The Isle of the Dead

by John Harvey



The information for this article has been obtained from life stones found in a small area at the southern tip of the Isle of Portland (in Dorset) called Portland Bill. In times gone by and for reasons which will become apparent, it was named ‘The Isle of the Dead’. There is little or no fiction in the narrative and all the facts have been checked several times. I must warn readers that if you have a sensitive nature and believe in the inherent good of mankind you will not enjoy it. The tale will be told in two parts, the first giving an introduction and the second containing more historical detail read from the life stones found on the site.


The dilapidated cart rattled and bounced over the last few yards of the stony track and slowed by the gate in the palisade. Then, as the bony horse was pulled to a halt, the unshaven and filthy driver lowered himself to the ground. A sloppily dressed soldier with a pike yawned as he watched the driver plod to the back of the cart and reach into the dirty straw for the collar of a bound figure which he dragged out and let fall to the ground.

The pathetic figure of a young man in a ragged coat lay collapsed in a heap showing terrified eyes behind a gag of dirty cloth. The driver left him on the ground as he strode over to the soldier, drawing a scuffed piece of paper from his ragged clothing as he did so. Without a word being spoken a mark was made on the paper, it was returned to its hiding place and the driver climbed back to his seat. With a quick wrench on the reins he turned the bony horse and clattered back up the track.

Leaning his pike against the palisade the soldier strolled forward and, grasping the figure with both hands, dragged it towards the gate and produced a knife. He hacked at the ropes binding the prisoner’s hands and feet and left him on the ground as he sauntered towards the nearby hut. He shouted through the open door; “’‘nother prisoner, Captain”. The reply was unintelligible but the guard, obviously satisfied, strolled back to his post, ignoring the figure on the ground.

The prostrate youth in front of the guard was no more than 16 and his skin was fair beneath the dirt and bruises. His hands were soft and obviously not used to work, while his clothes, now ragged and filthy, were once of good quality. His gag had not been removed and, having been bound for so long, his hands were numb and his fingers unable to grasp it.

From the guardhouse appeared a portly figure in rumpled but expensive clothing, his rank proclaimed by his broad leather belt, sword and thigh-length boots. After a few words with the guard he handed over a large key which the guard used to open the outer gate of the palisade. Moving quickly, the two men lifted the prisoner, hustled him through the open gate and locked it behind them. An inner gate was then flung open and, despite his muffled screams the helpless figure was hurled into the compound. Both gates were hurriedly secured as emaciated and filthy figures, hardly recognisable as human, began to rise from their hiding places and scurry towards the new prisoner.

The year was AD 1340, the place was the southerly tip of Portland Bill cordoned off with a triple palisade of 12ft logs with a reinforced double gate at the centre.

The palisade restrained the most fearsome humans ever imagined – mad, or unwanted wretches who had been committed to this dreadful piece of land by vindictive relatives or those who wanted simply to make unwanted offspring disappear. The prisoners, abandoned by the world, existed in holes in the ground or caves in the rocks. There was no other shelter and no escape over the sea which bordered the spit of land. The food supplied twice a day in an iron cauldron was too little to feed everyone and was fiercely fought over, often being overturned and wasted as a result. There were no morals and no laws, only the strongest and fiercest survived, keeping themselves alive by cannibalising the weakest or the most terrified new arrivals.

I discovered the site of the Isle of the Dead almost by accident. I was reading Bernard Cornwall’s excellent novel ‘The Winter King’1,  in which he describes how the hero, Arthur, rescues his blood sister, Nimue, from incarceration on the Isle of the Dead. The actions take place in the 5th century AD and the author assumes that the whole of Portland was the Isle of the Dead. His hero, Lord Derfel, describes the place.

“I did know that it was no island, but rather a peninsular of hard, pale stone that lay at the end of a long narrow causeway. The Romans had quarried the isle but the quarries had closed and the Isle of the Dead had been left empty. It became a prison. Three walls were built across the causeway, guards were set and to the Isle we sent those we wanted to punish.

“In time we sent others, too, those men and women whose wits had flown, and who could not live in peace amongst us. They were violent mad, sent to the kingdom of the mad where no sane person lived and where their demon-haunted souls could not endanger the living. The Druids claimed that the Isle was the haunt of Crob Dhu, the dark crippled God; the Christians said it was the Devil’s foothold on earth, but both agreed that men and women sent across its causeway’s walls were lost souls. They were dead while their bodies still lived, and when their bodies did die the demons and evil spirits would be trapped on the Isle so that they could never return to haunt the living.

