The story of Lukki Minnie

Malachy shares a piece of Fair Isle folklore introducing us to the Trow.

For centuries – perhaps even for millennia, no-one is entirely sure – Shetland has been home to a very special creature. It is rarely seen these days, but it nevertheless inhabits a special place in Shetland culture and history. It is the trow.

Similar in many ways to Scandinavian trolls or Irish leprechauns, the most significant difference between Shetland trows and their folkloric cousins is that trows really exist.

Most places in Shetland have their own trow stories, but while many of them involve trickery, mischievous behaviour, and even the occasional kidnapping, few are quite as sinister as the tale of Fair Isle’s most famous trow: Lukki Minnie.

The story of Lukki Minnie’s downfall is known to all Fair Islanders, and although everybody’s version differs slightly, the essence of all of them is the same. As I remember it, the story goes like this . . .

A young boy – possibly named Willie – was out playing one afternoon on the hill called Malcolm’s Head, in the south-west of the island. He was rolling a large bannock (similar to a scone) that his mother had baked, pushing it down the steep slope and racing after it towards home.

Suddenly, the bannock disappeared, and the boy stopped dead. He saw at once that it had fallen down a hole, but he wasn’t quite sure what kind of hole it was. It was bigger than a rabbit hole, but was well hidden amongst the grass and heather. In fact, it was just big enough for him to squeeze through, which is exactly what he did. But he very quickly regretted it.

Something had grabbed hold of his shoulders and was hauling him in. He tried to pull himself back out again but he couldn’t manage, and all at once he found himself lying on the floor of a small dark room, like a cave. The only light in the room came from a peat fire in the centre, but even in that flickering gloom he could see at once that the horrible creature in front of him was Lukki Minnie.

He wanted to run but there was nowhere to go. He wanted to shout but there was no-one to hear him. He was completely stuck.

Lucki Minnie grabbed hold of the boy and she stuffed him roughly inside a sack, which she then hung up close to the fire. He could feel the heat of the flames as he hung there, and he knew she was planning to eat him.

Later that night, when everything was quiet, Willie took his chance to escape. He drew his penknife out from his pocket and quickly cut through the sack. He climbed out and ran towards the hole in the ceiling, through which he’d first arrived. But before he could get away, he heard Lukki Minnie returning home. He had to think quickly.

Willie grabbed hold of the little dog which had been sleeping by the fire, and he shoved it inside the sack, along with some crockery from the sideboard. He tied it up and hung it on the hook again, and then hid behind the door to wait.

Lukki Minnie came in with her pockets filled with potatoes and carrots. She was ready for her dinner.

“A’m gyaan ta aet dee noo” she shouted. “Bit furst A’m gyaan ta mak dee gud and saft.”

She took out a big, heavy stick from beside the fire and started to beat the sack as hard as she could. The plates inside began to crack.

“Ah can hear dy banes brackin,” she shouted.

Behind the door the boy was giggling quietly to himself. Inside the bag, the dog was yelping.

“Ah can hear dee yowlin, boy” said the trow, with a big grin on her face.

Willie was so pleased with his trick that he couldn’t help himself. He laughed and laughed so loudly that Lukki Minnie finally heard him. She spun around, her eyes blazing with anger. She knew at once what had happened.

Willie recovered quickly and darted up and out of the hole, back on to the hill he knew so well. In the pale light of the evening he could still make out the shape of his house, less than half a mile away. But the trow was close behind.

“A’m gyaan ta git dee” she screamed, as he fled down the hill towards safety. He didn’t dare to turn around.

When he reached the burn that runs along the bottom of Malcolm’s Head, Willie jumped. He sailed through the air and landed on the opposite bank, panting heavily. A second later, Lukki Minnie jumped after him. But trows’ legs are short, and she didn’t make it.

Lukki Minnie landed in the burn and was swept downstream towards the sea at Hesti Geo. Willie stood and watched her disappear, until he was sure she was gone. Then he turned and ran back home to tell the tale.

Today, when the wind blows strong from the south-west, Hesti Geo fills with thick, dirty-white scum, that blows up and over the land at the bottom of the hill. “Lukki Minnie’s still in there, churning her butter,” people say. And perhaps she is.

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
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Miners against coal: the pit where former Welsh miners are protesting alongside climate change activists

The Merthyr Tydfil miners’ long history of struggle is spurring them on to a whole new form of action.

The retired miners and factory workers at the working men's club in the Welsh town of Merthyr Tydfil are no strangers to hard times. Our second son was born during the 1984 strike and we had nothing for 12 months, one member tells me. The town continues to struggle with unemployment – last year the rate for men was nearly double that of the UK as a whole – over three decades on from the miners’ strike. But these days the atmosphere at the club is more resigned than radical. A singer croons his way through “Only the Lonely”, while talk at the bar is of better times: days when work was plentiful, days when, “you went down the mine a boy and came up a man”.

