Eynhallow: Visiting Orkney’s Haunted Isle

Eynhallow
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!”

Ancient Curses Uncovered In Two Countries

ancient curses, curses, curse, Carlisle
It’s been a good week for ancient curses.

A “cursing stone” has been discovered on the Isle of Canna, Scotland. More precisely called a bullaun stone, they’re natural or artificial depressions in a stone that catch rainwater and give it magical properties, usually to heal or to help women conceive a child. A shaped stone is placed in the hole that’s turned to make a prayer or curse.

The bullaun stone on the Isle of Canna is at the base of an early Christian cross dating to about 800 A.D. Now a round stone carved with a cross has been found that fits exactly into this depression. While bullaun stones are found in several European countries, it’s uncommon for both the stone and the base to be preserved.

Over in Italy, two ancient curses have been translated. A Spanish researcher working at the Archaeological Museum of Bologna has revealed the text of two curses inscribed on lead tablets in Roman times. Called a defixio, such curses were common in Greek and Roman times and often came mass produced with only the name of the target needing to be filled in. The ones in Bologna target an animal doctor and a senator, making it the first such curse found against a Roman senator.

One reads in part, “Crush, kill Fistus the senator. . .May Fistus dilute, languish, sink and may all his limbs dissolve …” The one against the animal doctor is no less nasty: “Destroy, crush, kill, strangle Porcello and wife Maurilla. Their soul, heart, buttocks, liver. . .”

Many museums have examples of these ancient nastygrams. One at the British Museum was found in London and curses a woman’s memory. Since it’s the only record of her to survive, it appears the curse worked.

Curses can be found all over the place. In Carlisle I came across a cursing stone made in 1525 by the Archbishop of Glasgow against the Border Reivers, Scottish raiders who stole English livestock. There’s a photo of it above. You can read the text of the curse in my article about Carlisle.

Video: Witches’ Market, La Paz, Bolivia


Bolivia is an exciting adventure travel destination offering challenging mountain treks, interesting dishes like roast guinea pig and mysterious ancient ruins.

One of the most popular, and certainly the strangest, attraction is the Witches’ Market in the capital La Paz. Here you can find mummified llama fetuses, aphrodisiacs and herbal remedies. Many of the spells are based on the ancient traditions of the Aymara people. You can also get your fortune told or get cured by one of the many yatiri, or witch doctors. There’s Catholic paraphernalia too. In many regions of South America traditional beliefs merged with the Catholicism brought by the Spanish to create a hybrid tradition.

Check out this video where an intrepid traveler braves the Witches’ Market and learns all about how to gain love and money, especially money. This is part one of three, so make sure to see the rest!

Harla: Ethiopia’s lost civilization

Harla, harla, Ethiopia, archaeology, Harar
Eastern Ethiopia’s history is shrouded in mystery. Most archaeologists investigate early hominids like Lucy, the famous Australopithecus afarensis, or study the great civilizations of the north like Gondar and Axum. The east, though, is virtually unknown, and only enigmatic ruins and strange legends remain.

Scattered around eastern Ethiopia all the way to Somaliland and the Red Sea are the ruins of towns with large stone buildings unlike anything made by the modern Oromo and Somali peoples. These are the remnants of the little-known Harla civilization. Wanting to learn more, I contacted archaeologist, author, and Harar tour guide Muhammed Jami Guleid (guleidhr @yahoo.com). “Dake”, as everybody here calls him, helped me travel to Somaliland last year and is an invaluable resource for local culture and history. He knows everybody and he’s excavated Harla graves in Ethiopia’s Somali region and in Somaliland.

They were a race of giants, people say, and immensely strong. They’d perform amazing feats of strength like playing with balls made from the entire hide of a goat. A schoolkid we gave a lift to told us the Harla were three meters tall! This rumor probably came about because of their unusual graves. They’re long and thin, sometimes three or four meters long, although the skeletons in them aren’t unusually tall. The graves are usually covered with a layer of ash (probably from burnt offerings), the skeleton of a sacrificed cow, and below that a stone slab sealing the tomb.

