Medieval Medical Care

Thursday 15th February comments: The Isle of May is a fascinating place…

A new study has revealed fascinating evidence about the role of the Isle of May in healthcare from the 8th to12th centuries. New analysis of human skeletons shows the importance of the island as a place of pilgrimage and healing. Evidence of rare and end-stage illnesses suggest the island was possibly used as a hospice, with the plants henbane, which still grows on the island, and greater celandine used to relieve pain (henbane has anaesthetic properties and was used to put patients to sleep for surgery) whilst Greater celandine is a mild analgesic.

The nationally important data has come from a PhD by Marlo A. Willows of University of Edinburgh on the 58 skeletons from the excavations – Health Status in Lowland Medieval Scotland: A Regional Analysis of Four Skeletal Populations. The study has revealed new evidence about the role of the island in healthcare – both physical and spiritual – in the early medieval period, before the creation of the Benedictine priory in 1140.

Marlo said, ‘The Isle of May is an important archaeological site not only for its place in ecclesiastical history, but also what we can learn about the treatment of sick and elderly during the medieval period.  Due to burial practices and the type of soil on the island, the skeletal remains were well preserved, a feature absent in many Scottish archaeological sites.  Skeletal analysis, such as identifying disease processes, is easier to accomplish when the condition of the bone is of good quality.

The high prevalence of disease as well as rarer and end-stage diseases leads to the conclusion of a possible hospice-like centre at the Isle of May.  The type of treatment offered to the sick on the Isle of May was likely medicine such as henbane and greater celandine, both plants found on the island, to ease their pain.  It is possible water from the ‘healing well’ was prescribed as a tonic as well.  As with other medieval hospitals, the sick were also provided a bed, meals, and a prayer for their souls.’

Some of the pilgrims had travelled to the island specifically for medical reasons. One individual, known as skeleton 859, may have travelled up to 150 miles from the Highlands to have his cancer healed on the island. Other findings included a case of the earliest known UK of prostate cancer, and the first known Scottish case of congenital syphilis.

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Bucket List!

Sunday 11th February comments: The Isle of May National Nature Reserve is ready. On 31st March we’ll be opening our doors to visitors from far and wide and the big question is; are YOU visiting?

The booking systems are now ‘live’ on the various private boat operators who run boats to the island (see links below) from both Anstruther (Fife) and Seabird Centre (North Berwick). The island is a ‘must do’ and is on many peoples ‘bucket lists’ so why not visit? And remember once you’ve paid your boat fee, its free to land and you get up to three hours to explore the spectacular Isle of May.

During the summer months the island is home to thousands of seabirds including over 40,000 pairs of Puffins (the largest Puffin colony on the east coast of the UK), as well as thousands of Guillemots, Razorbills, Shags, Kittiwakes and many more. And don’t forget to bring a hat…those Arctic Terns peck your heads – you’ve been warned. If it is history you are interested in, why not climb to the top of the Stevenson Lightouse, open at weekends (and free to enter) throughout the summer or check out Scotland’s oldest lighthouse, the Beacon.

Whatever your reasons, come out and visit, you’ll not be disappointed. For further boat information including sailing times and prices, check out the private operators websites below:

May Princess (sails from Anstruther):

Osprey Rib (sails from Ansthruther):

Seabird Rib (sails from North Berwick):

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Nature Reclaiming

Friday 9th February comments: The Isle of May has a well documented rich variety of human history dating back to the 7th Century and there is plenty of evidence of more recent human activity, especially during the World Wars.

The Island was a strategic location in the Firth of Forth and a number of buildings were erected for various uses during the second World War. These ranged from radar rooms to loop indictor rooms to help guard the forth and the important navel bases further up river. However the island is slowly changing as these buildings slowly disappear and nature reclaims.

The above photos were taken by Tom Weir in 1954 and its interesting to spot the differences. The most obvious is the area near the Beacon once occupied by a number of watch towers and is now home to the important ‘tern terraces’ with hundreds of nesting Arctic, Common and Sandwich Terns. The island is slowly and surely reclaiming the Isle of May and long may it continue…


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Volunteering on the Isle of May 2018

Monday 5th February comments: The Isle of May NNR is looking for somebody special. Are you looking for a unique opportunity to work on one of the country’s top seabird reserves? You may be looking to gain the experience required to get your first job in conservation or a student looking for a rewarding summer placement or even looking for a career change. Then look no further.

We are offering long-term volunteer placements on the Isle of May NNR which will give you the opportunity to work on this stunning National Nature Reserve. You will be involved in all aspects of the May with a range of monitoring, maintenance and visitor management tasks that will help with the management of the NNR.

Main Tasks

  • Species Monitoring: Carry out species monitoring work on ground nesting Arctic Terns (studying the success rate of the nesting attempts) and may include ringing of young as well as population counting.
  • Recording; help to maintain the daily bird log, recording butterflies and moths, carrying out tern predation monitoring and cetacean watches amongst others.
  • Visitor management when the visitor boats are on the island. Everyday visitors are landed on the island for up to three hours. The volunteers will patrol the paths chatting with visitors to explain the natural history that they can see while ensuring visitors act responsibly as well as manning the lighthouse.
  • Undertaking practical maintenance works as and when needed to maintain the visitor infrastructure, the field station and enhances habitats and species. This can include all aspects of the reserve from toilet cleaning to practical habitat management.


