The 'lost' kirk
The island of Eynhallow lies between the Orkney
Mainland and Rousay.
Abandoned in 1851, the 75-hectare island is surrounded
by ferocious tidal races - known in Orkney dialect as "roosts. These roosts are at their most spectacular when
the wind is in the north-west and a strong tide is running.
Now uninhabited, Eynhallow - the Norsemen's Eyin
Helga, Holy Island - has a special place in Orkney tradition
Originally believed to be the summer home of the
Finfolk, the island was
wrested from them by
the guile of an Orkney farmer.
At its centre, stands the ruins of
a chapel, which may have formed part of an early Christian monastic
settlement. But although we now know of its ecclessiastical origins, it was not always so.
Standing by the skeletal remains of two old houses,
it is immediately clear why the original purpose of the Eynhallow
kirk remained unknown for over 400 years. It is, quite simply, decidedly
Although the structure not only served the spiritual
needs of the island's early population, from the 16th century,
it was used as a dwelling by a number of the islanders.
Their later structural additions - a complex of
thatched roof cottages - served to mask the building's original role, 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 only 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.
Built to a Romanesque design, the church has 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. It is thought these stones were found during the
19th century clearance of the site, but their purpose remains
They do, however, have a distinct resemblance
to the stonework found in the St
Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall.
The Eynhallow Kirk is made from local stone, so the
red sandstone, as used in the cathedral, must have been imported
for a reason.
Years ago, 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 concluded: "The fragments on Eynhallow,
however, remain an enigma."
But what about the monastery?