Orkney is an ancient land where prehistoric monuments still dominate the landscape, along with the wide sky and surrounding sea. Plenty of strange stories have grown up about certain places. Some of the strangest have to do with a little island called Eynhallow.
Eynhallow has been deserted since 1851. Considering that it’s a little less than 200 acres of treeless grass and rocky cliffs surrounded by dangerously strong tides, it’s a testament to Orcadian toughness that it was ever inhabited at all.
For a long time, the stories say, it wasn’t inhabited by people, but by the Finfolk. The Finfolk were a race of magical beings who in the summer lived on the island, which was then called Hildaland. This island itself was magical and was usually invisible to mortal eyes.
The Finfolk were evil beings and sometimes abducted people, much like the elves of European folklore before fantasy writers turned them into metrosexuals. One day a Finman abducted the wife of the Goodman of Thorodale, an Orcadian farmer. Thorodale saw a tall, dark figure making off with his screaming wife in a boat. The brave farmer rowed after them and the Finman turned his boat invisible and escaped. Thorodale grieved for his wife until one day he heard her voice singing to him over the waves, telling him to visit a wise woman on the island of Hoy. This woman told him how to get his wife back and kick the Finfolk off Hildaland. The rest of the tale is told here.
Hildaland, after it was rid of its pesky Finfolk, became known as Eynhallow, a corruption of the Norse word for “Holy Island.” Fanciful folktales aside, there may have been a reason for this. Some believe that a monastery once operated on the island and this is why the Vikings called it a Holy Island.
%Gallery-161239%This seems to have been confirmed when a medieval church was discovered on the island. It had been lived in and built around by the last nineteenth-century residents until disease killed many of them and the rest fled. It was only after it was abandoned that scholars realized what it was. The church building may, or may not, have served a monastery. No excavations have yet taken place. But why would a sizable church and perhaps a monastic community have been built on such a small island, only to be ignored by medieval chroniclers and completely forgotten?
I visited on an annual trip hosted by the Orkney Archaeology Society, a friendly group of professional and amateur archaeologists who love the land and its past. They wanted to explore the mysterious church building. This wasn’t a simple outing to an uninhabited island. Two visitors supposedly disappeared on a trip there in 1990. Some say the ferrymen bringing the group there and back simply miscounted; others say it may have been vengeful Finfolk.
Orcadian folklore hints that the island is still magic. It’s said that if you cut grain there after sundown, it will bleed, and a horse tethered to the ground will always be found running loose after dark.
We set out across the chilly gray water at 7:30 p.m., which in the Orkney summer means it’s still bright enough to read outside. We passed between the islands of Mainland and Rousay and one of the group members pointed out several medieval brochs on either shore.
After about 20 minutes, Eynhallow appeared before us as a green hump in the sea. There’s no pier on Eynhallow, so the ferry ground to a halt on a rocky beach, upsetting hundreds of terns that flapped and squawked at us. Soon we were tromping down the beach. The ferry had some other runs to make so it pulled away with a scrape of steel on stone and chugged off. We were temporarily marooned on an island inhabited only by malevolent spirits. I love my job.
After we left the angry terns behind, all we could hear was the wind. We headed inland across thick grass and wildflowers to reach the mysterious church. It’s a strange building and I can see why the archaeologists are puzzled by it. Parts are skillfully made, while others looked slapped together, probably by the later farmers. A staircase leads up to nowhere and debris and lumps in the earth suggest a series of outbuilding that may have been the monastery. From what can be seen, it certainly looks like a planned community built at once, with the later farmers’ additions put on every which way.
It’s a lonely place now. Grass and nettles have overgrown the site and birds have built nests in holes in the walls. As we explored, one of the group, a singer at a local church, stood in the nave and sang in Latin in a deep, resonant voice. The effect was eerily beautiful.
After puzzling over the church, we headed out to circumnavigate the island. Now, it was about 9 but this far north it meant we had a good two hours of twilight left. The increasing gloom only enriched the colors – the deep green of the grass sparkled with lighter shades of wildflowers, the pale blue of the sky, the endless gray of the ocean. The shore had brighter hues. Red cliffs studded with tufts of wildflowers housed nests for raucous birds. Fulmars, cormorants and puffins were everywhere. Angry mothers guarded their chicks by flapping their wings and squawking at us. They must have been warned by the terns.
The natural beauty continued all around the island. Waves lashed against the jagged rocks and birds studied us from sheer cliffs. As we made our way around we came across several cairns. Some were guide markers for fishermen, while others may have been ancient. A flock of sheep came out of nowhere and passed on by with barely a look at us intruders. We rounded a bend and humped over a hill and there ahead of us shone the lights of the ferry. It had come back for us.
I almost felt sorry.
For more on Eynhallow, check out Orkneyjar’s excellent collection of Eynhallow pages.
Don’t miss the rest of my series “Exploring Orkney: Scotland’s Rugged Northern Isles.”
Coming up next: “Beauty In Wartime: The Italian Chapel In Orkney!”