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Harla skeletons are often buried with pots resting above their head. Inside the pots are black sand (why? nobody knows), necklaces of gemstones, and silver coins that are slightly smaller than a dime. There seems to be writing or designs on the coins but they’re old and poorly minted, and if they ever once said anything, they’re unreadable now. The necklaces are usually agate, but also ruby and amber. The style of the pots, coins, and jewelry are the same both in the mountains around Harar and in the Somali lowlands all the way to the Red Sea. This has convinced Muhammed Dake that the sites all belong to the same culture.

Legends say the center of this civilization was around Harar, which makes sense since it has the best land in the region. The kings of Harla were wizards who boasted about their powers. One said he’d make a river of milk between two mountains; another bragged he could make a sorghum plant that could be laid down and be used as a highway all the way to the Awash River, 150 miles away. Allah got angry at all this and destroyed them. A few Harla survived and fled to Kush in the Sudan, the site of another great civilization.

The Hararis are believed to be descended from the Harla. The closest Harla site to Harar is at the Oromo village of Harla, from which the civilization gets its name. We have no idea what the Harla called themselves. When Allah destroyed the civilization and the survivors fled to Kush, one woman stayed behind to found the modern town of Harla. With a population of about 2800, it’s a half-hour drive from Harar on a winding mountain road that offers sweeping views of the lowlands to the north.

When we arrived at the modern Harla I saw the Oromo there looked and dressed a bit different than other Oromo I’d met. The women didn’t wear the usual Western-style striped shirt that’s almost a uniform for Oromo women in this region. Was this a remnant of their different origins? It’s hard to say, but the modern residents of Harla say they’re of different origins than the rest of the Oromo. Over the years they’ve taken on Oromo customs and the Oromo language, but still consider themselves a distinct people.

Like everywhere else, Muhammed Dake seems to know everyone in Harla. Some of the villagers showed us the ruins. There are thick walls of stone cemented together with a type of plaster that’s still strong after centuries of weathering. Some remain standing above the height of a man, and one field is filled with a network of walls, showing the ancient town was a cluster of closely built structures. In one spot, a tree has grown up through a wall. Plants may be slow, but are almost unstoppable. This tree cracked through the tough Harla plaster and grew around the ancient stones, lifting them into the air as the tree grew. Now the building looks like it’s frozen in the middle of an explosion, its stones suspended several feet above the ground. The local kids love to climb this tree, using the Harla stones embedded in the wood as footholds.

Muhammed Dake believes the Harla people were pagan, judging from how they built their graves. They don’t look either Muslim or Christian. But the Harla village presents another mystery. At one ruin that looks constructed in the Harla style, a villager pulls away some bushes along one wall to reveal a niche. To confirm my suspicions he raises his hands and says “Allahu akbar” (God is Great). It’s a miqrab, the niche in a mosque that points the way to Mecca. And it does point the right direction. Is this mosque from the Harla times? If so, the Harla were the first Muslims in the region, predating the Harari people who can trace their roots back to the tenth century.

Or perhaps it’s a later ruin. So little is known about the Harla, and so little archaeological research has been done here, that for the time being all we have are legends of a race of giants who once ruled the land.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Harar, Ethiopia: two months in Africa’s City of Saints

Coming up next: Exploring Ethiopia’s Somali region!

The good old days were horrible


Ah, Merry Olde England! A time and place with happy people, clean streets, and scenes that looked just like they do on BBC historical dramas.

Not!

Premodern England was a grim place of death, filth, and general misery. Actually that can describe pretty much everywhere in the nineteenth century, but the town where the Brontë sisters lived was especially nasty. Some authors write novels to escape reality, and the Brontë sisters had a lot to escape from. Two of their sisters died in childhood thanks to the neglectful conditions at their boarding school. Then the Grim Reaper took the remaining sisters and their brother one by one.

