Archaeology: Secrets of St Adrian's isle: The monks left May long ago, and today instead of pilgrims it attracts tourists and historians, including David Keys

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The Independent Culture
ARCHAEOLOGISTS are unearthing the secrets of one of Scotland's most fascinating historic sites. Five miles out to sea on a remote island at the entrance to the Firth of Forth, a team of excavators is about to launch the next stage of a quest for a 1,100-year-old monastery - and the mortal remains of a Scottish saint who died there at the hands of marauding Vikings.

So far the archaeologists, working on the Isle of May, have discovered an array of medieval religious buildings and a giant burial cairn made up of an estimated 1.5 million fist-sized beach cobbles.

It is at the bottom of this huge 30-metre-wide mound that the excavators, led by the archaeologist Peter Yeoman of Fife Regional Council, hope later this month to find the remains of the island's monks who were all put to the sword by Viking raiders in 875. So far they have unearthed three skeletons from the upper portion of this huge pile of stones.

As a Christian religious monument it is unique. Nowhere else in Britain is there a similar mound associated with Christianity. Burial cairns were usually built by pagans in the prehistoric era, and archaeologists will be looking for evidence to suggest that this monument began life in pre-Christian times and was adopted by Christianity after the Viking massacre of the monks whose remains were probably interred there.

Certainly the cairn became the sacred destination for up to half a million medieval Christian pilgrims who sailed to the Isle of May to seek divine intercession from the spirit of St Adrian - the murdered leader of the monks who died in 875.

It appears that every pilgrim who visited May took cobbles from the beach and placed them on the cairn. Throughout the medieval period the mound would, therefore, have been constantly expanding.

The island became one of Scotland's most important pilgrimage centres. Indeed, after the Scots won their Wars of Independence with England in the early 14th century, May assumed considerable political significance. Independence boosted the political importance of specifically Scottish saints. One Scottish king, James IV, actually made at least five separate pilgrimages to the sacred island.

May was a leading pilgrimage centre for at least 200 years, and up to 3,000 pilgrims went there every year.

The island's Christian story had started by the mid-9th century when it was used as a monastic retreat by a monk of Irish origin called Ethernan. Ethernan - whose name was later Latinised to Adrian - may have been Bishop of St Andrews, and seems to have been particularly partial to remote and austere sites for his monastic establishments: he is also associated with what appears to have been a monastery made up of a series of carved caves (now unstable and dangerous to visit) on the coast of Fife.

The archaeologists - funded jointly by Fife Regional Council, North East Fife District Council and Scottish Natural Heritage - hope at some stage to discover Ethernan's original Isle of May monastery. It is likely to have consisted of a series of Irish-style beehive-shaped houses and a chapel.

After Ethernan and his monks were murdered and presumably interred within the cairn, the site appears to have been largely abandoned. However by at least the mid-12th century, May was reestablished as a religious centre. In 1145 the Scottish king, David I, gave the island to Reading Abbey in Berkshire.

Documentary and archaeological evidence shows that the monks from Reading proceeded to build a small monastery complete with a simple 14m-long church containing an altar dedicated to St Mary the Virgin and a shrine to St Ethernan. Building work was interrupted by yet more Viking raids, this time by Scandinavians settled on Orkney.

For the next century and a half the little community suffered increasing economic problems - due to its isolation, shortage of pastureland, risk from pirates and difficulty in receiving supplies. So, despite its right to receive 10 per cent of the value of all fish caught near by by Scottish or foreign vessels, Reading decided in 1288 to pass the island to the Bishop of St Andrews.

But then in 1296 the Wars of Independence broke out between Scotland and England - and a parallel legal battle erupted between St Andrews and Reading over precisely who owned the Island of May. First the monks of Reading won in the courts, then in 1313 (one year before Bannockburn) the Scots won.

However, it appears that the medieval English were poor losers, irritated by their defeat in court and on the battlefield. For an unidentified English force subsequently landed on the island, destroyed the monastery, stole its remaining treasures - and even proceeded to wreck the monastery's rabbit warren (until then no doubt the source of many a monastic rabbit stew).

After Scotland's Wars of Independence had been won and the English vanquished in the 14th century, May became a pilgrimage centre of substantial political importance. Ethernan became Adrian and a new chapel was built in his honour among the ruins.

By the mid-16th century, however, the Reformation, with its antipathy to saints, had knocked the bottom out of the pilgrimage market, and the Bishop of St Andrews decided to sell the island.

During the late 16th and 17th centuries, May passed through many hands and the religious buildings once again fell into disrepair. Indeed, all except the 14th century chapel collapsed completely and are only now being re-discovered through archaeological excavation.

In the 17th and early 18th centuries a village of farmers and smugglers flourished on the island, but the last villager died in 1730. May was then left to a solitary family to keep the still-surviving 17th century lighthouse functioning - and to more than 50,000 seabirds.

Today visitors can inspect the monastic ruins, and marvel at the wildlife. There are gulls, razor-bills, fulmars, terns, shags, guillemots and 20,000 breeding pairs of puffins, not to mention the seals - and occasionally, out to sea, schools of minke whales. The whole island is a national nature reserve owned by Scottish Natural Heritage.

The monks and pilgrims have long gone, but the remote Isle of May is now fast developing its new role - as a centre for historical and natural history tourism.

The island can be reached by a daily boat service from Anstruther, Fife between May and September. Departure times vary and can be obtained from Anstruther tourist office (0333 311073). Visitors can see the archaeological excavations in progress and have a guided tour of them until 29 August.

(Photograph and map omitted)

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