A Hogboon or Hogboy is a kind of earth goblin that dwells in the Ancestral mounds that can be found across the Orkney Isles. As a guardian spirit, it can either bring good or ill luck to the family it belongs to. In the past, most of Orkney’s mounds were thought to be occupied by a hogboon - just a single hogboon, as they always lived alone. Compared with many similar beings such as trows or hobgoblins, they are quite benign though certainly not adverse to mischief, if they feel they are not properly cared for or respected. The hogboon was thought to arise from the spirit of the founding-father of the croft or estate. As such, they kept a close eye over the property they had once owned. Even minor disrespect, such as walking too near their resting place or failure to provide them with any of the crofts produce to which they still felt they were entitled a share, could cause the hogboon great anger. In more recent times, the hogboon has come to be seen as a more comical character that would do chores around the farm and collect the food the family set out for him each night. If broken things were left out at night, the Hogboon would mend them. But, despite this apparent helpfulness, the Hogboon is still generally regarded as a bad-tempered creature.
What did they look like?
There are very few accounts of their appearance. It seems their presence was felt and known by their actions rather than seen. One account, published in 1911 in Old Lore Miscellany, of a farmer who was confronted by angry mound-dweller, whilst breaking into his mound, described it as: "…an old, grey-whiskered man dressed in an old, grey, tattered suit of clothes, patched in every conceivable manner, with an old bonnet in his hand, and old shoes of horse or cowhide tied on with strips of skin on his feet."
However this account is remarkably similar to the description of an Icelandic mound-dweller known as the draugr and may have been copied from this.
Where did the legend come from?
The origin of the Orcadian hogboon can be traced back to the Norse belief in a similar spirit known as the hang-bui (of which hogboon is a corruption). These beliefs would have been brought to the islands with the Norse settlers, who began to colonise Orkney in the eighth century AD. The Old Norse ‘haug-bui’, or ‘haug-buinn’, means mound-dweller or farmer. In Norse beliefs, the spirit of a dead person continued to live on close to the family home, particularly the spirits of those who initially founded the estate or croft. This person was revered by their relatives and, when they died, a large "haugr", or burial mound, was constructed over their body. They were seen as the family’s guardian. When the Norse came to settle in Orkney they built their dwellings close to the many mounds that covered the Islands, as they were hoping to gain the protection of the spirits which dwelled in the mounds.
Why would people believe in such beings and why make offerings to them?
Have you ever had a day, or even a longer period, when everything just seems to go wrong for some inexplicable reason? It almost feels like something ‘out there’ is ‘out to get you’! Well our ancestors often felt like that too. Nowadays, in our ‘rational society’, we look to science to provide an explanation for freak events, from extended periods of stormy weather to the oven overheating and spoiling the dinner. The jet stream has moved or the thermostat has gone wrong. Our ancestors didn’t have this knowledge and looked for other explanations. A number of violent thunderstorms meant the Gods were angry, or a dragon was roaring overhead, or bread inexplicably burning in an oven that had always provided perfect results was the work of goblins or trows or even a hogboon! As was livestock taking sick or other freak occurrences across the farm. The hogboon also provided an explanation for those periods where everything went well, as he was a guardian for good and bad.
Like the Greek or Roman Gods or the Orkney fairies, the Hogboon just had to be treated with respect, and given what they required, to engage their co-operation. This was usually done by some kind of offering which often took the form of food. Back in Scandinavia, the haug-bui, it was thought, insisted on regular offerings of the farm's produce, particularly during the annual Yule festivities. And when the Norse came to Orkney, the same rituals were carried out. The first milk from a cow that had calved, or the first jug of ale brewed in the household, were common gifts poured over the mound to appease the ancient guardian. This practice continued into the nineteenth century. People still used to pour milk and meal through a hole on the top of a large mound in Skelwick on Westray in the late 1860’s. The tradition also persisted in Norway until the early years of the twentieth century. One account from 1909, describes a farmer slaughtered a cow for the mound-dweller after his father had died.
Are there other similar beings?
In the Orkneys there are two other mound dwellers, the Trow and the Wilkie. The trow were seen as old, wizened or deformed, little creatures - considerably smaller than a man. They were mischievous and resided in the ancient mounds, but were more sociable than Hogboons. Inside their earthen mounds, the walls were sumptuous and decorated with gold and silver coins. Only the finest food and drink was served at their tables and, deep inside these magical mounds, the trows would indulge in their passion for music and dancing, often luring human fiddlers inside to play for them. Trows would also visit a farm house once the family had retired for the night, warming themselves by the glowing fire. There are many stories of terrified couples lying in bed listening to their unwanted guests scuttling around the house. According to Norse tradition, these spirits of their predecessors had to be welcomed into the house – particularly at Yuletide, even though this was the time the trows were at their most active and dangerous. One of the final preparations on Yule Eve was to unlock every lock in the house. Over the years, the distinct spirits of the hogboon and trows seems to have combined and, in many tales, the terms ‘trow’ and ‘hogboon’ are interchangeable. Another Westray mound-dweller, the ‘Wilkie’, after whom two burial mounds - Wilkie's Knowes - were named, was also a nocturnal spirit, who expected to share the croft’s produce. If an offering was neglected, goods might disappear or be stolen, livestock would sicken or houses would be haunted. The Wilkie was also used to frighten children into behaving by adults telling them “the Wilkie was coming."
What are Orkney’s burial mounds and how did they become associated with these stories?
Skara Brae - Early Settlement, Orkney
Orkney’s burial mounds are prehistoric, chambered cairns (mounds of rough stones). The earliest ones were built by the first Neolithic settlers, who crossed from the Scottish mainland, around the beginning of the fourth millennium BCE. Their development spans thousands of years. They appear as low grassy mounds of various sizes and are found throughout the islands. They are generally thought to have served as repositories of the dead. However, they may have had a wider purpose than just that of a tomb, serving the population more like cathedrals did in later times, as a focal point for a number of different social, practical or religious ceremonies. Evidence from excavations such as at Maeshowe, indicate that some may have been built on the site of earlier buildings. At Maeshowe, it is suggested that the cairn was built on top of an early Neolithic house, which had been replaced by a stone circle. The construction of a single cairn took considerable time and effort, implying that the dead of the community were very important to the daily lives of the living. In a society where the average adult is thought to have lived to 30 or 40 years old, people may well have considered a belief in some form of continuation after death important, and looked to these spirits for guidance. By the time the Norse settlers came to the Orkneys, these mounds were already ancient and mysterious. As tombs of those previously occupying the islands, they would be the natural focal point for the belief in the hang-bui that they brought with them.