When the deep pits closed in the 1980s, Merthyr became a dumping ground – quite literally. Not only is the nearby landfill one of Europe's biggest, the valley is now home to the largest opencast (open-pit) mining operation in the UK. Its towering spoil tips throw a Mordor-esque shadow over the community below, coating homes and lungs alike in dust. 

Even former miners lament the small number of poorly-regulated jobs the Ffos-Y-Fran pit currently provides. Opencast is lorry driving, not mining, is a sentiment I hear repeated across the town, from the club bar to chip shops to the office of the miners’ union itself.

Just as the town's fortunes rose with coal, so they have plummeted as the industry has declined. While the fuel still accounts for around 10 per cent of UK electricity generation on any given day, last year generation fell to its lowest level since the 1950s. The need to decarbonise also looks set to reduce demand further. The effects of last December's Paris climate agreement – and its aim to limit warming below 2C  are already being felt in Wales: the Aberthaw power station is a key destination for Welsh coal, but recently announced plans to reduce its output.

The club's secretary can only think of one member who still works in the mine. Others I encounter chase shifts at the local meat-packing factory, or have to travel for over an hour outside the town. Support for jobs unsurprisingly usually trumps support for climate change deals: “If it brings in work, we don’t have a problem with it,” is the general consensus inside the club. If someone tells you they're against the mine, they're probably from England, not Wales, says a resident of the nearby village of Fochriw. Meanwhile, in Appalachia, mining companies dish out licence plates and stickers saying: Shoot a tree hugger.

The people of Merthyr, however, are also no strangers to fighting perceived injustice. In the early nineteenth century, Merthyr's thriving ironworks made it the largest town in Wales. But when depression hit in 1831, low wages and sudden dismissals drove many to despair. By the start of June that year, thousands gathered to march against the iron masters and coal barons. And for the very first time, the red flag of revolution was raised on British soil.

185 years later, while Club members sipped their drinks, others are writing Merthyr's history afresh. Up on the hills above the town  beyond the litter-strewn fields and the “Danger: No trespass” signs  around 300 campaigners from across the UK gathered to call for an end to coal.

Led by the climate activist group Reclaim the Power, many of the camp’s young attendees work for Westminster MPs and NGOs. A litter-pick was followed by the rapid erection of communal kitchens and sustainable loos. There were safe spaces, legal training, and warnings not to disturb the nearby nesting birds.

On Tuesday morning, the activists occupied and (temporarily) shut down operations at the mine – tying themselves to machinery and lying across access roads in an attempt to symbolise the red line that carbon emissions must not cross. Their action is the first in a fortnight of global anti-fossil fuel protests  from plans for train heists in Albany, to protesting in kayaks in Vancouver. And while global reach counts for little without local support, the climate campaigners at Ffos-Y-Fran are not alone.

Since 2007, members of the United Valleys Action Group (UVAG), a group of local residents and ex-miners, have also fought the mine's planned expansion into the nextdoor valley. On Tuesday, many joined with the activists to blockade the entrance to the mine's headquarters. One member, 56-year-old Phil Duggan, has worked in the pits from the age of 16. And while he is “no tree-hugger”, he is tired of accepting jobs at any cost.

I don't want my children to suffer the ill health I have,” he says. “To some extent we [ex-miners] have been able to claim compensation. But the way things are going now you're not going to be able to claim anything. The deregulation of employment is making people desperate  we're going back to an era that our fore-fathers unionised to put right.”

In a strange twist of fate, it’s these Merthyr miners history of struggle – their long fight to protect their livelihoods and communities  which now spurs them to action against new mines.


Phil Duggan entered the pits aged 16. Photos: India Bourke

Wayne Thomas at the National Union of Mineworkers says he recognises that, unless carbon capture technology can develop apace, the Paris agreement. But he also believes that British coal has its place in responsibly managing the transition to renewables – a place that includes reducing foreign imports, cleaning up the dirty acts of private mining companies, and putting control back in the hands of local communities. If you're going to phase out an industry, you've got to put something in place to limit the damage.

For evidence, he need point no further than the co-operatively run mine at Tower colliery, where an independently-managed fund ensures that, when the time comes, the opencast site will be carefully regenerated. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the privately-owned operation at Ffos-Y-Fran for certain.

Last year, the Welsh Assembly voted in favour of a moratorium on opencast mining. The government has yet to act, but this may change depending on how the balance of power falls after Thursday's elections. Assembly candidates from both the Green party and Liberal Democrats voiced their support for the UVAG campaigners at a meeting in one of the villages effected by the new pit proposals.

Utlimately, the decline of some of Welsh coal's main customers  the steel works at Port Talbot and the power station at Aberthaw  is likely do more to undermine UK coal than the red lines campaigners draw. But, along the way, new alliances between climate idealists and unions could breathe new life into both movements. In the words of Merthyr Tydfil’s ancient motto: “Nid cadarn ond brodyrdde”  Only brotherhood is strong.


Chris and Alyson, founders of United Valleys Action Group.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.