“There is now living, Morogh O’Ley, who immagins he was himself personally on O’Brasil for two days, and saw out of it the iles of Aran, Golamhead, Irrosbeghill, and other places of the west continent he was acquainted with.”Roderick O’ Flaherty, A Chorographical Description of West or H-Iar Connaught, 1872
Here Be Monsters…
I once read how hard it was for Roman generals to convince their soldiers it was safe to travel to the Isles. Not so much because of the ferocity of the Picts but because it was a common belief that the world ended just beyond France and anything further was the land of ghosts, monsters and demons. The soldiers were sure they were travelling into the land of devils. It makes me smile to think when they landed here and experienced the eerie sound of the Pictish war horn, the carnyx, the relentless weather, the midges and the indefatigability of the people, some of those ideas must have been reaffirmed.
As a storyteller I find the history of early explorers going adventuring in their wooden vessels to uncharted waters very compelling as well as slightly terrifying. Journeys could take years with no guarantee of finding anything or even managing to return home safely. Storms, sickness and piracy were huge risks. Not to mention the monsters, which are, in my opinion, one of the best things about the old maps.
The sea monsters illustrate gaps in knowledge as well as folk beliefs, superstitions and stories. Incredible beasts, like Aspidochelone, a sea turtle with a shell so large sailors mistook it for an island and were eaten as soon as they’d moored on the beast’s back. Or the Beisht Kione or ‘Beast With a Black Head’ from Irish mythology. A gargantuan eel lurking in the depths, ready to strike at passing fishermen. Or Cirein-cròin, the massive Scottish sea monster that needed 7 whales to satisfy its appetite and could shape change into schools of fish just to keep you guessing.
And then there’s the mythical islands that would appear and dissappear and reappear in different locations. Islands which were home to fantastic populations, such as Finfolkaheem in Orkney, home to the Finfolk, who dressed in skins and stole men and women away in their canoes. Finfolkaheem was the Fin Folk’s under the sea forever home and the disappearing / reappearing islands where they were said to holiday were called: Hildaland, Eynhallow and Hether Blether. Finfolkaheem gradually faded into fiction as it became clear the Finfolk weren’t supernatural beings stealing people away at all, but actually visiting hunters and fishermen from Greenland.
Further South, in Irish storytelling tradition there was a tale about a mysterious island called Hy-Brasil, just off the coast of Ireland, which was home to a necromancer wizard and millions of black rabbits. Scholars theorise the name may come from Ui Braesail, a clan who lived in the North East of Ireland or that it was named for a Saint, or ancient King or warrior. There are records of saints landing there, referring to it as “the promised land” and “paradise”. One of the first written records of Hy-Brasil dates from the 9th century, in the biography of St Brendan, where the island was described as being found “where the sun touched the horizon, or immediately on the other side” hidden in mist and only visible from the West Coast of Ireland once every 7 years.
In folklore, this magical island was given a number of other names, including, the Enchanted Isle and the Isle of the Blessed. The Island lingered on in people’s imaginations as a place of wonder, where faeries lived and where gods and heroes fought. Hy Brasil, in a variety of spellings, lingered too on our maps from 1325 and for centuries onwards, despite a lack of evidence to its true location. However, by the 18th century cartographers were beginning to doubt its existence, with one map marking it as being “The imaginary Island of Hy Brasil” Its last appearance on the maps was in 1873, whereafter it slipped off the maps altogether, after nearly 600 years.
This is not the end for Hy Brasil though, because satellite imagery has shown possible landmasses under the sea in the area where Hy Brasil was said to be. Just off the coast of Ireland in a spot called Porcupine Bank. So it may well be that Hy Brasil once existed but was swallowed by the sea, much like Doggerland, a large area of land in Northwest Europe once home to Mesolithic people. To find out for sure, today’s explorers will have to journey to uncharted depths… and who knows what monsters lie there in wait.
Eileen Budd is an artist & storyteller raised in Perthshire amid a rich oral storytelling culture. She has been working with museums for nearly 20 years, using storytelling as a way of interpreting and sharing knowledge of history and Scottish folk tradition. Her fully illustrated book ‘Ossian Warrior Poet’ and mini book ‘Scottish Druids’ can be bought here: https://wideopensea.co.uk/ossian/. Eileen hosts regular public storytelling events as well as events with schools. You can keep track of what she’s up to online: www.ossianwarriorpoet.com and on Instagram: @eileenbudd.