Who was the Muckle Black Wallawa?

Activity: Talk / Presentation / Podcast / WebinarOral presentation


Who was the Muckle Black Wallawa?
In the 1880s, a gentleman and hobby-folklorist from Sanday in Orkney, Walter Traill Dennison, gave an account of a ritual and spell to give yourself up to the Devil and become a witch. The ritual involved lying on the beach at midnight with seven stones on and around you, while the incantation gave yourself up “in the name of the Muckle Black Wallawa”. This ritual would give you the power of witchcraft, according to Dennison, and, we must assume, local folklore. But who or what was the Muckle Black Wallawa? Dennison clearly equates this figure with the Devil. Ninety years later, another Orkney folklorist, Ernest Marwick, suggested that the Old Norse vǫlva figure is hiding behind the moniker. The figure of the vǫlva is, however, not well-attested in Orkney folklore. There is one possible example in 19th century storyteller George Marwick’s tale of Odie and Harry Mowat’s expedition to rescue Ballie from Hel – a local version of the story of Baldr – where a female figure called Velzia guards the bridge. However, there are few similarities between Velzia and the Wallawa. Instead, I would like to launch a new interpretation of the Wallawa, and suggest a derivation from a different Old Norse word. I will look for attestations of the Wallawa in records of the 16th-17th century witchcraft trials and propose that the Wallawa figure is rooted in widespread beliefs of the Early Modern period but has taken on a local name for linguistic reasons which will be explained in the presentation.
Period8 Dec 2021
Event titlePerforming Magic in the Pre-Modern North 2021
Event typeConference
Conference number1
LocationAberdeen, United KingdomShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • Folklore
  • Folklore Orkney
  • Witchcraft