of Inuit blown south by storms who settled on the remote islet of Suleskerry. Driven by the Norse and Celtic revivals in the nineteenth century, folklorists in Orkney and Shetland incorporated the Finnmen legends into a programme of cultural self-assertion and regional distinctiveness that still animates an Orcadian sense of identity today. Adam Grydehøj has demonstrated the ways in which these early modern accounts of Finnmen were used by folklorists to construct new supernatural mythologies for Orkney and Shetland. Grydehøj suggest that by 1881, the German-born anthropologist and linguist Karl Blind had conflated early modern accounts of mer-folk, seal people, sea trows, and Finns to create a very modern mythology, one in which “Finns are swift rowers who chase after other boats; they are ‘deeply versed in magic spells’; and their ability to manoeuvre at sea is granted by a certain ‘wrappage’ that they can take on and off.”6 Karl Blind also extended the range of these highly modern “magical” Finnmen from Orkney to include Shetland.

scotland myth fairytale sealfolk

Illustration by John Duncan of "seal-folk", as pictured in Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend by Donald A. Mackenzie — Source.

Writing on the Celtic Revival in Scotland in the late nineteenth century, Mark Williams has noted how folklorists developed new genres that generously mixed fact and fiction with a “fondness for the dim, the shadowy, and the evanescent”, a literature that “preferred to stitch eclectic scraps together, hinting at connections and allowing allusions to hover.”7 The Scottish folklorist David MacRitchie was perhaps the greatest exponent of this art of allusion, incorporating the Finnmen legends into a unified theory of Scottish prehistory that linked folklore with the archaeology of the Northern Isles. Influenced by the speculations of Karl Blind a decade before him, MacRitchie developed what became known as Ethnological or Pygmy Theory, subsequently known as Fairy Euhemerism. As Williams explains, Fairy Euhemerism was a “then-prevalent anthropological theory that belief in fairies arose from memories of a dark, diminutive Bronze Age people – ‘pygmies’ – who had been displaced by Iron Age invaders.”8 The Finnmen accounts were part of the evidence that MacRitchie marshalled for the existence of a dwarf-like autochthonous race in northern Britain.

MacRitchie's key works disseminating these theories were The Testimony of Tradition (1890) and Fians, Fairies and Picts (1893). The first chapter of The Testimony of Tradition deals with the Wallace and Brand accounts of the Finnmen and a large part of the book is devoted to establishing that these accounts referred to encounters (and memories of encounters) with autochthonous “Finns” coming from the coast of Norway around Bergen. Much of this argument relied on attempting to establish the evidence for skin-boat technology in Northern Europe, arguments MacRitchie pursued in two journal articles, the first in 1890 in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and subsequently in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland in 1912.

In The Testimony of Tradition, MacRitchie suggests that the Finnmen of legend “were somewhat connected to the Lapps or Eskimos, but were a distinct race because of their very long beards”,9 concluding that they were even more like the Ainu of Hokkaido. In MacRitchie's view the indigenous population of Britain were a quasi-Inuit Ainu-like race responsible for much of the Neolithic and Iron Age archaeology of Britain and Ireland. A double-page illustration from the Illustrated London News for 1922 demonstrates the pervasiveness of MacRitchie’s theories. It shows a conclave of hairy “brownies” (a Scots term for fairies) labouring by moonlight to erect an Iron-Age broch, citing as its authority that “most interesting book, ‘The Testimony of Tradition’, by David MacRitchie” that “gives an exhaustive account of the Finns, Feine, Picts, brownies and fairies – all the same people, whose strange doings are the basis of folklore in Northern Britain”.10

macritchie brownies

Illustration by Amédée Forestier depicting “The Original Brownies”, published in the Illustrated London News, December 30th 1922 — Source.

MacRitchie’s attempts to historicize folklore both ignored the stratigraphic techniques in archaeology being pioneered at the time by W. M. Flinders Petrie and General A. H. L. F. Pitt Rivers which enabled the establishment of accurate chronologies in prehistory, and preceded V. Gordon Child’s work at Skara Brae in Orkney in 1928 and 1930 which used artefact dating methods to distinguish cultural horizons. For MacRitchie, so fond of the “dim, the shadowy, and the evanescent”, all time was mythic time; the Neolithic and the Iron Age were not discrete and distant periods but were a continuum with the present. MacRitchie also never questioned the veracity of the Wallaces’ and Brand’s accounts or sought to apply modern philological techniques to the texts. MacRitchie’s speculations attempted to explain the presences of Inuit or “Inuit-like” people in Orkney, an idea he absorbed unquestioningly from the 1693 Description. Ironically, for folklorists like MacRitchie, the testimony of tradition and the oral culture he prized so much ultimately rested on the veracity of texts, texts that were the highly unreliable product of early modern scientific textual practices. Nineteenth-century antiquarians and folklorists reliant on these texts failed to understand the extent to which contemporary scientific notions of objectivity were not necessarily the epistemic virtues practiced by early modern science. As we shall see, early modern science was not free from the temptation to argue from authority. Above all it was the misuse of textual authority, perpetuating narrative errors, that has shaped the Finnmen mythos to the present day.

Nineteenth century antiquarians and folklorists were largely unaware of the context surrounding the publication of A Description of the Isles of Orkney in 1693. It formed part of a proposed Scottish national geography, undertaken by the dedicatee of the Description, Sir Robert Sibbald F.R.S., a founder member and subsequent president of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. Sibbald, along with his cousin Sir Andrew Balfour, had founded the Edinburgh botanical garden in 1667 and both men conformed to the pattern of natural historians and scientific virtuosi. Both had collected large cabinets of natural history specimens, with Balfour’s collection sold upon his death in 1694 to the Town Council of Edinburgh. The catalogue of the Museum Balfoureanum, written by Sibbald, contains the entry “A Fin-Man’s Boat from Orkney. Vid. Mor. Hist:des Antilles.”11 Sibbald’s cabinet of natural history specimens was sold in the same way in 1697 as the Museum Sibbaldiano.

In 1682, the same year he was made physician-in-ordinary to King Charles II, Sibbald was appointed Geographer Royal for Scotland and immediately began requesting geographical information for a proposed two volume geography of Scotland, sending out questionnaires to a vast network of correspondents, one of whom was Rev. James Wallace of Kirkwall.

We know that Wallace’s manuscript of the Description was extant in 1684 (almost a decade before its publication), and it was almost certainly commissioned by Sibbald as part of his nation-building geographical survey. Upon Wallace’s death in 1688 the manuscript was edited and subsequently published by Sibbald. The 1693 version of the text reflected Sibbald’s interests as a polymath and collector, subtly amending what Wallace had written through the addition of scholarly commentary and glosses. Wallace’s original manuscript account of the Finnmen sightings states simply:

Sometyme about this Countrey are seen these men which they call Finmen. Tuo years agoe one wes seen sometym sailing sometym rowing up & dooun in his litle Boat, att the south end of the Ile of Eda. Most of the people of the Ile flocked to see him, & when they adventured to putt out a Boat with men to see iff they could apprehend him, he presentlie fled away most swiftlie. This same year another wes seen from westra, since which tyme they have gott few or no fishes: for they have this Remarque heer that these finnmen drive away the fishes from the place to which they come.12
Wallace orkney 1684 manuscript

Title page, complete with pipe-smoking initial, for Rev. Wallace's original 1684 manuscript — Source.

There is no mention in Wallace’s manuscript of “the people that dwell about the Fratum Davis”,13 the Physicians’ Hall kayak or Rochefort’s Histoire naturelle et morale: these were added to the text in the published 1693 Description, then repeated and embellished by subsequent authors. What purpose was served by the editor of the 1693 version in making these additions? Why did he posit Orkney’s connections to the wider Arctic, lean on the authority of Rochefort’s text, and introduce the Physicians’ Hall kayak into the text?

One answer has to do with authority. Stephen Shapin has identified the “role of trust in building and maintaining cognitive order”14 in early modern science. He argues that trust was derived from gentlemanly codes of conduct that ensured scientific credibility in day-to-day scientific practice, a credibility founded on identifiable witness testimony. Wallace’s original manuscript lacks this, naming none of the purported witnesses on Eday or Westray. By 1693, Sibbald lacked any further eyewitness testimony. His account was at a further step removed from Wallace’s, from a second-hand account to a third-hand retelling. This presented both a problem and an opportunity, which Sibbald met by introducing the authority of other bodies of knowledge – both Rochefort’s text and tangible objects from the Arctic.

The Physicians’ Hall kayak, and Sibbald’s treatment of it, provide a useful vessel for examining the role of the artefact in early modern thought and the habit of “thinking with things” in early modern science. Lorraine Daston has noted that such artetacts “helpfully epitomize and concentrate complex relationships that cohere without being logical in the strict sense.”15 Daniel Carey has used the term “cargo-driven curiosity” to describe the way in which artefacts drove scientific enquiry and speculation, concluding that often “it was not the Royal Society that directed travel, but rather travel directed the Royal Society”, the course of knowledge being “radically open to suggestion”.16

Inuit artefacts were probably not uncommon in seventeenth-century Orkney, as its two main settlements Kirkwall and Stromness acted as the first European entrepôts for returning Dutch and Danish-Norwegian whalers. As such Orkney was well situated to access material objects from the Arctic, becoming a potent site of contact with polar artefacts, the source of a cargo-driven curiosity amongst natural philosophers whose ways of doing science involved thinking with objects. All mythologies have their totem objects and for the scientific virtuosi of Europe, the Inuit kayak, like the Narwhal tusk before it, offered sensuous contact with the Polar sublime. The kayak had the additional quality of being more than just a stand-alone object; to the astounded sixteenth-century Europeans who first encountered the craft being paddled by the Inuit in the Arctic, it seemed to be a theriomorph: half-man, half-fish, a blurring of human/animal boundaries, a preternatural object. The Inuit kayak was thus a powerful object to slip in alongside Wallace’s account, a physical “fact” that seems to cement the Inuit presence in the text. While Sibbald doesn’t go as far to say that the kayak in Edinburgh’s “Physistians hall” is directly related to Wallace’s Finnman sightings (he only states that it came from Orkney, not from Inuit encountered in Orkney, nor yet from Wallace’s particular Finnmen), the subsequent versions of the Finnmen account by Dr James Wallace and Rev. James Brand soon elaborated on Sibbald’s hint and assumed the Inuit presence as a given.

macritchie aberdeen kayak

Images from David MacRitchie's 1912 article “Kayaks of the North Sea” of the so-called “Aberdeen Kayak”. It was supposedly captured off the east Scottish coast “with an Indian man in it” at the beginning of the 18th century, however, actual evidence of the event and the kayak's origins is scant to say the least — Source.

