• Gordon MacLellan

An island sorrow

Rousay, Eynhallow and the Sound beyond Gurness

In the northern seas, between the islands of Rousay and the west Mainland of Orkney lies Eynhallow Sound. The tide runs fast and wild here, surging through a channel where ancient brochs still watch across the waves. At the western end of the sound lies Eynhallow itself, the holy island, guarded from casual visits by those tidal races, roosts they call them in the islands.

Seals, by Steve Sankey

Once, however, Eynhallow, was Hildaland, one of the islands of the Finfolk, the people of the northern seas. Not selkies, the seal-people, nor mermaids as we think of them, the Finfolk were, or are, people of wind and wave and foam, as wild and deep and dangerous as the seas themselves. Hildaland rested there in the Sound, guarded by its roosts and no human set foot on the island unless they were brought there by one of the Finfolk themselves. The island itself came and went from sight, appearing out of the haar, the sea mist, and then fading away again, until…..but that is the first of Eynhallow’s Laments.

CelebrationEarth! comes into this story when we were talking to artists we know on the islands about continuity. Like so much of Britain, the Orkney Islands have been occupied by humans for thousands of years and seem to have been seen to hold sacred places for much of that time from Mesolithic travellers to the Neolithic builders of monuments and tombs and temples, to Bronze Age brochs and Viking settlements and Christian monasteries and churches…..Everything feels concentrated on Orkney. When you stand in one place you can often touch all those layers of history by hardly moving at all. We asked about ways of capturing that sense of story upon story upon story of a celebration that runs across centuries, reminding us of the value people have placed in landscapes, in sunrises and waves and wind, of the intimate relationship between people and the land that becomes home.

Four remarkable pieces of work have come to us from that challenge. Tom Muir, storyteller and historian, looked at Eynhallow and the centuries of its occupation and the sadness that runs through its story. The first of his three Laments is presented here. The others will follow. Fran Flett Hollinrake, storyteller, musician and custodian of St Magnus Cathedral, walked through those beautiful walls and listened to the emptiness. Had those walls in their thousand years of standing ever been so quiet for so long as this spring? But, listening, Fran could feel the centuries of people who had worshipped there. She knows the stories of the cathedral, of hidden bones and the subtle humour of gravestones. She listened to the sound without us and gives us The Unsilent Cathedral, which again will be part of this Orcadian sequence of posts and films.

All these pieces will be released over the next few weeks. First, can we invite you to stand on beach at Evie maybe or by Midhowe Broch pn Rousay and look out across the sound. The cormorants and shags that have known Eynhallow since the Finfolk days still patrol these waters. Selkies surface to watch if you stand on the beach at Evie. From the Broch of Gurness, we can look along the Sound, at the turquoise shallows of Evie Bay and the dangerous gunmetal depths of the Sound itself and now, Eynhallow is visible, catching sunlight, a gentle treasure lying across the waves.

Our thanks:

Words and voice on Finfolk’s Lament: Tom Muir

Blog: G MacLellan: www.creepingtoad.blogspot.com

Photographs (film and post):

  • Allen Fisher

  • Nicki Gwynn-Jones: https://nickigwynnjones.zenfolio.com/

  • Gordon MacLellan (any uncredited photos)

  • Tom Muir

  • Steve Sankey: www.orcadianwildlife.com

Line drawing

By Bryce Wilson from the Eynhallow Tale in 'Mermaid Bride and other Orkney Folk Tales' by Tom Muir, illustrated by Bryce Wilson.

Eynhallow under clouds

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