The hospital island Själö – the spookiest of islands

The wooden church on the hospital island Själö (Seili)

Patient graves in the small cemetery behind the Själö church.

The islands around Finland tell thousands of stories. Few are more gruesome than the stories about the hospital island Själö (Seili in Finnish). Its history makes Själö possibly the spookiest island in the whole Finnish archipelago.

The dark history of Själö dates back in the 17th century when leprosy was spreading in Finland. The leper hospital in Turku was becoming overloaded. To remedy the situation, a leper colony (more than a proper hospital) was established on the smaller island at Själö and the lepers were deported there. A few years later also the hospital for the poor was moved from Turku to the bigger of the Själö islands. The leper hospital ended when the last leper died in 1785. According to the church records, 633 lepers have been buried on Själö. After the closing of the leper hospital, Själö still remained a mental hospital until 1962, the last 70-some years for women only.

What made Själö such a dreaded place was that the trip to Själö essentially was a one-way trip. Legend has it that you needed to bring wood and nails for your own coffin when you arrived. Even though the island is not very far from the Nagu mainland,  the island ended up being almost totally isolated and hence also its inmates became totally cut off from the rest of society and in the 20th century Finland almost collectively “forgot” that Själö even existed.

Nowadays Själö is a much brighter place and one of the main tourist attractions in Nagu with more than 10000 people annually visiting the small island. The two separate island became connected in the 19th century because the ground still rises out of the sea so now there is just one. You can visit the island either with your own boat (there is a small harbor on the north-east side of the island) or by ferry or tour boat from Nagu or the mainland. On the island, the old church is the main attraction. The wooden church was built in 1733 and is now a museum. A wooden cross outside the church commemorates those who died on Själö. In the summer the Pro Själö/Seili association is maintaining a small kiosk and there is also a nature trail around the island.

Today Själö hosts the Archipelago Research Institute of Biodiversity Unit of the University of Turku. The Institute is housed in the old hospital building but is unfortunately not open to tourists.

More information on the history of the hospital island Själö: click here. Information on the Själö museum church: click here. Get to Själö with m/s Östern from Nagu.

Map of the island showing also the location of the harbor: click here.

Map icons courtesy of Nicolas Mollet/CC license