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  Eynhallow - The Holy Isle

The Eynhallow monastery
fact or fiction?

Picture Sigurd Towrie
The Eynhallow Kirk - site of an ancient monastery?

Today, numerous accounts describe the site of the Eynhallow kirk 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 appeared in the 1906 publication, Monumenta Orcadica.

However, the earliest surviving account of Eynhallow, in the enigmatic 16th century author Jo Ben's Descriptio Insularum Orchadiarum, makes no mention of a monastery, or even the church.

This, suggested Raymond Lamb, indicates that any monastic community had not lasted to 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 over the years, the truth of the matter is that it is still unclear whether there ever was a monastery by the church. A full archaeological survey of the site, and its surroundings, is required to answer this question once and for all.

Picture Sigurd Towrie
The south-facing side of the Eynhallow kirk

This survey, if it ever happens, might also 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, the answer is 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.

Despite this, the placename evidence certainly seems to indicate that there was an earlier church, possibly even a monastery.

Why else would the Norsemen, who renamed all the islands after taking over Orkney, give it the name Eyin Helga - Holy Isle? This name was 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.

To the north of the kirk lies Monkerness - the "Monk's point" - which again seems to indicate a clear association with a monastic settlement.

Eynhallow in folklore and tradition

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