We must also bear in mind the vastly different epistemological framework that operated in early modern science. The Baconian injunction to study the irregular, the heteroclite and the monstrous, had seen the creation across Europe of cabinets of curiosities like those owned by Sibbald and Balfour in Edinburgh. Francis Bacon had called for such collections “as a corrective to the ingrained tendency of scholastic natural philosophers to generalize rashly from a handful of commonplace examples.”17 This emphasis on oddities tended to subvert empiricism and led to anomalies, singularities, and monstrosities becoming more central than might be warranted. According to Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, “By the early eighteenth century . . . leading naturalists had begun to worry that the search for natural regularities was being overwhelmed by excessive scientific attention to nature’s excesses.”18 These excesses tended to “cluster at the margins rather than at the centre of the known world, and they constituted a distinct ontological category, the preternatural.”19 Preternatural objects were thus the stock-in-trade of scientific correspondence, although in the period in question, their utility was increasingly questioned.

The way that oddities and “out-of-place” things informed scientific speculation can be demonstrated by a paper authored by Sir Hans Sloane in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, published on January 1, 1695. Entitled “An Account of Four Sorts of Strange Beans, Frequently Cast on Shoar on the Orkney Isles, with Some Conjectures about the Way of Their Being Brought Thither from Jamaica”, Sloane’s paper references both Wallace’s Description (1693) and Sibbald’s work on natural history. According to James Delbourgo, natural philosophers like Sloane characterized the “Atlantic as a providential medium connecting the Old World and the New”,20 its oceanic currents and winds bringing natural items from the Caribbean to the furthest shores of the British Isles. Orkney was understood to be the site of trans-oceanic convergence and circulation, a place where you could encounter preternatural instances of fauna and flora from both the tropics and the Arctic. Sloane’s “Account” of 1695 also describes South American canoes and bodies washed up in the Azores, indicating an active interest amongst members of the Royal Society in the possibility of trans-oceanic voyages being undertaken by colonized indigenes from the New World – raising the tantalizing possibility of autonomous indigenous travel against the dominant Western currents of trade and empire. While such voluntary eastward migration in the seventeenth century remains speculation, what is certain is that many Inuit were brought to Europe against their will throughout the early modern period. They were frequently maltreated and died very quickly of endemic diseases against which they had little or no immunity. It is difficult to estimate the total numbers of Inuit abducted but the practice became so rife that the Dutch States General had to pass a law against the murder and kidnapping of Inuit in 1720.

abducted inuit

Seemingly based off John White's watercolours of Inuit, this is a 1578 depiction of the Inuit abducted by Martin Frobisher on his voyage that same year to Baffin Island. All three of the Inuit died soon after their arrival in England — Source.

Sloane’s “Account” in many ways demonstrates a similar conjunction of disparate natural artefacts and textual authorities to that in the 1693 Description. Furthermore, there is a clear “resemblance between objects of preternatural philosophy and the contents of Wunderkammer” maintained by the likes of Sibbald and Sloane, which, according to Daston, are both marked by “the very type of a miscellany, a hodgepodge of strange objects still more strangely juxtaposed”.21

Like the objects of a Wunderkammer, these Orkney texts are also sites of convergence and circulation. In Sibbald’s scholarship, we see how a second-hand and rather opaque account of unexplained events tinged with local superstitions becomes something more enigmatic. Through a scholarly process of citation and inference, Sibbald renders the Inuit presence in Orkney waters a “fact”, or more precisely, an artefact, the product of scientific investigative practices. It is these early modern textual practices performed by Sibbald which launched a belief in the Inuit presence in Orkney waters in the late seventeenth century, a belief that is replicated through subsequent accounts and is now firmly fixed in local legend and place-lore. Remarkably, these Finnmen legends remain a potent presence in contemporary culture. In part this is because they are symbolic of the very idea of north itself, “an idea about a place that is shifting and recessive. As you advance towards it, the true north recedes away northwards.”22

Dr. Jonathan Westaway is a Senior Research Fellow in History in the School of Humanities, Languages and Global Studies at the University of Central Lancashire, UK and is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society-Institute of British Geographers and the Royal Asiatic Society. His research focuses on imperial cultures of exploration in both polar and mountain environments. Current research projects include work on indigenous diasporic identities within the circumpolar Arctic, in particular the abduction, forced relocation and exile of Inuit individuals, groups and communities from North America and Greenland and its cultural impact on the wider Atlantic world.

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