This may have been due to the horrible health conditions in their town of Haworth, Yorkshire. At a time when all towns were unsanitary, Haworth took the prize. Haworth stands on the side of a steep hill with much of its water supply coming from natural springs near the top. Also near the top of the hill is the town graveyard. So crowded was this graveyard that the coffins were often buried ten deep. Water flowing through the graveyard contaminated the public pumps and ensured a steady supply of more dead bodies, which would rot, seep their juices into the water supply, and start the cycle anew. The Black Bull pub contributed to this by using this spring water to brew its own beer. One wonders what it tasted like.

%Gallery-104759%This wasn’t the only spring in Haworth, but the locals managed to ruin the others by placing open cesspools next to the pumps. Although the connection between cleanliness and health was only imperfectly understood, Patrick Brontë, local clergyman and father of the Brontë sisters, realized a place where 41 percent of the population died before age six had some serious issues. In 1850 he brought in Dr. Benjamin Babbage (son of Charles Babbage, who built the first computer) to make an inspection. Babbage was horrified at what he saw and his damning report of the local squalor made reformers take notice. If it wasn’t for Babbage, Haworth probably wouldn’t get so many tourists. People tend not to like smelling open cesspits and drinking decayed bodies while on vacation.

If natural causes didn’t bump you off, the Haworth poisoner might do it for you. John Sagar ran the local workhouse, the place where the poor were forced by law to live. There they were underfed, overworked, and slept in rat-infested little rooms as a punishment for the cardinal sin of poverty. Sagar was a “short, dark, vulgar-looking man” who only had one arm, which he used to beat his wife Barbara mercilessly. Everyone was too afraid of him to come to her aid. When she finally died it wasn’t by beating, but by arsenic poisoning. Sagar was the obvious suspect. Questions were also raised about the deaths of their nine children. Yet Sagar got off due to lack of evidence, and he lived to the ripe old age of 78, a small miracle considering the conditions of the town. Strangely, his is one of the only graves in the cemetery that shows signs of weathering. Some locals say nature is serving justice where the courts did not.

Links to the eerie past still linger. On some old buildings, strange stone faces stare out onto the street. They look like ancient Celtic stone heads, but researcher John Billingsley says they were a continuing folk magic custom that experienced a rebirth of popularity in the area in the 17th and 19th centuries. They were used to ward off evil, and as late as 1971 a head was placed over the front door of the Old Sun Inn to stop a haunting. It’s said to have worked! If you had witch trouble you could also carve a “W” into your door frame, or put pins into a bullock’s heart and bury it beneath the floorboards. Special witch bottles could be used to trap witches. I’ve seen pinned hearts and witch bottles at the West Highland Museum in Ft. William, Scotland, and the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, so the practice was widespread

With all the death and tourists, it’s not surprising that Haworth is full of ghost stories. Not only did I stay in a haunted hotel room, but every single bar I drank at or restaurant I ate in had a resident ghost. Phantom drinkers, gray ladies, even haunted carriages all prowl Haworth at night. There are deeper mysteries than ghosts, however. Witchcraft and folk magic abounded. Fear of witches was so great that local “cunning man” Old Jack Kay, a contemporary of the Brontës, would lift curses for a price. He also told fortunes and could show you your future spouse in a mirror or bowl of water. He and other “cunning men” brewed cures for the sick. Some were herbal medicine that might have been effective, while others had dubious ingredients. The urine of a red cow supposedly cured cancer. I suppose it would be unscientific to dismiss red cow’s urine as a cure for cancer with testing it, but good luck getting volunteers for the clinical trial.

So the next time you’re in some charming historic locale, think back on how things used to be, and be thankful that they’re not like that anymore!

Don’t miss the rest of my series on Exploring Yorkshire: ghosts, castles, and literature in England’s north.

Coming up next: Hiking the Yorkshire moors!

A special thanks to local historians Steven Wood and Philip Lister for all the great stories that contributed to this article, and all the great ones I couldn’t fit in.


This trip was sponsored by
VisitEngland and Welcome to Yorkshire, who would have a lot less to brag about if Dr. Babbage hadn’t fixed a few things.