ONCE a year in late July, around 80 people gather at the tiny ferry terminal at Tingwall, Orkney, to set sail for a vanishing island.

Eynhallow (below) punctuates the western end of the Eynhallow Sound, a narrow stretch of water separating Orkney’s Mainland from Rousay. The North Atlantic and North Sea crash into each other here, flanking Eynhallow with strong, chaotic currents called roosts.

It is laden with lore and history – it was once the summer home of the magical Finfolk and its now-ruined monastery was visited by many of the Viking Age characters of the Orkneyinga Saga including warriors and poets. It is a focal point for modern storytelling to this day.

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Few places so small contain such multitudes, which goes some way to explaining the enthusiasm for the annual sailing organised by the Orkney Heritage Society. Last year’s trip had to be called off due to bird flu, so the excitement this year was doubled.

People of all ages, visitors and locals alike, packed on to the MV Eynhallow ferry, ranging from dedicated nature lovers hoping to spot puffins and seals to history fanatics like myself, plus a few who had booked out of blind curiosity. Luckily, Eynhallow was happy to reveal itself. Just the day before, it was entirely lost to thick sea fog despite being less than a mile from Rousay’s shore.

Some antiquarians argued that Eynhallow could not possibly be a “vanishing island” on account of this proximity, but I watched it disappear before my eyes – sometimes in mere minutes – four times over two days. As the ferry chugged towards the island, an old rhyme came to mind: Eynhallow, frank, Eynhallow, free, Eynhallow stands in the middle of the sea; A roaring roost on every side— Eynhallow stands in the middle of the tide.

The roosts were calm and MV Eynhallow approached the storm beach (there is no pier) to unleash our flood of footsteps. A surprise guest speaker accompanied the journey and to my utter delight it was none other than master Orcadian storyteller, Tom Muir.

While one half of the group began a counter-clockwise turn around the island to focus on watching birds, the history-loving half followed Tom to the monastery. There we gathered round and listened to several tales of Eynhallow, including the story of how its vanishing veil was lifted – though not entirely.

In the time before Eynhallow could be seen by mortal eyes and there was naught in the Sound save the tides, the goodman of Thorodale married a beautiful woman who was seized by the Finfolk and taken to their hidden kingdom in the sea.

The goodman sought answers from the wise spae-wife of Hoy, who taught him to see Eynhallow by looking through the hole in the Odin Stone at Stenness. After many nights of meditation he saw it at last but could not look away lest it vanish again. So, he instructed his three sons to each fill a cassie (basket) with salt and they set sail for the strange new island with a plan for vengeance.

On landing, they were assailed by various creatures including mermaids and the very Finman who stole the goodman’s wife, and all were vanquished with the salt and sign of the cross. The goodman’s sons set to work ringing the island with salt to break its spell.

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However, the youngest son had large hands and ran out of salt before he could complete his section. That is why, though the Finfolk may be banished from Eynhallow, a little of their magic still remains. It is said that an iron stake put in the ground will pop out of its own accord after dark, and that any corn cut after sunset will bleed red.

Eynhallow’s spell may have been tempered by the goodman and his sons but it was modernity itself which ensured such wonders would never again be witnessed.

IN his short story The Vanishing Islands, George Mackay Brown wrote how Hether Blether, another illusory land often conflated with Eynhallow, “has not been seen this long while past by the Orkney folk – certainly not since fishermen folded up their sails and installed petrol engines in their boats”.

Yet, a strange incident on a previous expedition on July 14, 1990, was taken by some as a sign that modernity had not entirely relegated the Finfolk to the past. Eighty-eight heads were counted boarding the ferry at Tingwall – only 86 returned.

Air and sea rescue operations were conducted, but to no avail. The easy explanation is a simple miscount, but some of the older, local attendees spoke among themselves of another possibility. Perhaps the two “missing” visitors were Finfolk who, having endured into our own time, had hitched a ride back to their summer home to live out their twilight years.

Indeed, just three hours on Eynhallow were enough to make me question whether the Finfolk’s defeat was as final as the tales allege. A ring of seals spent the entire evening keeping watch over us intruders, with one following me around half the island as I traced the precipitous western coast. One attendee sang a soothing Norwegian song to the seals and several happily formed an audience. They navigated the roaring tides on either side with far more grace than we handled the land.

This was clearly their home and we mere interlopers. Something of the old magic endures in their eyes – Orcadian folklore is rife with tales of men hunting seals only to discover in horror that they were, in fact, selkies or mermaids, and suffering misfortune and tragedy as a result.

The last permanent residents of Eynhallow were evicted in 1851 following the outbreak of a “‘malignant fever” thought to have originated in the island’s sole freshwater well. The landlord, the wealthy and powerful David Balfour, used the outbreak as an excuse for clearance. The census of 1851 lists five households and a total of 25 people, many of them in their early to mid-teens.

I read their names aloud among the stone ruins on Eynhallow’s gentle northeast shore. William, 54, and Jean 53, Mainland of Easthouse. Harriet Louttit 13, of Midhouse. James, 20, Jean, 19, and John, 17, Inkster of North House. The four “servants” living together in South House, Christina Wards, 19, Ann Corrigalls, 30, Christina Hitchinson, 21, and Mary Corrigal, 30. Lonely Charles Loughton, 45, a cobbler and sole resident of Westhouse.

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It may well have been the first time their names were spoken on the island they called home since they were forced to leave it.

That vigil held and it being 10pm, it was time to return to the ferry and bid farewell to Eynhallow. Speaking to others aboard, many of us felt that same sense of total tranquillity people often report when on Iona. All hoped to return one day, me among them.

As the last light of the setting sun threw Eynhallow into silhouette, I watched its shores and gentle inland slopes half expecting to see a desperate torchlight trying to herald us back. Or, perhaps, a lone figure by the water, taking one last look over their shoulder before slipping beneath the waves and joining the seals in their ageless chorus. In Eynhallow, neither would have beggared belief.