IT lies on the edge of the Firth of Forth like a lump of the Hebrides tossed over Scotland to land in the waters off the east coast.

And today the Isle of May is chiefly home to sea birds, seals and the odd intrepid visitor attracted by its rugged beauty and isolation.

But now new evidence has emerged casting the island as a centre of medicine and healing for the people of early medieval Scotland, who were drawn to its shores seeking wisdom from the monks who called it home and also the hope of divine intervention - either in this life or the next.

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For more than 1,000 years the Isle of May was home to a monastery traditionally associated with an early Christian evangelist named Ethernan, who may have died and been buried there while ministering to the Picts who once called Fife their home.

Archaeological investigations on the island near the ruined monastery have unearthed dozens of graves ranging from the year 500 AD to around 1500 AD, and last year PhD student Marlo Willows of the University of Edinburgh began a detailed examination of the remains the graveyard gave up.

She discovered that almost all were riddled with serious and life-ending diseases - including the earliest case of prostate cancer ever identified in the UK.

Peter Yeoman, the former county archaeologist for Fife, carried out many of the excavations which Ms Willows later studied.

He said he was amazed at the new light being shed on the old bones, and that the island, which is administered by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) was giving up secrets held for centuries.

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A large number of skeletal remains have been found on the Isle of May

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The bones of the victim of prostate cancer were revealed to be covered in lesions indicating he had carried the disease for many years, while another skeleton of a teenage boy was laced with signs of congenital syphilis.

Believed to be aged around 16, the teen would have suffered from the disease all his life, yet survived almost to full adulthood.

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. 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."


Neck and vertebrae from a child suffering from Pott's disease, a symptom of tuberculosis

Traces of medicinal plants have been found on May, 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.

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An abnormally large skull found on the island (left) which was probably caused by hydrocephaly.


The foot bones of a teenager suffering from syphalis were honeycombed

Mr Yeoman said: "What we must not assume is that the Isle of May was as little visited back then as it is today. Water transport was the easiest way to travel around much of Scotland and that part of the Forth would have been full of boats.

"It was far harder to move around on land, and the island sits at what was the main route into the heart of Royal Scotland. It was no-where near as isolated as it is today."

The archaeologist 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, the sick and dying Picts, as well as Gaels from the West and possibly Saxons from the south, would also have been comforted by being on sacred ground.

The belief was that being so close to the grave of a saint such as Ethernan would help their souls reach their way to heaven, through the "sacred radiation" of his holy presence.


The ruins of the monastery lie near the harbour

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

*This research was first reported in British Archaeology magazine.

Pictures: Site photos - Peter Yeoman/Fife Council Archaeology Service
Bones - Marlo Willows/British Archaeology