Families would bring their mad to the Isle and there, at the third wall, release them to the horrors that waited at the causeway’s end. Then, back on the mainland, the family would hold a death feast for their lost relatives.”

It wasn’t until I had finished the book that I began to wonder whether Bernard Cornwell’s information may have been partly historical rather than purely fictional.

Later that same year my wife and I spent a holiday in Dorset and naturally we had to visit Portland so that I could dowse the area. To my surprise I found that there was some truth in the story, but my dowsing showed that only the tip of Portland Bill had been fenced off and used to isolate and effectively condemn to a terrible death men and women who were too mentally unstable to live a normal life. Inevitably, in those cruel times, many sent there had been wrongly certified as mad by relatives who wanted them out of the way, perhaps because the sufferer blocked the inheritance of a less worthy family member.

The area today is partly covered by a large car park and partly by a Government establishment while the lighthouse overlooks it from the east. Some of the remaining surface is still in the state in which it was left after quarrying for Portland stone ceased, full of rocky holes and hollows with a scattering of gravel and the occasional larger stone. At the sea’s edge the jagged rocks drop straight into deep, rough water and a great deal of the surface is swept by heavy spray whenever a big wave crashes onto the rocks.

It was in the quarried area that I dowsed for life stones. I had already identified the segregated area by map dowsing and among the broken rocks I was able to ask my rods to “Point towards the nearest life stone which will contain some of the history of this area.” There were many small pebbles on the ground, some of which had obviously been flung there by rough seas but, with the aid of the rods and by using the toe of my shoe as a pointer, I was able to isolate and retrieve some which I could ‘read’ at home.

The story to be revealed in Part 2 by the life stones gathered from the site is one of good works and terrible cruelty. It tells of the compassionate and caring nature of the Druids and of their strongly practical attitudes. It tells also of the unfeeling cruelty of the dregs of mankind after the Druids had been wiped out.


The History

The tale begins in about 2500 BC at the Druids’ settlement on the island of Portland. The officials had been asked to look after several mentally disturbed young people because the local community had become seriously reduced by sickness and had become too poor to fulfill its normal obligations to care for them.

As were all the Druids’ settlements, this one was self-sufficient and had a number of teachers who were proficient healers. It took the officials little time to arrange huts for the new guests and to detail carers to look after them. These carers were sensitive young men who volunteered for the task but were taught basic measures of spiritual defence against the raw and untrammelled minds of the mentally ill. Those carers particularly at risk were each given a specially energised protection stone which was worn around the neck.

The first patients were docile and easy to control but, as time passed, more were brought in from further afield and one or two could fly into murderous rages which resulted in death or injury to other patients or carers. The Druids themselves were forbidden by their creed to take human life and were loath to restrain any patient. However, after several patients had been murdered, the situation was considered serious enough for the leader to lay the problem before the High Council of Druids.

His recommendations were simple but drastic and would need a change in Druidic law. He wanted permission to terminate painlessly the lives of murderously insane patients. Because of the seriousness of this situation and the likelihood that other settlements could meet the same circumstances in the future, there was little discussion or dissent. Permission was given, the law changed and a directive immediately issued to all colleges who might set up refuges for the mentally ill. It ensured that intractable and violent patients were removed before they could injure others.

 There were soon many such refuges, none were fenced but all were in secluded places where the patients would not be molested or excited by curious or mischievous onlookers – and, of course, each patient had a carer. In coastal areas natural promontories or islands were utilised and acted as centres for particular catchment areas. Examples were St Michael’s Mount, then a promontory, for Cornwall and Devon; Portland for Wessex and part of Essex; Ramsay Island for mid and west Wales; Anglesey for north Wales and the Midlands and so on.

The southerly tip of the Isle of Portland was ideal as a rest centre as there were very few inhabitants and it was protected by the sea for much of its perimeter.

In each refuge the patients and carers had separate huts but mingled freely in the daytime. Patients could be admitted at the age of 12 (the age of puberty) and men and women slept in separate huts. The patients generally did not live long, debility and lack of the will to live carried off most of them by the age of 18 or 19 in spite of the best of care. Chest infections were also common killers.

In my research I have tried to classify the level of brain activity, rather than intelligence, of the patients. Some readers may remember my article2 which described the existence of spherical mind fields around all human beings, these being fields of energy produced by the activity of various parts of the brain. My theory explained that mind fields bear no relationship to intelligence but only to the physical awakening, sometimes by spiritual means, of previously inactive sites in the brain.

