Bardsey Island – A Small Land for 20,000 Holy Souls
For being only one mile long by less than a mile wide, Bardsey Island is a small piece of land, but it is of great historical and cultural significance. The island’s reputation is bolstered through legendary tales, historical events, and a variety of wildlife.
Located off the Western Coast of the United Kingdom, Bardsey Island covers an area of 0.69 square miles (1.79 sq. km). It consists of steeply elevated lands to the northeast, flat, cultivated farmland to the west, and an isthmus to the south leading to a peninsula. Perched upon the peninsula is the iconic Bardsey Lighthouse, and much of the island serves as a wildlife reserve.
Bardsey Island. (BigStockPhoto)
Why is Bardsey Island a Place of Pilgrimage?
Much of the island’s history begins in 516 when Saint Cadfan built a monastery on the island. The area served as a major center of pilgrimage in medieval times, and as a refuge for persecuted Christians. During these times, making three pilgrimages to Bardsey was considered the equivalent of making a single pilgrimage to Rome.
However, navigating the island was quite treacherous due to unpredictable currents in the Bardsey Sound. It was therefore customary for pilgrims to invoke the protection of the Virgin Mary before making the dangerous crossing to the island.
A Famous Final Resting Place for 20,000 Souls
Bardsey Island became and remained known as “the holy place of burial for all the bravest and best in the land.” Royalty and the holy were commonly buried on the island, and it is said that thousands of saints have been buried beneath the Bardsey Island soil, leading the island to be nicknamed the “Island of 20,000 Saints.”
Was the legendary King Arthur buried on Bardsey Island? Painting, La Mort d’Arthur (The Death of King Arthur) by James Archer ( 1860). (Public Domain)
Other Uses for Bardsey Island
The monastery, St. Mary’s Abbey, was still an institution as late as the year 1188. However, by 1212 it had been taken over by the Augustinians. In 1536, the Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries Act led to the dissolution of the abbey, and the destruction of its buildings.
Over the years, Bardsey Island served as part of the Newborough Estate. From 1870 through 1875, the farms were rebuilt, a limestone quarry was constructed, and a lime kiln was created.
Despite the dissolution of the monastery, the island is still a pilgrimage location to this day. When given the choice between a harbor and a place of worship, residents of the island chose to have a Methodist chapel built. In 1979, the Bardsey Island Trust purchased the island.
St. Mary's Abbey ruins and cottages, Bardsey Island. (Colin Park/CC BY SA 2.0)
A Renowned Lighthouse
One well-noted feature of Bardsey Island is the Bardsey Lighthouse. It sits upon the peninsula at the southern tip of the island, and helps to guide vessels through St. George’s Channel. The lighthouse was built by Trinity House (a private corporation) in 1821.
Joseph Nelson was the engineer and builder. The lighthouse is 98 feet (29.87 meters) tall, has a square shape and is built of ashlar limestone. The exterior is painted with traditional white and red bands. There has been some concern as to the location of the lighthouse, as it sits in the midst of a migratory path. There have been efforts to reduce the number of bird casualties caused by the lighthouse, but the perches and floodlights have proven unsuccessful in reducing such incidents.
Bardsey Island lighthouse. (Rude Health/CC BY SA 2.0)
Wildlife on the Island
Bardsey Island remains well-known for the wildlife found on the island. Many birdwatchers appreciate the variety and number of birds in the area, and many come to the island to view the migration of thousands of birds. The maritime wildlife also brings much interest to the island.
Maritime species include internationally rare lichens, bryophyte, vascular plants, bird species, and intertidal communities. Bardsey Island is also a great place to view grey seals, with more than 200 being present during the summer, and approximately 15 pups being born each autumn.
Finally, in the waters surrounding the island one can view bottlenose and Risso’s dolphins, porpoises, strap seaweed, sea anemones, crabs, small fish, sponges, sea stars, and yellow star anemone. With such a wide variety of wildlife, the island is a place where any nature enthusiast can find something that excites them.
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Abbey ruins with graves and Celtic cross memorial, circa 1885. (Public Domain)
The Ghosts of Bardsey Island
While Bardsey Island is a location with a rich cultural history, and where one can find amazing scenery and a wide variety of plants, flowers, birds, and wildlife, it is also a location that retains legendary tales from its past.
The isle is said to be haunted by ghostly monks, with mainlanders reporting seeing shadowy, cowled figures wandering along the shore at night. The sightings are regarded as omens of disease, drownings, and storms.
Nonetheless, many still visit Bardsey Island to this day, either as part of a pilgrimage, or for the sole purpose of visiting a site of cultural and natural significance. The island still conveys feelings of spirituality and a sacredness that have withstood the test of time, and to this day the land continues to inspire many visitors.
Top Image: Bardsey island. Source: Gail Johnson /Adobe Stock
By M R Reese
Updated on September 18, 2020.
Bardsey Island – Mysterious Britain. Available from: http://www.mysteriousbritain.co.uk/wales/gwynedd/folklore/bardsey-island.html
Island history – Bardsey. Available from: http://www.bardsey.org/english/the_island/island_history.htm
Bardsey Island: Snowdonia’s Isle of Twenty Thousand Saints – Visit Snowdonia. Available from: https://visitsnowdonia.wordpress.com/2011/05/31/bardsey-island-snowdonias-isle-of-twenty-thousand-saints/
Bardsey Island – Early British Kingdoms. Available from: http://www.earlybritishkingdoms.com/archaeology/bardsey.html
The Trust – Enlli. Available from: http://www.enlli.org/english/the_trust/thetrust.htm