THE DEATH OF NETTA FORNARIO Pt2
Further investigation has revealed some other information on the life and death of Netta Fornario.
Included here is the version of her death described by Alasdair Alpin MacGregor in 1955 relying in large part on the testimony of two Ionan-dwelling friends Lucy Bruce and Iona Cammell. It is a tamer version lacking some of the lurid details found in other accounts, but perhaps it is more factual.
One autumn day in 1928, there arrived at Iona in search of accommodation a young lady of Mediterranean origin. That she was of a mind to stay seemed obvious from the quantity of belongings she brought with her. In addition to a great number of trunks and boxes, she had some large packing-cases containing furniture. As most of the island’s summer visitors had already departed, she had no difficulty in finding quarters. Before long she was installed with the Cameron family, at Traigh Mhor, their little farm situated lonesomely at some distance from the island’s village and the customary ferrying-place… Not only was she soon on agreeable terms with the Camerons, with whom she apparently had every intention of indefinite duration, but she had readily made friends with the islanders too. However, she had been some little time in their midst before telling them anything very personal about herself. She did eventually say that her Italian father was a professor of something or other at some Italian university, and that her mother, a London lady of means, had died while she was still a child. With the English uncle and aunt in London, who had brought her up, she had never been happy. They were apt to be impatient with her: they could not understand her temperament. Her father she had not seen for many a year. The passage of time seemed to have intensified her bitterness towards him, apparently for his having married an unsuitable Englishwoman, her mother. The children of such marriages, she held, were so often doomed to misfortune. The Camerons, not unnaturally, were curious about their unusual guest. What could have induced so attractive a creature to have exchanged the gaiety of London for a humdrum existence on an island like Iona? When eventually Mrs Cameron, out of mounting curiosity, asked her why she had left so much behind her, she answered that she had the Call – the Call of the Island – that Call fraught with every prospect of peace and tranquility for which she now yearned. She added that in no way did she regret her coming to Iona. On the contrary, she said that, whenever she saw, at journey’s end, the Isle of her Quest , with its ancient ruins and its early associations with the Blessed Columba, she knew that at last she was to find happiness.
When she arrived she was in anything but robust health. The little exercise she seemed able to take amounted to no more than a daily walk of a few hundred yards along the sandy beach, at no great distance from the Camerons’. Sometimes, owing to fatigue, she did not leave her room for days. Of the mystical poetry she wrote, I have never seen anything. But I have heard from those competent to judge that it was of a very high order. From the day she landed on the island, she interested herself in its folklore, and became increasingly absorbed in the eerie and uncanny aspects of her Hebrideans environment, so recently acquired. The Spell of the Isles – captor of so many – soon had her in thrall. However, she was not long with the Camerons when they and their neighbours discovered – or at any rate imagined that they had discovered – that the stranger within their gates was given to secret and mystical practices. Exactly what these were, nobody could quite say. I am told she was a Rosicrucian. If she as much as whispered the word among the Presbyterians of Columba’s Isle, it would have been sufficient to confirm their suspicions of dangers heterodoxy, suspicions already firmly established whenever it became known that she never retired for the night without two little oil-lamps glowing dimly in her room, and a glass of orange-juice on her bedside table! When, however, she began to speak of visions that she had seen in the heavens, and of messages received from the spirit world, they were quite horrified. To them, that faraway look they had seen in her eyes now denoted either madness or something diabolical. Yet, their native predisposition toward anything of a supernatural character tempered their attitude. On the whole, they were now incredulous; and in this state of mind they remained until the day Mrs Cameron chanced to notice that the jewelry [Nessa] was wearing had become black. Unable to restrain curiosity any longer, Mrs Cameron sought of her the explanation, only to be told that this was always happened to her jewellery when she wore it.
MacGregor goes onto explain some of her strange behavior. She spent one night on the moor after getting lost, she searched out pre-Christian sites for unknown reasons. What is clear though is that strange Nessa was getting closer to the edge of something.
Time passed: and the strange lady with the strange look in her eyes and the strange ways seemed to be getting stranger. Mrs Cameron became positively alarmed when she mentioned that, if she went into a trance, she might remain in it for a week or more, and that, in such an event, nothing in the nature of medical aid was to be summoned.
You can imagine the good Scot clutching at her heart!
Her face now showed nothing of the repose the islanders had noted when she first arrived in their midst. That expression had given way to one of dire distress; and she now spoke hurriedly, if not indeed a little incoherently. At length she told Mrs Cameron that she must quit the island immediately. She had no time to lose; and she must pack at once. Whence came this urgent call, they could not understand. No postman had brought her any letter; and nobody could remember her having received a telegram. Recognising her piteous plight, the kindly Camerons assister her with packing, though it happened to be a Sunday, and they felt themselves contravening the Fourth Commandment. By late afternoon all her belongings were ready to be transported to the pier. As she knew there was no way of leaving the island on the Sabbath, she retired to her room to rest. The hours went by; and towards evening she quietly opened the door to tell Mrs Cameron that her hurried departure no longer seemed necessary. The household noticed that her face, now weirdly pallid, bore an expression of resignation rather than of distress, as though she had just emerged from some stupendous ordeal. She had become quite old in a few hours. The Camerons helped her to unpack, and to settle in once more. Early that night, after chatting pleasantly and rationally with them, she retired to bed.
