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  The Sorcerous Finfolk

Vanishing islands

Eynhallow. Picture by Sigurd TowrieOnce, in the not too distant past, Orkney was said to have at least two extra islands.

Both of these magical isles were said to rise, from time to time, green and fertile from the churning ocean waves.

The first and best-known of Orkney's vanishing islands was Hildaland, the summer home of the Finfolk.

Hildaland later became identified with the monastic, and now uninhabited, island of Eynhallow.

Alongside Hildaland was the lesser-known Hether Blether. Its location was also ambiguous but was thought be in the same area as Eynhallow, but further out to sea, just on the horizon.

Hether Blether was also a dwelling place of the Finfolk, indeed both islands appear in numerous Orkney folktales. Their roles, however, are interchangeable, with some tales recounting how the daring mortals chance upon Hildaland, with variants of the same story stating Hether Blether.

In Orkney, it is not uncommon for sea-mists and thick fog-banks to appear and disappear rapidly, obscuring all from view. Perhaps here we have an origin for the tales of our vanishing islands - in all the accounts involving the Finmen and their hidden homes, the mortals who come across them are first enshrouded by a magical mist which soon clears revealing the enchanted isle.

Because it was wrested from the grip of the Finfolk, Eynhallow can be seen today, sitting between the Orkney Mainland and the island of Rousay.

It is surrounded by the ferocious tides known as "roosts" that are immortalised in the children's rhyme:

"Eynhallow fair, Eynhallow Free
Eynhallow stands in the middle of the sea
With a roaring roost on either side
Eynhallow stands in the middle of the tide."

Hether Blether,on the other hand, was never taken from the Finfolk and is still said to rise - albeit infrequently. Unfortunately, however, these days, few people know about this vanishing island, and even less care.

Tradition dictates that any man who saw the islands on their brief appearances should hold steel in his hand while rowing towards it, never once taking his eyes off its shores.

If he managed to place a foot on the island the enchantment that hid it from mortal eyes would be broken.