Isle of May revealed as centre of Pict medicine

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A Scottish island which is now chiefly home to sea birds, seals and tourists has been revealed as a centre for medicine in early medieval Scotland, according to experts.

Archaeologists on The Isle of May have found that it was a centre for healing people who were drawn to its shores seeking wisdom from monks who called it home.

The Isle of May. Pictures: Jerzy Morkis/Walter Baxter/Creative Commons

The Isle of May. Pictures: Jerzy Morkis/Walter Baxter/Creative Commons

Investigations on the island near the ruined house of monks have unearthed dozens of graves ranging from the year 500 AD to around 1500 AD.

Last year Marlo Willows, a University of Edinburgh PhD student, began a detailed examination of the remains the graveyard gave up.

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She discovered that almost all of them were riddled with serious and life-ending diseases - including the earliest case of prostate cancer ever identified in the UK.
The skeleton of a teenage boy, believed to aged around 16, was laced with signs of congenital syphilis, a severe disabling infection.
The teen would have suffered from the disease all his life, yet survived almost to full adulthood.
Peter Yeoman, the former county archaeologist for Fife, says that the evidence of disease in someone that lived for so long points towards a theory that people were brought to the island in a last-gasp attempt at a cure.
Mr Yeoman said: “This is the best evidence of disease and health care ever found from early medieval Britain.
“We can only speculate, but there’s something going on.

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“These were very, very sick people - so were they going out there to be healed?

“In the case of the teenager with syphilis, his bones were honeycombed with the disease and he would have been in an awful amount of pain.

“He would not have been able to walk, but the fact he lived so long shows he was cared for by other people and may have been brought to the island in a last-gasp attempt at a cure when all else had failed.”

For more than 1,000 years, the Isle of May, which lies on the edge of the Firth of Forth, is believed to have been home to a monastery traditionally associated with an early Christian evangelist named Ethernan.

Is thought to have died and been buried there while ministering to the Picts who once called Fife their home.

Traces of medicinal plants have been found on the island, including greater celadine which is used to treat pain and disease, and henbane - used as anaesthetic.

It is now suspected that the monks of May used their herb lore to treat the sick and dying, who made the pilgrimage to the island in hope of a miracle cure or simple care in their dying days.

Mr Yeoman 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.”

And while their bodies would have been in the hands of the island’s religious community, they would have also been comforted by being on sacred ground.

It is thought that they believed that that being so close to the grave of a saint such as Ethernan would help their souls reach their way to heaven.

David Steel, SNH’s Isle of May reserve manager, said: “This amazing new information showing the Isle of May was a centre of healing is another fabulous example of the uniqueness of the island.

“Excavations have also revealed the island was a special place for Christian pilgrimage for a thousand years, from the 5th century AD.

“This work adds to our picture of how important the island was in Scotland for so many years, and for so many reasons.

“With the island opening again from March 31, it’s a great chance for anyone with an interest in archaeology to see something really special - alongside all our other wonderful attractions, like the puffins and other seabirds, on the spectacular May.”