Most people have four mind fields representing the one sixth of our brains which we habitually use. Elementary arithmetic then tells us that the ultimate in mind development would be twenty-four mind fields, an objective that the Druids attempted to reach in their college teaching. These mind fields are dowsable, either as spheres or, more commonly, as circles and it was sad to find that life stones revealed some patients to have only one or two mind fields. They were mobile and only just alive but still received tender care from the young Druids who looked after them.

 This idyllic state lasted until the Roman invasion. Although not plainly stated in the original Latin records, one of the principal aims of the invasion was to eliminate the Druids. They were the cornerstone of the whole edifice of civilisation in Britain and much of the continent of Europe. Only by removing them and their influence could the Romans conquer and administer Britain and ensure domination of Europe. Naturally Druidic centres such as the colleges and refuges were the first to be destroyed, but for some reason Portland survived the early purges. The island’s Roman governor was unusually perceptive, noted the effectiveness of the refuge and the dedication of its carers and decided that they were no threat to his rule.

The governor was also unusually lenient with the nearby Druid settlement which, by that time, had become a college. Although he put to death the principal and many senior teachers he allowed enough of the staff and students to live to continue farming and supplying food to the refuge.

All that came to an end in AD 68. Sea raiders landed on the tip of the island out of sight of the Roman settlement. They slaughtered Druids and patients alike before the Roman garrison was alerted and drove them off, but it was too late to prevent both college and refuge being razed to the ground.

The refuge was never rebuilt, but thoughtless and cruel people still brought their unstable and unwanted relatives to Portland Bill where they were abandoned on the deserted site which once had been a caring haven. Needless to say, most of them quickly died of exposure and starvation and the area soon became known as the Isle of the Dead. However, some, perhaps stronger or craftier than the rest, survived to become a scourge, terrorising and sometimes killing the local inhabitants and stealing food and livestock. Successive Roman governors refused to act and it wasn’t until the Roman legions began to leave Britain that a newly appointed Romano-British administrator was persuaded to take action.

His first action was to build a double palisade to isolate the tip of the island. All mentally ill people were herded into this one small area and locked inside its double gates. Basic food was supplied twice a day and a permanent guard was on duty.

Unfortunately there was no-one to separate the uncontrollably violent from the majority of gentle, harmless souls. Murder became common and, because food was always fought over, most of it was wasted and many starved. For the violent and totally immoral the answer was in cannibalism, particularly of the newcomers who were relatively helpless and well fed.

Initially the enclosure was seen as the solution to a local problem and expenses were borne by the local governor or chieftain. Then, as the existence of the stockade became more widely known, patients began to come in from a greater area of the mainland. It was useless to deny entry because, if the relatives were told to leave, they would abandon their charges elsewhere on the island. The answer was for the warden in charge to accept bribes, some of which went back to the local authorities. Inevitably everyone became greedy and corrupt and those who wished to relieve themselves of unwanted relatives, whether mentally ill or not, only had to pay a fee to have their burden locked up and lost for ever in the prison of the Isle of the Dead.

The system was so cruelly successful and so lucrative for the guards and administrators that it remained virtually the same for several hundred years. During that time countless sane people were committed to a terrifying death because relatives wanted to remove them from positions of importance without being seen to arrange their deaths. It was easy to bribe an unscrupulous magistrate to sign a document which certified insanity and then to arrange for transport of the ‘madman’ (or woman) to the Isle of the Dead.

As time passed other local authorities began to set up their own ‘asylums’, often known as ‘bedlams’, and the influx to Portland began to dwindle. Finally, in about AD 1370, the last inmate died and the guards marched away. The palisades rotted and the logs fell. Portland stone was again quarried there for a time but the trade eventually collapsed and the surface quarries were abandoned.

Amongst the stone debris from quarrying lie the life stones of the pitiful dead. I dowsed for and collected a few as a basis for information on this period of the island’s history. Reading the early history of their long-dead owners was not easy and, as I reached deeper into their lives, I began to feel the depression and terror which many of them experienced before they died. Some impressions were quite frightening and in several cases I had to use strong spiritual protection before I could continue.

Today only a jumble of large stones, pits and crags remain, bordered by the jagged, sea-washed rocks. Visitors park their cars where the palisade once stood and children play where unhappy wretches once fought for their lives.

© 2001 John Harvey & BSD EEG

  1. The Winter King: A Novel of Arthur: The Warlord Chronicles 1. Bernard Cornwell. Pub. Michael Joseph 1995. ISBN 0-1402-3186-2. Reproduced by permission of Penguin Books Ltd. []
  2. EEG Newsletter, Vol. 4, Issue 15, Sept. 1999 []