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  Eynhallow - The Holy Isle

Picture: Sigurd Towrie

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 and folklore.

Picture Sigurd Towrie
Decidedly un-churchlike! The remains of the 12th century kirk on Eynhallow.

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 un-churchlike.

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 unknown.

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?

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