Was Orkney’s Holy Island home to an ancient monastery?

Picture: Sigurd Towrie

The Eynhallow Kirk

The sun broke through the clouds and before me lay the island.


The Holy Island. The Norsemen’s Eyin Helga. The summer home of the Finfolk, wrested from their sorcerous grip by the Guidman of Thorodale.

After years, a childhood ambition looked set to be fulfilled.

But this was no folktale. For the first time I was going to Eynhallow.

The invitation had come courtesy of Historic Scotland, who had arranged the trip as part of a five-year conservation project on the island’s twelfth century chapel. The visiting team wanted to survey the building to fine-tune their maintenance plans for the current year.

After a short trip by chartered boat from Tingwall, the rocky beach on the island’s south-eastern shore lay a stone’s throw away.

But technical problems threatened the “expedition”. A failed outboard motor left no method of challenging the powerful currents and reaching shore.

I was so near and yet so far.

But thankfully, a veteran of many Eynhallow landings, Dr Paul Thomson, was on hand. A biologist from Aberdeen University, Paul has spent a considerable time on the island.

Picture Sigurd Towrie

As a last resort, the intrepid party had to haul themselves to the shore using a rope - which subsequently snapped!

Transferring to an inflatable dinghy, and using a rope to reach shore, before long he had managed to ferry four – myself included – of the anxious party to the beach. But a snapped rope put paid to any more making it across.

So our much-reduced party set off in a westward direction towards our goal.

Reaching the top of the low hill between the beach and our destination, and standing by the skeletal remains of two old houses, it became immediately clear why the purpose of the Eynhallow kirk had remained unknown for over 400 years — quite simply, it was decidedly un-churchlike.

Although the structure not only served the spiritual needs of the island’s early population, from the sixteenth century it also became home to a number of the islanders, who added their own “extensions” to the original building.

These later additions — a complex of thatched roof cottages — served to mask the original role of the building, until, in 1851, disease and death among the four families who lived there led to the evacuation of the island.

The site was abandoned, and Eynhallow left to seabird and seal.

This disease is traditionally said to have been typhoid, ascribed to the well, Kairikelda, which it is claimed, lay below a midden which polluted the water supply. How much truth is in this remains unknown.

Following the outbreak, and to make the buildings uninhabitable, the roofs were torn off. It was then, that it became clear that an ancient church lay at the core of the complex. From the outside, the modern visitor would still be hard-pressed to guess at the original function, but, once inside, the sight of two ornate stone arches makes it immediately apparent.

Picture Sigurd Towrie

Decidedly un-churchlike! The remains of the twelfth century kirk on Eynhallow.

Built to a Romanesque design, the church had a rectangular nave, opening at the east end into a rectangular chancel.

At the west end was a substantial square porch – which, it has been suggested, could actually be the remnants of the lower walls of a square church tower. Narrow doorways allow access to the interior.

An intriguing mystery surrounds a number of red sandstone fragments that lie in one of the kirk’s outbuildings. These stones are thought to have been found during the nineteenth century clearance of the site. But their purpose remains unknown. But they have a distinct resemblance to the stonework found in the St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall.

The Eynhallow Kirk is made from local stone, the red sandstone, as used in the cathedral, must have been imported for a reason.

Years go, Dr Raymond Lamb, then the Orkney archaeologist, suggested that construction on the church began around 1150, following the style of St Magnus Cathedral. Were these “soft” sandstone fragments originally incorporated into the interior design of the Eynhallow kirk, but later removed when it became a domestic settlement?

As Dr Lamb wrote: “The fragments on Eynhallow, however, remain an enigma.”

But what about the monastery?

Today, numerous accounts describe the site as being that of a monastery, and even today the Ordnance Survey maps of the island clearly mark it as such.

The first suggestion that the structures standing beside the church had a monastic function appears in the 1906 publication, Monumenta Orcadica.

However, the earliest surviving account of Eynhallow, in the enigmatic author Jo Ben’s Descriptio Insularum Orchadiarum, supposedly written in 1529, makes no mention of a monastery or even the church.

This, suggested Raymond Lamb, indicates that any monastic community had not lasted until the Reformation. Writing in 1989, Lamb proposed that any ecclesiastic settlement must have come to an end long before Jo Ben’s alleged visit – long enough for any memory to have faded.

