Monday, 20 April 2015
Sithean Mor, The Fairy Hill of Iona
I'll start with some tales from the beautiful Island of Iona, beginning with the famous Fairy Hill of Sithean Mor, also known as Angels' Hill, as it is said to be where Columba met with the Angels. The first story I came across when researching Iona folklore was a tragic tale of a young lady, a visitor to the Isle, who died in very unusual circumstances. One moonlit night she slipped out of the cottage where she was staying, naked and carrying a knife in her hand, with which she intended to open the fairy hill. In the early hours of the morning her body was found beside the Sithean Mor. This is a short version of the story from An Iona Anthology by Marian McNeill (1952) which accompanies a wonderful poem by Helen Cruickshank titled 'Ballad of Lost Ladye':
O siller, siller shone the mune
An' quaiet swang the door,
An' eerie skraighed the flaughtered gulls
As she gaed by the shore.
O saft tae her the meadow girse,
But set wi' rock the hill,
An' scored wi' bluid her ladye feet
Or she cam' the place intill.
The sheen o' steel was in her hand,
The sheen o' stars in her een,
An' she wad open the fairy hill
An' she wad let oot the queen.
There cam' a shepherd owre the hill
When day began tae daw;
And is this noo a seggit ewe
Or flourish frae the schaw?
It wasna lamb nor seggit ewe
Nor flourish frae the schaw,
It was the ladye bright an' still,
But she had won awa'.
The peace an' loveliness upon
Her broo said, 'Lat abee,
Here fand I that I sairly socht,
Ye needna peety mee.'
Further research revealed that the lady was named Netta Fornario, also known as Norah Emily Editha Fornario, or Marie Emily Fornario, and her death took place in November 1929. Reports of the event vary, some more embellished than others, with some saying she was wearing a black cloak, some say she cut a large cross in the turf with her knife before she died, some say the soles of her feet were torn and bleeding. Some say she was a friend of Occultist Dion fortune, and she used to go into trances and roam the moors on her visits to Iona, others say she was not found dead at the Fairy Hill at all but elsewhere on the island. A very thorough and interesting article researching the story of Netta Fornario can be found on the Beachcombing's Bizarre History Blog here.
Apart from the above poem and accompanying text I have found no other mention of her intention of opening the fairy hill, though the theory is intriguing as the cross carved on the hill may be an attempt at protection from the fairies, and in some folklore tales an iron knife is stuck into a fairy mound to stop it closing behind a person when they have ventured inside the hill. According to Holder's Guide to Mysterious Iona and Staffa, an author named Wilson who was writing 'Scotland's Unsolved Mysteries of the Twentieth Century' tracked down Calum Cameron who was 12 when Netta stayed with his parents, and he said the knife was just a normal kitchen knife and there was no cross in the turf, Netta was just digging in the ground. So did Netta succeed in digging her way into the fairy hill? Was she taken inside the fairy hill, leaving her earthly shell behind? When Robert Kirk's body was found on Doon Hill in Aberfoyle over 200 years earlier it was claimed he had been taken by the fairies, did the same happen to Netta? I found a grave in the cemetery at Iona marked 'M.E.F. Aged 33 19th Nov 1929, according to Holder's Guide, this is Netta's grave.
Another story of fairies on Iona can be found in Campbell's Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands (1900). "Two young men in Iona were coming in the evening from fishing on the rocks. On their way, when passing, they found the shi-en of that island open, and entered. One of them joined the dancers, without waiting to lay down the string of fish he had in his hand. The other stuck a fish-hook in the door, and when he wished made his escape. He came back for his companion that day twelvemonths, and found him still dancing with the string of fish in his hand. On taking him to the open air the fish dropped from the string, rotten." No location is given for the fairy hill in this story, but it is interesting that a metal hook in the hill was used to allow one young man to make his escape.
Another version of the tale can be found in Alasdair Macgregor's 'The Ghost Book' (1955) where the men are passing the mound after fishing and the young man carrying their catch sits on the fairy mound for a moment and vanishes. A year later he returns, and they say that extraordinarily the fish were still fresh!
A more recent and embellished version of the story, this time including the Fairy Queen, can be found here on the Iona Scotland website. It advises: "There is only one way to avoid this fate when you pass the fairy mound - you must spin round three times as you sing, "O' fairy queen of Sithean Beg, I dance for you and all you kin. Let me pass by freely now, don't come out - I won't come in."
Another interesting tale of the fairy hill can be found in Fiona Macleod's 'Iona' (1912), a pseudonym used by William Sharp, though whether the story is written as fact or fiction is unclear. It tells of an Islander called Coll mac Coll who is laying dreaming on the fairy hill when he awakes and sees "a man stood behind him. He did not know the man, who was young, and had eyes dark as hill-tarns, with hair light and soft as thistledown; and moved light as a shadow, delicately treading the grass as the wind treads it. In his hair he had twined the fantastic leaf of the horn - poppy". The man dreads it is "one whom he did not wish to meet, the Green Harper: also of a grey man of the sea whom the islemen seldom alluded to by name." The Green Harper asks what he wishes for and Coll says he does not wish for what cannot be or he would ask to see the dear face of Morag, his lass. So he wishes for "all the glory and wonder and power there is in the world, and to have it all at my feet, and to know everything that the Holy Father himself knows, and have kings coming to me as the crofters come to MacCailein Mòr's factor." The Green Harper says he can have that, and waves a withe of hazel in his hand, to open a door in the air, telling Coll that if it is his wish of all wishes, and he will give up all other wishes for that wish, he can have the sovereignty of the world. Just then Coll heard a familiar sound in the dusk and tears came into his eyes and he asked instead for "a warm breast-feather from that grey dove of the woods that is winging home to her young." He looked as one moon-dazed. None stood beside him. He was alone." He walks home, and glancing back sees a white figure on the knoll, with a face noble and beautiful. He wonders if it is Colum himself, or an angel, or his dreaming mind.
Fiona Macleod also tells a slightly disturbing tale, again it could be fact or fiction, of a visit to a friend on Iona's daughter, but her mother said she had gone and she didn't know why. She said she went out crying and her mother asked what was wrong and "She turned an' smiled, an' because o' that terrifying smile I couldna say a word". Her mother said some one saw her among the bulrushes in the swamp laughing and talking to the reeds, or to the wind in the reeds, and she had dreams for months or a monk saying he would kill her because she was a heathen, and after that she took to meeting friends in the moonshine, and if she didn't go the monks would kill her. The full story can be found here, and although there is no mention of fairies, it does have an air of strangeness to it, especially when compared to the story of Netta.
Below are some photos from my visit to Sithean Mor last year. The hill itself is fenced off and cannot be accessed as it is now part of the 'Sithean' farm next door.
Sources & Further Information
An Iona Anthology, Marian McNeill
Beachcombing's Bizarre History Blog
Mysterious Iona and Staffa, Holder
Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands, Campbell
The Ghost Book, Alasdair Macgregor
Iona, Fiona Macleod
Iona Scotland Website