Wednesday, 16 November 2011


(This article was published in SPIN 60 - Scottish Pagan Federation magazine - summer 2011)

I must confess to at one point having had a bit of a love-hate relationship with Orkney, with the hate bit slowly having festered during the two years since I first moved here in self-imposed exile from the Hampshire rat race. Indeed, there are still times when I deeply regret moving here and would gladly sell my soul and pawn the cat if only I could turn the clock back three years and wake myself from the ridiculous day-dream of “if only I could live on a remote Scottish island …”

The things I miss most about "sooth" are the simple daily conveniences (in Orkney you cannot buy almond croissants, Welsh cakes, or applicator tampons in an absorbency smaller than regular), the fact that it can get a bit “island fever” here, and the sheer environmental determinism of our winters.  And then every so often, something will happen which will remind me of why I came here and why it would be such a painful tug to leave.

My visit to Eynhallow last summer was one of those consolations.

Today Orkney comprises about 70 islands.  These are really just one larger partially sunken island, of whose hills we now live on top of.  Most of the island names end in “say” or “ay” – old Norse for “island” – hence Ronaldsay, Stronsay, Burray, Papay, Sanday, Westray, Eday … you will note that Eynhallow does not.  This provides us with an indication that its name is either very early Norse, or pre-Norse, possibly Pictish, a relic of language from the Iron Age peoples who lived here about 2000 years ago and probably spoke proto-Gaelic.  It has been suggested that Eynhallow means “Holy Island” and the linguistic lineage of its name hints that it has been sacred in some way for some considerable time.

Eynhallow is an island off the northern coast of mainland Orkney, south of the island of Rousay, lying in Eynhallow Sound which is infamous for its strong tidal surges so treacherous for fisherfolk.  It is about 75 hectares in area (you can walk around the entire shoreline in about two hours) and currently unpopulated (by humans).  Eynhallow was cleared in 1851 but in the middle ages there was a church and possibly a monastery (hence “holy”); now it is home only to echoes, memories and seabirds.

The legend of Eynhallow is that it was the summer home of the Finfolk, part of their Hildaland, magical vanishing islands which can sometimes still be seen, far out to sea.  Tales of mysterious and magical  creatures abound in Orkney, with one “species” being the Finfolk, a sea-faring, shape-shifting people with incredible occult powers and not well-disposed to humans.  Folklore describes how Eynhallow appeared once, from out of the mists, but a canny Orcadian farmer quickly landed and spilt salt all around the  shoreline, ensuring that when the mists came back down, Eynhallow stayed put, trapped forever as part of Orkney.

There is no regular ferry service to Eynhallow but private boats can be chartered and once a year, in summer, the Orkney Heritage Society commandeers the Rousay-Egilsay-Wyre ferry for an evening trip.   These trips are advertised in the local weekly paper once a year around July and sell out extremely rapidly.

When I went to Eynhallow last summer, the ferry trip started in an especially auspicious way with the ferry unnaturally speeding up (speed is not generally associated with Orkney) because a basking shark had been sighted in Eynhallow Sound and they wanted to bring the ferry up as close as possible, shut the engines, and provide a photo opportunity for our delight and delectation.  It is not unusual for ferries to spontaneously follow pods of orcas and suchlike in Orkney, throwing timetables to the winds, but then it is also not unusual for deck-hands to be studying part-time for a PhD in marine biology either.

Basking shark fin

The shark was indeed a good omen for the evening, with a blessedly calm crossing and a temperate breeze promising a magnificent sunset. We had about two hours ashore, time enough to walk the circumference, and it immediately felt appropriate to do so in a sunwise direction.

Black seals

Even with another eighty or so fellow passengers, the atmosphere of Eynhallow easily seeped through their chit-chat and company and I soon found myself in a dreamy reverie – an altered state of consciousness which I associate with trancing.  Eynhallow is seriously “spinny” – a term I use to describe the effect on me of some places of power; usually, for me, these are prehistoric sites such as cairns, stone circles and portal places.  When I experience “spinny” sensations, it is like being slightly drunk, slightly drugged, “not all here”, betwixt and between, neither fully in this reality nor in the Other, but aware of both and their profound overlaps.  Usually this feeling creeps up on me and I then have to “Work” to recreate it, forcing myself to be receptive to it and feeling out the specific places where it is triggered, but not on Eynhallow.  On Eynhallow the “spinny” was the norm and instead I had to work at being in the here and now, and I’d be jerked out every so often by someone passing to say how wonderful the fulmar colony was and I’d answer, but then be straight back into the altered state of consciousness.  There were voices, presences too, back and just out of perception, which I strained to hear but missed, but knew I was setting off memories, beings from other realities, energies and spirits.  They were far more aware of me than I of them and I only had a brief chance to meditate whilst awaiting the ferry to return, despite being conscious of not giving the impression of being too weird with so many folk around.  Trust me, no-one would want to be known forever more as “the one who was doing that weird thing on Eynhallow”.  They take a long time to forget here!

The evening finished with a stunning Orkney sunset with its strange all-pervading illuminating light that penetrates and saturates all things, rendering them almost translucent.  When everything becomes like a light-body and you can start to imagine that it is possible to live on sunlight alone, and that sunlight has the potential to supply all your needs and nourishment.

It was an amazing evening and one which I can thoroughly recommend if you find yourself in Orkney at the right time of year and are lucky or organised enough to get a ticket (about £20 each).  There is something about being on an island that is so special, as if you are putting distance between yourself and the rest of the world, both physically and emotionally.  Like the image on the six of cups in Tarot or that folk saying about witches not being able to pass over water, crossing to an island seems to symbolically make you leave part of yourself behind, providing a sense that no-one can get you, safety in distance.  This sense is even more so when you travel from an island to another island as you do when you travel from mainland Orkney to Eynhallow (or any of the other islands in this archipelago – all other islands in Orkney tend to look towards mainland Orkney for their centre, their axis mundi, rather than to Caithness).

I took a stone home from the shore.  Partly, I think because I wanted to see if I could actually get it home or whether it would disappear before I could do so, taken back by the magical Finfolk, or would they use it later as a locator to find me?

I still have the stone but I have since learnt I wasn’t being too cautious about the Finfolk.  As recently as 1990, 88 were counted off the ferry to Eynhallow but only 86 were counted back on. A massive air and sea search was launched, including the use of heat sensing equipment, but the missing tourists were never found.  Plenty of folk here think they were really returning Finfolk.

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