Off the southern coast of the Isle of Mull, Scotland, lies the tiny isle of Iona. Iona is famous for its medieval abbey, built on the site of a monastery founded by St. Columba (in fact, the Scots Gaelic name of the island, Ì Chaluim Chille, means ‘Iona of St. Columba’) and was the burial site of Gaelic kings. St. Columba is connected, in a way, with a death that occurred in 1929.
In the medieval hagiography The Life of St. Columba, one of the many tales told is of how the saint told the brothers of the Iona monastery he wished to go to the western part of the island, alone. However, one of the monks followed the saint, and hid himself on the summit of a hill overlooking where St. Columba stood engrossed in prayer.
For holy angels, the citizens of the heavenly country, clad in white robes and flying with wonderful speed, began to stand around the saint whilst he prayed ; and after a short converse with the blessed man, that heavenly host, as if feeling itself detected, flew speedily back again to the highest heavens… Whence, even to this day, the place where the angels assembled is called by a name that beareth witness to the event that took place in it; this may be said to be in Latin “Colliculus Angelorum” and is in Scotic Cnoc Angel.
William Beeves, in his 1874 translation of the hagiography, notes that the hill where Columba had his angelic visitation is in modern times known as Sithean Mor. In A Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides, 1772, Thomas Pennant says that on the summit of the hill is “a small circle of stones, and a little cairn in the middle, evidently druidical.”
Anyone familiar with European folklore will likely recognize elements in the hill’s name, with sith being the usual term used in Scotland for what are called sidhe in Ireland. This suggests that the hill was seen as a faerie mound, and this is confirmed by J.W. Campbell’s Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands (1900) as well as Alasdair Macgregor’s The Ghost Book (1955).
But what has all this to do with a death in November, 1929?
A young woman named Marie Emily Fornario (also recorded as Norah Emily Editha Fornario) had come to Ion a year previous. Fornario was a member of the Alpha et Omega Temple, founded by Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers in 1906 as a successor to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, after the volatile situations which led to the Golden Dawn’s downfall.
In autumn 1928, then, Marie Fornario arrived on the island, rooming at the home of a family named Cameron (MacRae in other accounts) at a farm called Traigh Mhor. The young woman, who confessed that she had a rather unhappy personal life (her mother having died, and her relationship with her father strained) was soon overjoyed when she proved to get along well with not just the Camerons, but most residents of the island. The Camerons were unaware of her association with an occult order, and all sort of bizarre (to their mind) habits were noted.
She kept oil-lamps burning in her room at all times, and always kept two burning at night. She sought out all manner of ancient and pagan sites, of which Iona had a surplus; she began speaking of spiritual contacts, and of strange visions she had. She had an odd, distant look in her eyes. On one occasion, Mrs. Cameron noticed that the girl’s silver necklace had turned black; when she asked, Fornario told her that jewelry always turned black when she wore it.
Then, one day, Fornario told Mrs. Cameron that she must leave Iona at once. It was Sunday, however, and the ferry to Mull didn’t run that day. The Camerons still helped her pack in preparation for leaving the next day. Tired from packing, she retired to her room for a few hours’ rest; it wasn’t until that evening that Marie emerged, tired, pale, and resigned-looking. She said that her leaving was now unnecessary. She unpacked her things and went to bed.
The next day, it was discovered that she had slipped out overnight. All her clothing and jewelry remained in her room. The Camerons and the other islanders formed a search party to find the Englishwoman. It wasn’t until the next day that she was found by Hector MacNevin and Hector MacLean, lying beside Sithean Mor, the faerie mound, the hill of the angels. She was naked, a silver chain turned black around her neck. In one hand she clasped a knife, the other was underneath her head.
A write-up appearing in the Occult Review added the details that the silver chain she wore was a cross; a letter from Miss Fornario had been received by a servant at her home in London, saying that she had “a dreadful case of healing going on.” Other tales on the island spoke of blue lights seen around Sithean Mor, some even speaking of meetings wih an odd, cloaked man. Most intriguing is a mention that the knife had been used to gouge a large cross in the ground, and it was on this cross that her body lay.
In her book Psychic Self-Defense (1930), occultist Dion Fortune, like Fornario a member of Alpha et Omega, wrote:
I knew Miss Fornario intimately, and at one time we did a good deal of work together, but some three years before her death we went our separate ways and lost sight of each other. She was half Italian and half English, of unusual intellectual calibre, and was especially interested in the Green Ray elemental contacts; too much interested in them for my peace of mind, and I became nervous and refused to co-operate with her. I do not object to reasonable risks, in fact one cannot expect to achieve anything worth while in life if one will not take risks, but it appeared to me that “Mac,” as we called her, was going into very deep waters, even when I knew her, and that there was certain to be trouble sooner or later.
She had evidently been on an astral expedition from which she never returned. She was not a good subject for such experiments, for she suffered from some defect of the pituitary body. Whether she was the victim of a psychic attack, whether she merely stopped out on the astral too long and her body, of poor vitality in any case, became chilled lying thus exposed in mid-winter, or whether she slipped into one of the elemental kingdoms that she loved, even as Swinburne swam out to sea, who shall say? The information at our disposal is insufficient for an opinion to be formed. The facts, however, cannot be questioned, and remain to give sceptics food for thought.
Photographs with kind permission of http://faeryfolklorist.blogspot.co.uk/2015/04/sithean-mor-fairy-hill-of-iona.html