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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Forget sniffer dogs. To stop drug abuse in prison, fight the real enemy – boredom

Since I left prison in 2011, the system has had £900m sucked out of it. No wonder officers are struggling to control drug use.

It’s rare to go a day in prison without someone offering you drugs. When I was sentenced to 16 months in 2011, I was shocked by the sheer variety on offer. It wasn’t just cannabis, heroin, and prescription pills. If you wanted something special, you could get that too: ecstasy for an in-cell rave, cocaine for the boxing, and, in one case, LSD for someone who presumably wanted to turn the waking nightmare of incarceration up to eleven.

Those were sober times, compared to how things are today. New synthetic drugs – powerful, undetectable, and cheap – have since flooded the market. As the Ministry of Justice itself admitted in its recent White Paper, they’ve lost control: “The motivation and ability of prisoners and organised crime groups to use and traffic illegal drugs has outstripped our ability to prevent this trade.”

The upshot is that, rather than emerging from prison with a useful new trade or skill, inmates are simply picking up new drug habits. According to a report released on 8 December by drug policy experts Volteface, on average 8 per cent of people who did not have a previous drug problem come out of prison with one. In some of the worst institutions, the figure is as high as 16 per cent.

Why are people with no history of drug abuse being driven to it in prison?

There’s the jailbreak factor, of course. All prisoners dream of escape, and drugs are the easiest way out. But, according the report, the most common reason given by inmates is simply boredom.

Life when I was inside was relatively benign. On most days, for instance, there were enough members of staff on duty to let inmates out of their cells to shower, use a telephone, post a letter, or clean their clothes. Sometimes an emergency would mean that there might not be enough hands on deck to escort people off the wing to education, worship, drug therapy, healthcare, family visits, work, or other purposeful activities; but those occasions were mercifully rare.

Since then, the system has had £900m sucked out of it, and the number of operational staff has been reduced by 7,000. All such a skeleton crew can do is rush from one situation to the next. An assault or a suicide in one part of the prison (which have increased by 64 per cent and 75 per cent respectively since 2012) often results in the rest being locked down. The 2,100 new officers the MoJ has promised to recruit don’t come anywhere close to making up the shortfall. Purposeful activity – the cornerstone of effective rehabilitation – has suffered. Inmates are being forced to make their own fun.

Enter ‘synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists’, or SCRAs, often more simply referred to by brand names such as ‘Spice’ or ‘Black Mamba’. Over 200 of them are available on the international market and they are, today, the most popular drugs in British prisons. A third of inmates admitted to having used ‘Spice’ within the last month, according to a recent survey conducted by User Voice, and the true figure is probably even higher.

As one serving prisoner recently told me: "It's the perfect drug. You can smoke it right under the governor's nose and they won't be able to tell. Not even the dogs can sniff it out."

The combination of extreme boredom and experimental drugs has given birth to scenes both brutal and bizarre. Mobile phone footage recently emerged from Forest Bank prison showing naked, muzzled prisoners – apparently under the influence of such drugs – being made to take part in human dog fights. At the same establishment, another naked prisoner introduces himself to the camera as an ‘Islamic Turkey Vulture’ before squatting over another inmate and excreting ‘golden eggs’, believed to be packets of drugs, into his mouth. It sounds more like a scene from Salò than the prison culture I recall.

The solution to this diabolical situation might seem obvious: but not to Justice Secretary Liz Truss. Her answers are more prison time (up to ten years) for visitors caught smuggling ‘spice’, and new technology to detect the use of these drugs, which will inevitably fail to keep up with the constantly changing experimental drugs market. Earlier this week, she even suggested that drug-delivery drones could be deterred using barking dogs.

Trying to solve prison problems with more prison seems the very definition of madness. Indeed, according to the Howard League for Penal Reform, over the last six years, inmates have received over a million days of extra punishment for breaking prison rules – which includes drug use – with no obvious positive effects.

Extra security measures – the training of ‘spice dogs’, for example – are also doomed to fail. After all, it’s not like prison drug dealers are hard to sniff out. They have the best trainers, the newest tracksuits, their cells are Aladdin’s Caves of contraband - and yet they rarely seem to get caught. Why? The image of a prison officer at HMP Wayland politely informing our wing dealer that his cell was scheduled for a search later that day comes to mind. Unless the huge demand for drugs in prison is dealt with, more security will only result in more corruption.

It might be a bitter pill for a Tory minister to swallow but it’s time to pay attention to prisoners’ needs. If the prodigious quantities of dangerous experimental drugs they are consuming are anything to go by, it’s stimulation they really crave. As diverting as extra drug tests, cell searches, and the sight of prison dogs trying to woof drones out of the sky might momentarily be, it’s not going to be enough.

That’s not to say that prisons should become funfairs, or the dreaded holiday camps of tabloid fantasy, but at the very last they should be safe, stable environments that give inmates the opportunity to improve their lives. Achieving that will require a degree of bravery, imagination, and compassion possibly beyond the reach of this government. But, for now, we live in hope. The prisoners, in dope.