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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear