The Hogboon of Hellihowe – a tale from Orkney

(retold byMarilyn McPhie)

Long, long ago there were mounds in Scotland.  Some exist to this day.  But in the long ago times, each mound was said to have a mound-dweller, which they called a hogboon.

It’s difficult to say just what a hogboon looked like.  People didn’t write down the descriptions, because they assumed that everyone knew what a hogboon looked like.  As far as we can tell, a hogboon looked a bit like a wizened old man, quite small.  But for all his small stature, a hogboon was not to be trifled with. 

If you had a hogboon about your farm, you’d best be paying him some attention and respect.  If you had milk or ale or anything good, you’d be wise to pour some of it on the mound of the hogboon.  That would make him happy, and a happy hogboon meant a happy farm.

But as it happened, a farmer married a young woman who came from the lands to the south.  She was pretty and smart and capable and thrifty – which is all well and good.  But she had never heard of a hogboon.  And that turned out to be a problem.

She never gave the hogboon even a bit of ale or milk or anything good, and she was such a tidy and thrifty housekeeper that after the evening meal, she was careful to scrape all the cooking pots clean before she put them away.  Someone should have told her, of course, but her husband just assumed she knew all about how to treat a hogboon, and no one else thought to tell her.

At first the hogboon was willing to think the best of the family.  “Perhaps they are very sick and have simply overlooked me.”  But when he peeped through the window of the cottage, he saw that they were not sick at all, but well and happy.  He decided that if they wouldn’t offer him what he required, he’d have to take it himself.  So one night when everyone was asleep, he crept into the house and looked around, but to his dismay, he found all the food secured behind locked cabinets, and even the humble porridge pot was scraped clean. 

After that, things went from bad to worse for the family.  He began to steal things or at least hide them.  Every day the simplest things disappeared – the farmer’s shovel, the wife’s butter churn, the little girl’s doll.  And the food – bread and meat and milk and anything at all.  Sometimes the missing items turned up later, but often they were gone for good.  And if things weren’t gone completely, they suffered anyway.  Milk soured, cows went lame, the axe handle split in two. 

Everything was in a terrible state, and finally the farmer and his wife decided that there was nothing they could do but move.  They were leasing the farm from the laird, and the farmer went to the laird to ask if there was any other farm available to them.  The laird said that they were in luck.  A farm several miles away was available. 

The man returned home and informed his wife that the family could flit.  They could move and thus escape from the torment of the hogboon, and start over.  When moving day came, the family had borrowed some ponies from neighbors, and they loaded up all their household goods – which were fewer than they should have been, thanks to the thieving ways of the hogboon.

Moving day was a beautiful day.  Blue sky, puffy white clouds, a gentle breeze.  And the family was relieved and excited to be moving.  They traveled several miles down the road to the new farm in great spirits.  When they arrived at their new home, they smiled at each other and exclaimed how happy they were to be starting afresh – with no hogboon to trouble them.

But as they were congratulating themselves, the lid of the butter churn popped up – and there was the hogboon – with a grin on his face, exclaiming, “What a fine day to be flitting!”  Alas, they had not realized that a hogboon is not attached to the land, but rather to the family.

I’m happy to say that the family conferred and all agreed that they had learned their lesson.   They decided that from that day forward, they would offer the hogboon the very best portion of whatever they produced at the farm – and they and the hogboon lived in peace after that.