The folklore of Scotland’s Orkney islands is full of the fantastic, from the half-horse, half-human nuckelavee that’s said to reside in the violent sea surrounding the archipelago, to the benign hogboon that tales say dwells in Orkney’s innumerable mounds—many of them Neolithic or Iron Age structures disguised by the overgrowth of millennia.
But few mythical creatures—of Orkney or anywhere—have as direct a connection to a real-life person as the island-altering giant known to centuries of Orcadians as Cubbie Roo. Remaining snippets tell tales of this most-famous giant of Orkney, including his failed attempts at building bridges between islands, and his tossing or dropping massive stones onto the islands of Eday, Rousay, Evie, and elsewhere.
But it’s the ruins of Cubbie Roo’s castle on the 1.9 square kilometer island of Wyre, off the northeast edge of Orkney’s Mainland (or largest island), that’s the most intriguing. The castle stands out because, rather than the rocks, burns and that also bear the giant’s name, Cubbie Roo’s castle is very clearly (at least in its current excavated and partially restored state) the low-walled remains of an ancient stone stronghold.
It’s documented in the historical Norse Orkneyinga Saga that a “fine stone fort” was built on Wyre around 1145 by a Norse chieftain named Kolbein Hrúga. Aside from the obvious similarities between the name of the man and the giant of folklore, hrúga is said to mean “heap” in Old Norse, indicating that the man who folk memory would turn into a giant was of impressive stature and physical ability. The shortened “roo” is used in the area to this day as both a noun and a verb for heap.
With a strong desire to see this place where myth meets man, I ventured to Wyre myself in 2018—no short trip for this native New Yorker.
Wyre & the Castle Today
Once on the Orkney Mainland, getting to Wyre is as easy as hopping the inter-island ferry at Tingwall, although the ferry may stop at Rousay and possibly Egilsay first, depending on when you visit. The trip takes between 40 and 90 minutes, depending on the route. While you can bring a car on the ferry, it’s not necessary, as the castle is a quick 1.3km walk along a field-lined road from the ferry terminal.
After passing a few scattered houses (the island has a population of 29 according to the 2011 census), you’ll come to the Wyre Community Hall. Turn right at the castle sign on the side of the hall and you’ll be facing the ruins of Cubbie Roo’s castle, visible on a nearby knoll. A collection of curious coos accompanied me on this last leg of my trip.
Before reaching the castle, you’ll first pass the island’s other medieval attraction, the partially restored remains of St Mary's Chapel. Dated slightly later than the castle, it may have been built by Hrúga’s son Bjarni, one of Orkney’s early Bishops and a noted poet.
The ruins of the castle itself—really more of a keep, with square dimensions running roughly eight meters per side—still manages to be imposing despite rising to just 2 meters high in its current state. The 2.2-meter thick outer walls hint at an impressive original height, and the surrounding earth rampart and 2-meter ditch make it clear that the fortress would have been near-impossible to attack with the weapons and tools of the time. The Norse Haakon's Saga tells of a siege at the castle in 1231 that eventually ended in the kinsmen of the murdered Earl Jon having to negotiate a truce with his killers, who were holed up inside. There was no other way to get them out.
Is Roo Really Hrúga? Connection Contention
The connection between Roo and Hrúga is a given to most local experts and laymen alike. But Gregor Lamb, respected Orkney folklore and Norn language expert (and co-author of The Orkney Dictionary) has serious doubts. On the Heritage of the Orkney Islands Website Lamb writes that Roo, or “row” as it was written in earlier times “represents the Old Norse word raud meaning red. So Cubbie Row becomes Cubbie Red,” and Cubbie, or Cobbie as it was sometimes written “is found in Dutch kaboutermannekin and German kobold, both relating to supernatural creatures.”
Lamb essentially argues that it was only “By the greatest of coincidences, Kolbein Hrúga's name was very close to that of a local demon, whose name would have approximated kobvald raudr, alias Cobbie Row.”
While Lamb makes a strong argument backed by his expertise in the extinct Norn language, it’s not difficult to find those who draw a direct line from Hrúga to Roo. In fact, Margaret Flaws, Lamb’s co-author on The Orkney Dictionary, a resident of Wyre and local expert e in her own right, disagrees with Lamb at least in part.
“I imagine [Kolbein Hrúga] might have been known in the spoken language as Kobbe Hruga in his own time. There are a couple of others in the sagas with the same nickname… but they are not nearly so well known as Kolbein, maybe because he was Bishop Bjarni’s father,” Flaws told me via email. “I think therefore that the name came first and the fact that he was remembered as being huge led to his name being attached to local giant stories. These stories would have been much older, and his name got stuck on later.”
Flaws also points out that most of the place names associated with Cubbie Roo are found in the areas around Wyre, where Hrúga would have been a familiar figure. Cubbie was also a word for a basket that was used for carrying peat. One of the Cubbie Roo stories related to Wyre has the giant carrying a cubbie full of stones that burst as he stepped off the island, leading to the creation of the skerries that spill out along the end of the island.
“…where the lives of living people turn into legend”
Lynn Barbour of the Orkney Folklore & Storytelling Centre also sees a direct connection between giant and the man—who was also a tax collector for the Norwegian king.
“I work from the premise that there is always truth in legend,” Barbour told me, “…and much of my research as a storyteller, script writer and choreographer has time and again borne this out as true.”
But of course, with nearly a millennia of Orkney’s complex history separating the life of the Norse farmer and chieftain from the present day, with Norse, Scottish, and English languages and cultures all mixing together in the meantime, it’s hard to say anything for certain. As Lamb eventually admitted to me via email, “It is really impossible to unravel the origin of this creature who took so many forms.”
But folk history is often more about the stories locals tell about how they became who they than it is about fact. And Barbour’s expert storytelling weaves these elements together neatly into a tapestry that encapsulates the richness of Orkney’s landscape, history, and people.
“I personally think that when you read about Kolbein Hruga's wife and family and who they became in the annals of Orkney history, combined with the name of the castle of Wyre and the physical landscape and location of his home, that he is the embodiment of Edwin Muir's words,” says Barbour.
Those words, written by the mid-20th-century Orkney poet, hang above the entrance to Barbour’s Orkney Folklore & Storytelling Centre, proclaiming Orkney as “a land where the lives of living people turn into legend.”