(An Orkney Island Tale)
Once upon a time, a young woman from the south of Scotland decided to move with her family to a farm on the island of Sanday. But Lilia knew nothing of the island’s eccentricities, and when the Orkney people told her tales, she only giggled.
“Don’t laugh,” they warned her, and they explained that nearly every mound in the Orkney Islands was inhabited by a hogboon, the spirit of someone who had passed away.
“When that person dies,” they said, “his spirit remains beneath the ground.”
“Don’t be a fool,” Lilia chuckled.
The villagers shook their heads. It was, they understood, Lilia who was the fool. Everyone knew that after a person died, his spirit remained on or near the family farm. Those spirits served as guardians of the land. And everyone knew those spirits could be fickle. It was important to regard the hogboon with respect, even fear. He sometimes watched over the property he’d once owned in a way that made it difficult for newcomers.
Some hogboons had great strength, and those spirits who were the founding fathers were particularly protective of their land. Minor infractions spelled trouble. For instance, if a child played near the hogboon’s mound, or if livestock grazed upon it, the hogboon might explode with fury. And heaven help anyone trying to enter the hogboon’s mound hoping to find a treasure. When people did so, they did not live to tell the tale.
Most homesteads were close to the mounds where hogboons lived, for people wished to gain the protection of those underground spirits. Lilia’s property was no different. It sat at the edge of the water, clinging to the rocky shore, and Lilia loved it for its beauty. She loved the smell of the peat fires burning at night. She loved to sleep with the sounds of the sea in her ears. She loved the stars fading into pale morning skies.
Everything about the place called to her, so she ignored tales of the hogboon whose mound was on her property.
Naturally, she couldn’t understand how he and other hogboons were meant to be treated because she did not believe in them. So she did not follow the rules.
“Feed your hogboon,” people said. “Feed him milk and ale, and do not scrape your cooking pots clean. Leave them behind for licking. He loves his treats.”
But Lilia fed her hogboon nothing, and she scraped her pots clean so that they gleamed. She just snickered when the people shook their heads at her ignorance.
A few months passed, and all was well. Lilia’s hogboon was patient. He thought she and her family might change their ways and learn to show respect for his land. But nothing changed, and so he decided to make Lilia’s family miserable. He would do all he could to drive them away.
He began by stealing her rubber boots. Then he stole her favorite pot. Next, he stole the quilt her grandmother had made for her. And when he did not steal, he hid things. He hid the children’s scarves and Lilia’s cape. He hid her umbrellas and brushes and stockings and shoes. He hid her husband’s riding crop and coat.
Lilia began to worry. “Why can’t we keep track of things?” she asked her family. “We’ll have to be more careful from now on.”
“It might be the hogboon,” her children said. But once again, Lilia said, “There’s no such thing!”
So the hogboon soured her milk and let all the animals loose. Soon, her sheep were roaming the hills.
“It’s the hogboon, I’m sure,” her husband said.
“There’s no such thing!” Lilia insisted.
But that night the hogboon set the cattle loose, and some of them drowned.
“The hogboon is real,” Lilia’s husband and children said.
Slowly, Lilia began to believe. But she did not feed him or show him respect, and so the theft and the mischief continued deep into the frigid winter months.
At long last, her husband said, “This is enough! We’re moving.”
Lilia decided he was right. But they had to keep their plans a secret from the hogboon. And so they quietly obtained a lease for another farm at the far end of the village — as far away as possible from the hogboon’s mound.
The family said nothing to anyone about their plans.
The day for the move came at last, and as the family packed their things and hurried quietly out of the house, they began to worry. “I hope he doesn’t follow us,” her children whispered.
“Shhh,” Lilia said.
At last, they were ready. Lilia’s husband sat upon the steed leading a team of ponies. On his back he carried the churn. The ponies behind him pulled wagons full of furniture and other gear, and Lilia and the children followed behind on Lilia’s mare and her ponies.
When they had almost reached their new property, they began to cry out with joy.
“We made it!” they sang. “We are free! We’ve outsmarted the hogboon!”
But just as the words left their mouths, the hogboon popped his head out of the churn.
“Fine day for a move, isn’t it?” he cackled.
Lilia then understood from that day on that she would never escape the hogboon. She quickly learned what her husband and children and neighbors already had: to respect the spirits of those who’d come and gone long before them.