Exposed to the Elements: A Strange 1920s Death on the Scottish Island of Iona
The woman’s body lay still atop a cross cut into the earth, naked except for a silver chain with a cross around her neck. The police who arrived at the scene that day in November 1929 knew she was not one of them; the Scottish island of Iona is small, and her exotic looks suggested she came from a sun-drenched place far from the misty spit of land the cops called home. If she had been an Ionan, she certainly would not have ventured into the area around Loch Staonaig at night—it was known to be the domain of the fairies.
Though they were law enforcement, the Scottish police may have been chilled by the fact that the body was found next to a fairy mound. Dotted throughout the British Isles, these enchanted hills are often the remnants of Iron Age Celtic structures that have been covered by vegetation over time. Even stranger, the corpse was said to have been covered in small, unidentifiable scratches.
THE HAUNTED ISLE
Her name was Nora Emily Fornario, although friends called her Netta or Mac. The 33-year-old occultist, who had come over from England some three months prior, nurtured a lifelong fascination with magic. Born in Egypt in 1897 to an Italian father and an English mother, she'd spent her adolescence in Italy before moving to London. The British capital was then experiencing a blossoming of interest in esotericism; occult orders had sprung up all over the area, attracting such high-ranking intelligentsia as William Butler Yeats and the infamous Aleister Crowley. Netta became a member of the Alpha et Omega offshoot of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and an officer in a Co-Masonry lodge in West London (a Freemason lodge that admitted both men and women). Members of many of these orders dedicated themselves to learning ancient magical rites, going into meditative trances, summoning spirits and demons, and participating in intricate ceremonies that could last for days.
The island of Iona, located in the Inner Hebrides on the west coast of Scotland, is said to be one of the spots on Earth where the veil that separates our world from that of the spirits is thinnest. It was a sacred place for the ancient Celts and early Christians alike, being the location where the Celtic Christian illuminated manuscript the Book of Kells was created. Netta reportedly heard about Iona from a story by her favorite author, Fiona Macleod (a pen name for William Sharp), which describes the area around Loch Staonaig as one where the fairies roam free.
Netta told her maid that she was heading to Iona to perform a magical healing ritual and would stay indefinitely. On the island, she found lodging at an isolated farm with an older woman named Mrs. MacRae. With her wild dark hair, clothing inspired by the Arts and Crafts Movement, and extensive silver jewelry, Netta had a distinctively metropolitan look that stuck out in rural Iona. MacRae reported that the young woman spent her days wandering the island's beaches and moorlands. At night, she would enter into mystical trances in hopes of contacting Iona’s spiritual realm. Netta told MacRae that she once fell into a trance that lasted an entire week, and should the same happen during her stay, under no circumstances was a doctor to be called.
MacRae had become used to Netta’s eccentricities, but one Sunday morning in mid-November, she noticed her lodger’s behavior had become frantic. She had the wide-eyed look of someone who was deeply frightened. Netta explained to MacRae that she believed she was being psychically attacked from a distance.
A RUDDERLESS BOAT
Psychic attack—similar to a curse—was a hot topic among early 20th-century occultists. Netta’s friend, the famed magician Dion Fortune, even wrote a book teaching readers how to defend themselves from such attacks, called Psychic Self Defense. In it, Fortune discusses Netta’s demise, saying that she “was going into very deep waters [...] and that there was certain to be trouble sooner or later.”
That Sunday, Netta told her host of a rudderless boat she saw fly across the sky, and terrifying messages she received from beyond the veil while in trances. MacRae noticed that all of Netta’s silver jewelry had mysteriously turned black overnight.
Netta hurriedly packed up all of her belongings and told MacRae that she must leave at once. But ferries to the mainland didn’t run on Sundays, and Netta was forced to wait for the next morning. Upset, she went to her room to rest. When she came back out later she seemed calmer, with a look of resignation on her face. She told MacRae that she had changed her mind, and would remain on Iona.
The following day, MacRae went to check on Netta and found her room empty. When several hours passed without any sign of the young woman, a search party of locals went out to comb the bays, rocks, and moors. But there was no trace of Netta. It wasn't until the next afternoon that a pair of local men reportedly discovered her body on a hillside near Loch Staonaig, a knife lying nearby, and the silver cross—blackened like the rest of her jewelry—around her neck.
Netta’s death certificate states that she died between 10 p.m. on November 17 and 1:30 p.m. on November 19. There was no obvious evidence of foul play. In Psychic Self Defense, Dion Fortune recounted that Netta was “especially interested in the Green Ray elemental contacts, too much interested for my peace of mind.” In certain streams of Western esotericism, the "Green Ray" is said to represent divine nature; elemental is another word for fairy. Chillingly, the cause of death listed on Netta Fornario’s death certificate is “exposure to the elements.”
There were strange reports around the time of Netta's death, but nothing conclusive about what might have caused it. The night of her disappearance, locals said that they saw flashing blue lights emanating from the area where Netta’s body was later found. Others claimed they saw a strange man dressed in a long black cloak. Newspapers mentioned a packet of weird letters the police had discovered among Netta's possessions—but it's not clear what messages they contained, or whatever became of them.
When family members were uninterested in claiming the body, islanders pooled their funds and had Netta buried in a small graveyard near St. Oran's Chapel. She remains there to this day.
A MEDICAL MYSTERY?
Over the course of a century, several theories have arisen to explain the true cause of Netta’s death. The first and most obvious is that the young woman was psychologically disturbed, suffering from hallucinations and paranoia. Her imaginings drove her out into the cold wilderness unprepared, where she met her fate exactly as the coroner said.
The scratches on her body, if they existed (they seem to have been a later addition, and some argue that only her feet were scratched up), are a bit more difficult to explain. It could be that she fell into some brambles, but the posthumous examination didn't contain any reports of thorns being found in her skin. Iona did not harbor large predators, such as foxes, that might have tried to scavenge the body, and no bite marks were found either.
Some internet skeptics go deeper. One theory classifies Netta’s death as a medical, rather than a paranormal, mystery. In this explanation, her suddenly blackened jewelry is a sign of acidic sweat, which could point to acidosis (a medical condition in which body fluids contain too much acid, and which can be caused by diabetes among other ailments). If left untreated, acidosis can lead to confusion—and in severe cases, death. By this analysis what Netta needed was not psychic help, but a doctor.
Ninety years later, it's unlikely any of these theories will ever be confirmed. Whether her death was caused by fairies, a medical crisis, or something yet to be uncovered, Netta took the secrets of her last evening to her grave. Unless more information is uncovered, it may well remain one of Iona’s many enigmas.