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Bernie Bell: Orkney Walks (with stories) – Eynhallow ….to Canada

For all these walks, take a good map with you, and wear stout footwear!


There’s a small island called Eynhallow, across from Aikerness Beach and the Broch of Gurness, in Evie.  It’s a place of many tales, of ‘fin-folk’,  of monks, and of ordinary folk, too.  It is definitely one of those places, it has something about it.  A ‘Holy Island’.

Each year, the Orkney Heritage Society organizes a trip to Eynhallow, aboard one of the small, inter-island ferries.  Otherwise, you’d need to charter a boat, and also check it’s OK with the RSPB who have a Reserve, there.

The Heritage Society trip is good, if you can catch it, as you then have knowledgeable guides with you.  One set of people set off clockwise, with an archaeologist, and another group set off anti-clockwise with an RSPB person.  Each group walks right round the island.  On a fine, summer’s evening, you can’t imagine a much better way to spend your time.

Mike and I had been on a few of these trips.  Ben-The-Dog wasn’t allowed because of ground-nesting birds.  Ground-nesting birds and terriers, don’t mix!

Eynhallow Bernie Bell

Eynhallow (B. Bell)

On one visit, when the archaeology group had stopped at what is thought to have been a monastery, Mike and I thought we’d go and look at some of the other, ruinous buildings, farther up the hill.

There was one other person there, a man taking photographs.  We got talking with him, and he told us this tale……………….

Some months earlier, there had been a knock on his door, and the person who had come a knockin’, was a woman from Canada.  She was a relation of his, but one which he had been un-aware of.  Back in Canada, she’d started to research her family history, and she found that her ancestors originally came from Orkney,  from Eynhallow.

The man then told us that the ruin which we were standing in, once housed a family of fourteen, yes, fourteen children!  The winter nights were long and cold, and there was no television, then!  There were a few families living on Eynhallow at the time, and it’s hard to imagine even one, small, family being able to make a living there, never mind when one of the families has fourteen children!

So, not surprisingly, many of these children had to leave home.

Some just went ‘Sooth’, to Mainland Scotland , or England, some to America, Australia, or Canada.  The trouble was, at that time, let’s say 19th Century, the postal service wasn’t what it is, now, and there were no mobile ‘phones and no inter-net.  So, many folk who left their homeland, did so and were never heard of again.  The families back home, just had to live with this, and accept it as a fact of life.

Sometimes, joyfully, the wanderer returned, and sometimes they’d even made good and came home laden with good things for the family.  Sometimes, however, they set off…………. and that was that.  Maybe they perished on the journey, maybe they arrived, wrote home, but the letters went astray, or maybe, even, sometimes, they took a new life, as a new life , and chose to sever all ties with what they may have seen as a very hard life, back home.

In this case, the story was of a young man who had left Eynhallow, and gone to Canada, and no-one on Orkney ever knew what had become of him, until there was the knock on the door!  The woman visiting Orkney, was a descendent of that long-lost traveller, and had traced her family, who were surprised to find  that they had a whole new set of relations!

Her stay on Orkney didn’t give her the opportunity to visit Eynhallow, so the man that we were talking with, had promised that he’d take advantage of the next trip over, and take some ‘photos for her, of what remains of the family home.  And that was what he was doing, when we met him.

This isn’t an un-usual story, in Scotland, and Ireland, where the young folk had to leave home to make their own way in life.  My Father’s family home, in Ireland, is a ruin, and my Mother’s family home, is now a cow-shed!  That was the reality of life, then, and folk just had to accept it.  Maybe they were made of sterner stuff, than now.

I can’t help making a comparison, with many of today’s young people, who have a parent-funded ‘gap year’, and then The Bank of Mum & Dad as a source of support , for years past the time when they really should be showing some independence.  Not all, by any means, many seek work close to home, and many still go away to work, but, even then, they have easy communication with their family and friends, back home.  They don’t have that heart-wrenching, total separation.  Another time, another world.  Such changes.


Bernie Bell is a regular columnist with The Orkney News and has written a series of ‘Walks with Stories’ – check out more of them.

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