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Isle of May monastery ruins (Peter Yeoman) top left; Skeletal remains on May (Peter Yeoman/ British Archaeology Magazine); The foot bones of a teenager with syphilis (left). An enlarged skull, possibly due to hydrocephaly (right). (Images: Marlo Willows/British Archaeology) bottom left.

Sick Children’s Skeletons Unearthed on Holy Healing Isle

The lost history of a sacred Scottish “healing island” has revealed its holy secrets in the skeletal dna of sick children, archaeologists in Edinburgh have announced.

This string of majestical islands in Scotland’s Firth of Forth have been in habited since the Bronze Age and have a rich tradition of “healing,” incorporating “plague-carrying bodies” on Inchkeith. But now, the Benedictine monastery on the Isle of May has been explored by archaeologist Marlo Willows of the  University of Edinburgh, who “discovered syphilitic children suggesting the island was a medieval center of medicine and healing,” according to an article in the Herald.

Isle of May harbor, with the ruins of the monastery close by.

Isle of May harbor, with the ruins of the monastery close by. (Image: Peter Yeoman/Fife Council Archaeology Service )

The new findings suggest people sailed here from all over Scotland “seeking wisdom from the monks who called it home and also the hope of divine intervention - either in this life or the next” said the archaeologist. For over a millennium, the monastery on the Isle of May was associated with an early Christian evangelist “Ethernan,” who was believed to have been buried there “while ministering to the Picts who once called Fife their home,” said Willows.

Parts of the priory buildings here, dedicated to St Ethernan (or Adrian), date from the 11th century.

Parts of the priory buildings here, dedicated to St Ethernan (or Adrian), date from the 11th century. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Last year, archaeologists unearthed “dozens of graves dated between 500 AD to around 1500 AD,” and the skeletons “were riddled with serious and life-ending diseases - including the earliest case of prostate cancer ever identified in the UK” it was discovered. Peter Yeoman, the former county archaeologist for Fife, told reporters at the Herald that “he was amazed at the new light being shed on the old bones” and the “victim of prostate cancer were revealed to be covered in lesions indicating he had carried the disease for many years.”

Dozens of graves have been found with diseased skeletal remains.

Dozens of graves have been found with diseased skeletal remains. (Image: Peter Yeoman/ British Archaeology Magazine )

What’s more, “another skeleton of a teenage boy was laced with signs of congenital syphilis,” which would have been “very painful" added Yeoman. "We can only speculate, but there's something going on. These were very, very sick people - so were they going out there to be healed?” asked the archaeologist. Subjective evidence suggests this is exactly what was “going on” as traces of medicinal plants have been found on May “including greater celadine which is used to treat pain and disease, and henbane - used as anaesthetic,” the archaeologists reported.

The foot bones of a teenager with syphilis (left). An enlarged skull, possibly due to hydrocephaly (right).

The foot bones of a teenager with syphilis (left). An enlarged skull, possibly due to hydrocephaly (right). (Images: Marlo Willows /British Archaeology )

Speaking to reporters at the Herald, David Steel, Scottish National Heritage’s Isle of May reserve manager, said: "This amazing new information showing the Isle of May was a center of healing is another fabulous example of the uniqueness of the island.” The manager added: "The monastery would have been a place of learning and the monks would likely have been literate, so it's possible they were using that knowledge to treat the sick.” The belief was “being so close to the grave of a saint such as Ethernan would help their souls reach their way to heaven, through the "sacred radiation" of his holy presence.”

A Modern Mystical Neighbor

And this perceived “holy radiation” has been sensed in modern times, well, according to the spoon-millionaire Uri Geller, that is. In 2009 Geller famously bought the neighboring Isle of Lamb and according to a Scotsman article his purchase was “influenced” by a spurious New Age article in a 2009 edition of the occult magazine  Atlantis Rising . Convinced an “exiled Egyptian princess, Scota” had buried something valuable on Lamb island, Geller subsequently spent a night on the island in 2010, about which he said he “used dowsing abilities to see if there is any truth to the ancient legend which points to a hidden Egyptian treasure on the island.”

Although Geller failed to locate the “treasure of Egyptian princess,” this story just goes to show how a belief, no matter how wild, can have a direct effect in the real world and lead one to action. In this case, the effect ended at Gellers bank account, but a thousand years ago, believing May could heal one’s sick child, folk would have sailed the seven seas to get there for some of its perceived “healing energies” and hands on medical work. Archaeologists on the Isle of May now suspect “the monks of May used their “herb lore to treat the sick and dying" who they suspect “pilgrimaged to the island in hope of a miracle cure or simple care in their dying days.” It would appear the island’s majestical setting, medical and holy environment, have always made it a place where the veil between this world and the others, was perceived as being just that bit thinner.

Top image: Isle of May monastery ruins ( Peter Yeoman ) top left; Skeletal remains on May ( Peter Yeoman/ British Archaeology Magazine ); The foot bones of a teenager with syphilis (left). An enlarged skull, possibly due to hydrocephaly (right). (Images: Marlo Willows/ British Archaeology ) bottom left.

By Ashley Cowie

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