He adds: “. . . there is no medieval document which refers directly or indirectly” to a monastic establishment on Eynhallow.

Although it is a subject that has been debated greatly over the years, the truth of the matter is that it remains unclear whether a monastery was sited by the church. A full archaeological survey of the site and its surroundings is required to answer this question once and for all.

This survey might shed some light on another commonly asked question. Did the current Eynhallow Kirk replace an earlier, possibly pre-Norse, chapel on the site?

Querying the archaeologists after returning to the launch, while dodging the crashing spray cascading over the decks, the answer was simple enough. “We don’t yet have archaeological evidence to say either way”.

But that is perhaps not unsurprising given the wealth of uninvestigated archaeology that abounds on Orkney’s Holy Isle.

But aside from the archaeology, the placename evidence certainly seems to indicate that there was an earlier church, possibly even a monastery.

Why else would the Norsemen, who renamed the islands after their arrival in the ninth century, give it the name Eyin Helga — Holy Isle?

A name also used in the sagas to describe the island of Iona, as well as a small island in the Norwegian lake Mjösa, now known as Helgeöya.

Further to the north lies Monkerness — the “Monk’s point” — which again seems to indicate a clear association with a monastic settlement.

With these questions in my head, I turned my attention to the monolith standing proud to the south of the kirk. Although there is doubt as to the antiquity of this single stone, beside it lies a mound that has been variously classed as a burial cairn and a simple pile of stones.

But regardless of the antiquarian value, it proved a perfect vantage point to view a lone yacht hurtle through the tidal races of Eynhallow Sound, while the selkies watched the figures stalking the island from the safety of the shallow water by The Graand.

Here I contemplated the tales surrounding the island recorded by Jo Ben, who made sure his readers realised he did not believe in such “fabulous traditions”.

“It is of old times related that here,” he wrote, “if the standing corn be cut down, after the setting of the sun, unexpectedly there is a flowing of blood from the stalks of the grain; also it is said that if a horse is fastened, after sun-down it will easily get loose and wander anywhere during the night.”

Eynhallow, the island of the Finfolk, where no rat, cat or mouse could thrive. An isle captured from these preternatural beings by an Evie farmer out for revenge.

The Guidman o’ Thorodale seized the island, one of Orkney’s two vanishing isles, after a Finman abducted his wife. Aided by his sons, Thorodale cut nine crosses in Eynhallow’s soil and circled its shore three times, sowing nine rings of salt.

“And so the Finfolk’s Hildaland was cleared of all enchantment and lay bare. Empty and clean to the sight of man and heaven. Then it was called Eynhallow — the Holy Isle — and a church was raised there.”

But back in the present, and conscious of time and the encroachment of the tide, it was thought prudent to return to the beach and make our attempt to leave.

While one of my onshore colleagues returned to the kirk to make a photographic record for Historic Scotland’s surveyors, I set off. The wind had picked up slightly, sending ominous clouds billowing across the sky, but the gales promised by the forecasters had yet to materialise.
Picture Sigurd TowrieStill, on that reasonably calm and bright day, the difficulties involved in accessing and maintaining an isolated site such as Eyhallow’s kirk were clear. Thanks must go to Historic Scotland for preserving this, what has to be one of the county’s least-known and least-visited sites.

Back at the shore, with the waves clawing at the pebbles underfoot, we made preparations to depart. After a number of attempts to get a rope on board the awaiting launch, we were soon back on the dinghy and safely on our way back to the Mainland.

There, buffeted by wind and wave, the island gradually fading into the distance, my thoughts turned back to the Eynhallow of Orcadian tradition. An otherworldly place of sea-monsters and magic, appearing and disappearing out of the shifting mists until it was finally claimed by mortal man.

Surely there was no better place for an ecclesiastical settlement — isolated by the raging roosts that spawned the Orcadian rhyme:

Eynhallow fair, Eynhallow free
Eynhallow sits in the middle o’ the sea
A roaring roost on every side,
Eynhallow sits in the middle o’ the tide.

And now, after years of dreaming, one more mortal had touched her shores.

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