Eynhallow is a small island in Orkney, a short way from the larger island of Rousay. With treacherous tides and currents seething through the narrow straits, access is difficult even in calm seas.
An ancient church, later converted into houses, indicates the presence of a Christian monastic settlement. In the 1850s, the houses were evacuated and torn down. The island has been uninhabited ever since.
The name, from the Norse Eyin Helga, means ‘Holy Island’, and the island holds a special place in Orkney lore. Among other traditions, it was believed cats could not survive on the island. They would die of convulsions within a day.
Eynhallow was a home of the Finfolk, a strange and feared people who could control storms, shapeshift as seals and whales, had phenomenal sailing skills, and also routinely abducted local people.
Thanks to the Finfolk’s enchantment, Eynhallow routinely appeared and disappeared into the sea as its inhabitants wished. It was one of two ‘vanishing islands’ in Orkney, the other being Hether Blether. The latter’s enchantment has never been broken and is said to still rise from the mists occasionally.
Eynhallow’s enchantment was broken by a farmer. His wife had been abducted by a Finman and when the island rose from the sea, he rowed towards it, never taking his eyes off it else the enchantment would break and the island vanish, and in revenge he sowed salt around the island, destroying its magical power. He didn’t get his wife back but the island has remained in place ever since.
The Finfolk have been linked to shamanic people of Finland and Norway such as the Saami people, a short distance away by sea.
Orkney was home to a powerful Neolithic culture which abruptly came to an end around 2500BC, with the deliberate and ritual abandonment of the hitherto important sites. Orkney then became a backwater throughout the Bronze Age and Iron Age, with little impact on national culture.
Perhaps the Finfolk were the survivors of a powerful shamanic tradition which still survives in Scandinavia, settled on an inaccessible island and feared by the newer inhabitants for their magical powers. Over time, history turned into legend.