Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Inchkeith; Edinburgh's Own Island of Doctor Moreau?

An Island of Doctor Moreau in our own backyard? Or is it Inchkeith, Edinburgh?

Hello, people of Edinburgh, Leith, Granton, Portobello, and Musselburgh- I have a spooky tale to weave for you. It's a little known fact but  off your shores-in plain sight every day-lies an island steeped in the bloody stains of history. The green grassy scenic island of Inchkeith in the Firth of Forth just 5 miles north of Leith hides a dark and murky past.

In 1494, just a year after Columbus's return from the New World, a sickness broke out in Europe. Some say it came from the newly discovered territories of North America, I will that leave to historians more learned than me, but break out it did. Unnamed at first, it was simply called the Pox, or the Grand Pox; the term “syphilis” would later be coined by the Italian physician and poet Girolamo Fracastoro. Sufferers of the disease either showed a mass of boils, or out and out deformation, morphing in horrifying and drastic ways. The first written records of an outbreak of syphilis in Europe occurred in 1494 or 1495 in Naples, Italy, during a French invasion. Due to its being spread by returning French troops, it was initially known as the "French disease".

Whatever they called it, syphilis spread across Europe like the plague (hmm, probably where we get that term eh?). Within three years the disease ran so rampant in the streets of Edinburgh that the Town Council decided to quarantine all victims onto Inchkeith island. Edinburgh would rid the streets of their mutant horde.

The council banished thousands of the ‘unclean’ to the offshore island; “there to remain till God provide for their health”. There is no record of their healing, no record of their re-instatement into society; probably they all died on the island. But the history of the Island as Edinburgh’s quarantine area had only started. It would not be the last time the island would be used as the cesspool of Edinburgh's shame.

  • In 1589, Inchkeith was used to quarantine the passengers of a plague ridden ship from France. Again, no records are given of survivors.
  • In 1609, at the height of the Bubonic Plague that swept Europe, victims were shipped to the island. The plague wiped a huge proportion of Europeans from the map, so we cannot even estimate the numbers sent to the small grassy mound.
  • In 1799, Russian sailors on an infected ship were quarantined on Inchkeith, and then buried on the island. And if you think that’s gross enough, you’ve not heard it all.

King James IV used Inchkeith as an extraordinary experiment. He ordered that a ‘dumb’ woman and her two toddlers be taken to the island. Scholars left them alone and unsupported on the island for five years, then returned to record the language they spoke after their time in isolation. The experiment was cruel, detached, and more in accord with the Nazi regime than the civilization that would one day spawn the Scottish enlightenment...

"He caused tak ane dumb woman, and put hir in Inchkeith and gave hir two bairnes [children] with hir, and gart furnish hir with all necessares thingis perteaning to their nourischment, desiring heirby to know what language they had when they cam to the aige of perfyte speach. Some say they spak guid Hebrew; but I know not by authoris rehearse; Robert Lyndsay of Pitscottie."

So, the next time you look out on that calm serene island, think of its part in Edinburgh's history.
(End of the history of Inchkeith, Part 1. Yup, I’ve not told the whole story; not by half.)
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