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Battle of the Isle of May (final part)

2, battle of IOM

The tragic ‘battle’ remembered yesterday in Anstruther

3, Battle IOM

yesterdays service


1, Anster

Yesterday at the Battle of the Isle of May

Thursday 1st February comments: (Isle of May) Part Four: The ‘Battle of the Isle of May’ lasted for less than a few hours on the evening of 31st January 1918. No enemy warships were involved and no shots were fired in anger.

However that fateful evening a total of 104 men lost their lives just north of the Isle of May as a flotilla of British warships and submarines were involved in accidental collisions; a combination of bad luck and human error resulting in the catastrophe.

Yesterday a service was held at St Ayle church, Anstruther which was well attended by locals, dignitries and Armed Forces to mark the centenary of the tragic events which played out off the Isle of May. We will never forget the sacrifice made by those that night.

If you would like to learn more about the ‘battle’ the Scottish Fisheries Museum in Anstruther are running an exhibition on the subject:

Whilst further reading should include the fabulous book ‘K Boat Catastrophe, The Full Story of the Battle of the Isle of May’ by N.S.Nash.

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Battle of the Isle of May (part III)


The damage caused to HMS Fearless after hitting a K-boat


One of the K-boat submarines involved

Wednesday 31st January comments: (Isle of May) Part Three: 100 years ago today, the ‘Battle of the Isle of May’ commenced. At 18:30 the secret navy exercise known as EC1 involving the 13th Submarine Division (known a K-boats) and a number of Destroyers, Battleships and Light Cruisers had sailed from nearby Rosyth.

The fleet of boats and submarines had sailed with only dim stern lights and maintained radio silence due to the sighting of a German submarine in the area earlier that day. The fleet were not helped by misty conditions whilst travelling under the cover of darkness. An unlucky mishap with the helm of submarine K-14 had resulted in a collision with K-22. However worse was to follow…

The huge battlecruiser HMS Australia narrowly missed the stricken K-boats and disaster had been averted. But not for long. Communication eventually reached the lead Light Cruiser HMS Ithuriel about the original collision and the captain of the ship decided to turn around and head back to the two K-boats which had struck each other. Alongside the Light cruiser, the other K-boats also followed her back but communication was poor and unfortunately the boats and submarines further back, lead by HMS Fearless were unaware of the accident ahead and ran straight into their sister flotilla.

Over the following minutes, disaster struck as HMS Fearless rammed K-17, and the submarine sank with the loss of all life in a matter of minutes. Submarines K-6 hit K-4, and nearly cut her in half but locked together but had K-7 fast approaching. Spotting K-6, she just managed to avoid her, but was totally unaware of K-4 lying across her path, and a further collision ensued. The second hit proved fatal for K-4, and she sank. Only nine men were pulled from the water, and one of these died before he could receive medical treatment.

That evening a total of 104 men lost their lives as two submarines were sunk, four submarines were damaged along with the light cruiser HMS Fearless. Despite it being remembered (black humour) as the ‘Battle of the Isle of May’, there were actually no enemy warships involved and only a combination of bad luck and human error resulted in such a great loss of life. The terrible events of that night took place just 1.5 miles off the north end of the Isle of May.

To be continued…

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Battle of the Isle of May (part II)


One of the battleships involved; HMS Courageous

(continued from yesterday) Tuesday 30th January comments: (Isle of May) Part Two:  On the evening of the 31st January 1918, just after 18:30, the secret navy exercise known as EC1 involving the 13th Submarine Division (known a K-boats) and a number of Destroyers, Battleships and Light Cruisers began.

The boats and submarines (all submarines sailed on the surface) departed Rosyth near Edinburgh under the cover of darkness and had plotted to head out of the Firth of Forth, passing close to the Isle of May before eventually heading north to meet up with the battle group from Scapa Flow. Earlier in the day, a German submarine had been spotted near the Isle of May so it was decided to take precaution and the entire fleet would show only dim stern lights (which could only be seen by the boat behind) and maintain radio silence.

Visibility was also deteriorating as a misty haar was developing which was reducing visibility rapidly. Regardless the boats continued on but moments later some of the forward flotilla spotted some distant lights heading towards them and with concerns for the fleet, evasive action was taken.

The flotilla altered course sharply to port (left) to avoid potential collision them but not all was well. In carrying out the quick manoeuvre one of the Submarines (K-14) helm jammed and she veered out of line. Both K14 and the boat behind her K12 instantly turned on their navigation lights and eventually K14’s helm was freed and she tried to return to her position in the line.

However the next submarine in line, K22 had lost sight of the rest of the flotilla in the mist and had slightly veered off line with the result that she hit K14. Both submarines stopped whilst the rest of the flotilla, unaware of what had happened continued out to sea. K22 radioed in code to the cruiser leading the flotilla to say that she could reach port but that K14 was crippled and sinking.

The Battle of the Isle of May was now underway….

Continued tomorrow

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