Tuesday, 23 July 2013

THE STONE BLOGS #2: Eyin Helga, Eynhallow, Holy Isle, Hildaland



Last night I went to Eynhallow for the first time in my life. I used to look across at it from Evie where my fella stayed. Sometimes in the late evening sun the island stood out so clearly I felt as if I could step across the Burgar Roost and land dry-shod on its shores. Other times it disappeared entirely into the mist and left Rousay lowering darkly out of an otherwise seemingly empty sound. 








Maybe this is why it became associated with Hildaland, the island of the Finn Folk, mostly hidden from mortal eyes, but sometimes glimpsed by Orcadians travelling by. The guide last night told the assembled folk who had sailed out on the annual Orkney Heritage Society trip the story of how Hildaland was tricked away from the Finn Folk and claimed for mortal Orcadians.

There seemed to be plenty trickery afoot last night, enough to put folk off stepping onto the shore. When we disembarked, thousands of shrieking terns rose from the rocks like a storm of needles and made us humans feel very unwelcome indeed. We steered clear of them, though, and headed out sunwise round the island to see the archaeological remains; those who wanted to see the birdlife walked off widdershins. 




One of the main attractions on Eynhallow - named Eyin Helga, Holy Island, by the Vikings - is a chapel and monastery dating back to the 12th Century. It is a Romanesque structure with impressive arches and there are mysteries surrounding it. Check out the excellent Orkneyjar website for more information about Eynhallow, the facts and the fiction, the mysteries and the speculation. 

It struck me once again, that the building methods for dry-stane dykes - see previous blog - have remained the same for centuries.  Millennia even, as we shall see ... 



Here is what Jo Ben said about Eynhallow in 1529 in his Descriptio Insularum Orchadiarum:

"ENHALLOW

Enhallow, as if it were, the Holy Island, and very small.
It is of old times related that here, if the standing corn be cut down, after the setting of the sun, unexpectedly there is a flowing of blood from the stalks of the grain; also it is said that if a horse is fastened, after sun-down it will easily get loose and wander anywhere during the night [without hindrance from any one, if indeed these be not hindrance from evil intent.
Here you may discern the futitious and fabulous traditions of these people."

(This information is quoted from Orkneyjar website, as above.)




Eynhallow, with its holy order of monks lost sight of down the centuries, had an important part to play in the imagination of George Mackay Brown.

In George Mackay Brown:The Wound and the GiftRon Ferguson's exploration of GMB's literary and spiritual journey, he quotes a conversation:

'Irene Dunsmuir told me that at one stage, George got work as a road man on the island of Rousay. “He had to take the work,” she told me, “or his benefit would have been stopped. He told me how he enjoyed the view, looking over to Eynhallow.”
           I love it! I treasure the image of the frail but thrawn poet, dressed in workman’s gear, leaning on his shovel and looking wistfully out to the holy island of Eynhallow, the place of the monks. George Brown’s career as a labourer was a short one.'







In his early poem, The Storm, which clearly shows the influence of Gerard Manley Hopkins, GMB imagines a fisherman wrecked on the shore of Eynhallow:

... Rousay before me, the stout mast
Snapped, billowing down helpless sail.
               What evil joy the storm
               Seized us! plunged and spun!

And flung us, skiff and man (wave-crossed, God-lost)
On a rasp of rock! ... The shore breakers,
               Stained chancel lights,
               Cluster of mellow bells,

Crossed hands, scent of holy water ...
The storm danced over all that night,
               Loud with demons, but I
               Safe in Brother Colm's cell.

Next morning in tranced sunshine
The corn lay squashed on every hill;
               Tang and tern were strewn
               Among the highest pastures.

I tell you this my son: after
That Godsent storm, I find peace here
               These many years with
               The Gray Monks of Eynhallow.

You can read this poem and all of his others in The Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown, edited by Archie Bevan and Brian Murray.




It was possible, last night, to imagine the Gray Monks of Eynhallow, setting candle stubs in narrow windows and looking out on the wild stretch of sea between them and the Evie coast.

After a difficult but fascinating tramp round the island, negotiating the storm of terns again, we made it back to the boat.



I'd love to go again sometime - and stay longer ...







 

13 comments:

  1. It's a fascinating place! I wish I could have come along on Monday . . . Yvonne

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    1. Hi Yvonne, yes it was a great trip. I can thoroughly recommend it. I think it's an annual event.
      Alison

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    2. The Heritage Society runs the trip each year around the middle of July. The date is announced on their website www.orkneycommunities.co.uk/ohs in about March. You can find full details of the trip there. Tickets go on sale at the beginning of July.

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    3. Thanks for that information about the Heritage Society's annual trip to Eynhallow. I've only just seen the comment, hence the delay in putting it up here. It seemed to appear in a different place from normal.
      Thank you.

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  2. Amber Connolly23 July 2013 at 23:38

    Lovely blog Alison, very atmospheric. Must book in next year!

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    1. Thanks, Amber. Yes do! It's well worth it.

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  3. Orkney Library stands solid and white, like a longhouse on a grand scale, maybe a storyteller's idea of a wizard's palace? Inside the light and colour sweep the unsuspecting visitor into a rising wave, lifting the spirit amongst the tapestries and windows.
    Dancing and swimming in that airy wave are a myriad companions, telling tales, singing songs, arguing a point, all jostling to be taken notice of.
    Some voices are warm with human blood …
    Others whisper and roar like the sea, crashing, hushing, mirror-calm, wild with rage.
    As these companions turn to shelve a book, their fins unfurl.

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    Replies
    1. I'll pass this comment on to my colleagues when they surface! Thank you for posting.

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  4. from the poetry group other alison: the time i went on this annual jaunt, many yrs ago, somebody swore that sandy firth had miscounted folk off and back on to the ferry and that a ship-jumper was left holed up in the ruins for a life contemplative - any signs of him (are hermits always male?) when you were there?
    i used to gaze at the islet from westness where i spent many happy summers, and now think its best not to land, but to keep it at arm's length, to keep the mystery suitably mysterious (as a reminder i keep a copy of the library's lovely hoxa tapestry of the finn man powerfully circumnavigating his property in my bedroom...)

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    1. Thank you, other Alison! I saw no sign of the man who was left behind. He may have cooried in somewhere among the piles of stone and be subsisting on fish and seabirds' eggs and nettles.

      Yes, I understand the desire to keep it mysterious, though for me the mystery deepened after my visit - in a different kind of way. But it is a lovely island to look out on, though I doubt it is visible this morning through the haar!

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  5. from the poetry group other alison: the time i went on this annual jaunt, many yrs ago, somebody swore that sandy firth had miscounted folk off and back on to the ferry and that a ship-jumper was left holed up in the ruins for a life contemplative - any signs of him (are hermits always male?) when you were there?
    i used to gaze at the islet from westness where i spent many happy summers, and now think its best not to land, but to keep it at arm's length, to keep the mystery suitably mysterious (as a reminder i keep a copy of the library's lovely hoxa tapestry of the finn man powerfully circumnavigating his property in my bedroom...)

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  6. The distinctive masonry style of North Scotland as seen in the acordion-shaped arches with triangular keystones has also been identified in a medieval foundation structure at Newport, Rhode Island, in the States. This type of arch is also seen in a few medieval structures in Iceland, Greenland, Shetland, the Western Scottish Islands, and North Scotland. The structure at Newport is tentatively credited to a voyage by Prince Henry Sinclair, Earl of the Orkneys, circa 1398.

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  7. So sorry to take so long to reply. I hadn't looked at this post for a while. What you say is very interesting. Thank you. I didn't know any of that.

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