The customary knock on her door the following morning brought no response. She had gone! Whither, no one knew. Neatly arranged in the room were her clothes and jewellery. As the hours wore on, and she did not return, everybody became alarmed for her safety. Soon the islanders were searching the bays and inlets for her, searching the rocks and moorlands – searching for her on what remained of the short, dark northern November day. They failed to find her. The ensuing night was moonlit, calm and frosty. With the coming of dawn, the searchers were out again. Not until the afternoon did Hector MacLean, of Sligneach, and Hector MacNiven, of Maol Farm, find her. She lay between the Machar and Loch Staonaig, in a hollow in the chilly moor. She was quite dead, and, except for a silver chain turned black, quite naked. One hand clutched a knife: the other lay between her head and the cold moor. She had died of exhaustion and exposure. In a trance or, perhaps, in sleep-walking, she had made her way to this remote spot, in response to some mysterious urge.
How, otherwise [than in a trance], could a woman, unable in the ordinary way to proceed on foot more than a few hundred yards at a time, have travelled so far over territory so precipitous, so broken, so perilous? It looked as though she had been making for the sight of the ancient village we mentioned [a pre-Christian site]. Whereas her heels and much of the soles of her feet were in no way injured, her toes were torn and bleeding. She must have reached that hollow of death by hurrying through the heather and over the rocks on the tip of her toes.
Dion Fortune knew Nessa and wrote the following in her Psychic Self Defence.
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 worthwhile 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.
Iona Cammell mentioned above as one of Netta's friends also wrote an obituary for her in the The Atlantis Quarterly. Which sadly I have been unable to trace as yet.
The Atlantis Quarterly was a journal founded and edited by Lewis Spence in 1932. It ceased publication October 1933 after just five issues.
Here is a interesting little titbit which clearly shows the circle of people Netta was associated with.
Donald Cammell used to enjoy telling friends that, as a child, he would sometimes be bounced on the knee of 'the wickedest man in the world'. In the Thirties, Aleister Crowley, the mountaineer, pornographer and self-styled magus, had been demonised by the Beaverbrook press after being expelled from Sicily amid allegations of 'black magic' and sexual immorality. The charges were exaggerated, and in his later years Crowley retired into obscurity, living in Richmond. It was here that he was befriended by Cammell's father, Charles.
Cammell senior was a scion of the shipbuilding family, Cammell-Laird. As a young man, he led the life, as his other son, David, says, of 'the rich dilettante', living in a moated chateau in France, writing poetry and cultivating an interest in the arts. By his 30s, his personal fortune had been exhausted and his first marriage had ended. He returned to Britain, married a Scottish woman, Iona Macdonald, and settled in Edinburgh, in the Outlook Tower, adjacent to the castle. It was there that Donald Cammell was born.
The atmosphere that Donald grew up in was fiercely bohemian. Charles Cammell edited both The Connoisseur and Atlantis Quarterly. His friendship with Crowley led to him to write his biography. Donald Cammell would later recall that he had grown up in a house 'filled with magicians, metaphysicians, spiritualists and demons. . . where Magick was real'.
Miss Lucy Bruce also mentioned above is a virtually forgotten twentieth-century mystic, who spent some of her life on the Isle of Iona. The author Alasdair Alpin MacGregor was clearly a friend, MacGregor quotes a letter from Lucy about MEF.
I’m sure her ghost wouldn’t appear now unless it came to help, because she wasn’t earthbound. She lived so much on higher planes… If you should be bringing her into any of your writings, please remember that she was a beautiful, gentle soul, full of loving kindness – a truly dedicated soul. Her strange and tragic passing moved us all.
An Iona Anthology by Marian McNeill (1952) tells of a lady visitor who fell victim to the fairies of the fairy hill on Iona. She apparently slipped out one night to the fairy hill naked carrying only a knife with which to open the hill, and she was found dead in the morning beside the fairy hill (Sithean Mor, it’s just by the road to Machair – aka Angels’ Hill where Columba spoke with the angels). According to the story she was buried at Reilig Odhrain. The book then gives a wonderful poem about the lady by Helen Cruickshank called "Ballad of Lost Ladye". Now as you can see, this seems to be based on Nessa’s death. The location has changed, but the knife and nudity definitely suggest it’s the same lady.
Ballad of lost ladye
O siller, siller shone the mune
An' quaiet swang the door,
An' eerie skraighed the flaughtered gulls
As she gaed by the shore.
O saft tae her the meadow girse,
But set wi' rock the hill,
An' scored wi' bluid her ladye feet
Or she cam' the place intill.
The sheen o' steel was in her hand,
The sheen o' stars in her een,
An' she wad open the fairy hill
An' she wad let oot the queen.
There cam' a shepherd owre the hill
When day began tae daw;
And is this noo a seggit ewe
Or flourish frae the schaw?
It wasna lamb nor seggit ewe
Nor flourish frae the schaw,
It was the ladye bright an' still,
But she had won awa'.
The peace an' loveliness upon
Her broo said, 'Lat abee,
Here fand I that I sairly socht,
Ye needna peety mee.'
In March 2012 the same researcher goes on to say:
I visited Iona a couple of weeks ago and located what is said to be MEF’s grave, according to Geoff Holder’s book on Mysterious Iona. Interestingly there is a tradition on Iona to leave stones on graves, it seems to be a sign of respect and good wishes, and quite a few had been placed on her grave so she has obviously not been forgotten.