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Shetland: Descriptive and Historical
Part II: Chapter 1


FAIR ISLE.

Naval Action—Shipwreck of an Admiral of Spanish Armada— His return to Spain, &c.—Fishings, &c.—Fair Isle skiffs— Beacons in ancient times—Earls Paul and Ronald—Parochial statistics.

THE voyager in the North Seas, having passed the Orcades, naturally falls into the sombre mood of the poet, who describes the land whence he is bound as “ the naked, melancholy isles of farthest Thule.” Fair Isle, the first island of the archipelago, rather serves to maintain those sentiments of gloom and solicitude; for, although there are spots in it, which, basking in the summer sun, look blythe and bonnie enough, yet its very name is associated with storm and shipwreck and desolation. Off its shores was fought, in 1703, a naval action between the French and the Dutch. The former mustered six ships of war, and the latter four. Victory declared itself for the stronger fleet. The Dutch admiral’s ship was sunk, and the remaining three contrived to escape.

But the Fair Isle is associated with an event of far greater national importance. As mentioned in another connection, it was here Admiral Juan Gomez di Medina, after the “Invincible” Armada had been dispersed by the combined artillery of the skies and the English fleet, was wrecked in 1588, when endeavouring to return to Spain, by sailing round the west of the British Isles. Their galleon was driven into a creek on the east side of the island, and Juan Gomez, with two hundred men, effected a landing in the boats with considerable difficulty. During his stay in Fair Isle, the Spanish commander behaved most chivalrously, and ordered his men to pay handsomely for all the provisions they required from the natives. But the Spaniards tarried too long at the scene of their shipwreck, apparently from apprehensions lest they should not be well received in Shetland, which was under the sway of the Protestant King of Scotland, who stood in the most friendly relations to Queen Elizabeth. The dastardly way in which the barbarous Fair Islanders requited the generosity of their distinguished visitor, when his men began to suffer from famine, has been already mentioned, as illustrative of the low state of morals at that period. All the meagre stock of provisions failing, famine raged, and it became necessary, at whatever hazard, the Spaniards should leave the Isle. A boat was, therefore, despatched to Andrew Umphray, of Berrie, who is said at that time to have farmed the Fair Isle, requesting his speedy assistance. This gentleman forthwith despatched a vessel, which soon carried the foreigners away from the scene of their sufferings. Attired in the splendid costtime of a Spanish nobleman of that period, the admiral landed at Quendale, where he was hospitably received by Malcolm Sinclair, laird of the place. In order to ascertain if his haughty mien and gorgeous dress had sufficiently impressed the simple islanders amongst whom he was thrown, the vain Spaniard is said to have caused the interpreter to inquire if his new host had ever seen a person of his rank before  Whereupon the sturdy Scottish Protestant replied, “Farcie in that face'; I have seen many prettier men hanging [Farcie in Scotch signifies unrighteous] on the Borough Muir.” Juan Gomez di Medina is said to have remained for some time the guest of Malcolm Sinclair, while his followers encamped in the neighbourhood of Quendale. Meantime Andrew Umphray was preparing a vessel, which conveyed the party safely to Dunkirk, in France, calling, however, at Anstruther, in Fifeshire, on its way southwards.

James Melville (nephew of the more celebrated Andrew Melville) was, at that time, minister of Anstruther. In his well-known Diary he gives a very interesting account of the arrival of the Spanish admiral, and his shipwrecked officers and crew, at that port. Juan Gomez he describes as “a very reverend man, of big stature, and grave and stout countenance, grey-haired, and very humble-like, who/*—at this interview with Melville—“ after much and very low courtesy, bowing down with his face near the ground, and touching my shoe with his hand, began his harangue in the Spanish tongue.” His demeanour at Anstruther was certainly very different from that which he is said to have displayed at Quendale. The respective distances of the two places from the seat of government may be sufficient to account for such a marked change.

It has for a very long period been almost universally affirmed that the Spanish commander shipwrecked on the Fair Isle was no less a personage than the Duke of Medina Sidonia, commander-in-chief of the whole Armada. But there is abundant documentary evidence, both in the British Museum and elsewhere, to show that this is a mistake. The name of the commander-in-chief was Alfonso Perez de Guzman, Duke of Medina Sidonia that of the officer wrecked on the Fair Isle, Juan Gomez di Medina, admiral of a division numbering about twenty ships. The Duke’s ship was the Santa Trini-dada; that of Gomez the Gran Grifon.

The family of Andrew Umphray has ever since been represented amongst the Shetland gentry; and his worthy namesake is proprietor of Eeawick at the present day.

Fair Isle, which lies about midway between Orkney and Shetland, being about twenty-five miles distant from the nearest point of each archipelago, is about two miles in length, and one in breadth. The island is chiefly valuable as a fishing station. It is formed of sandstone, through a precipice of. which rock runs a vein of copper. It has a small harbour in the south end, and another in the north, the latter being by far the most secure. The fish caught in greatest abundance is the saith or coal-fish, which frequents the tideways around the island. Their capture is conducted by hand-lines, from light and narrow skiffs, each carrying three men. Nothing is more astonishing to the stranger than the dexterity with which the natives handle their canoe-like skiffs, as they dash through the tempestuous seas surrounding their rock-girt home. Each wave seems destined to swallow her up, but after bending in the yielding boards, it recedes, leaving the gallant little bark to speed on its way. In such craft the daring islanders frequently follow ships for many miles over the sea, for purposes of barter. Eggs, fish, milk, hosiery, sind other products of the island, are exchanged for groceries and spirits, to the mutual accommodation of both parties. In the halcyon days of the contraband trade, no doubt many a valuable cargo was landed on the Fair Isle. Again, in times much more remote, its position rendered it most important as a signalling station. A beacon kindled on one of its heights, and speedily followed by answering fires on every ward hill, soon told the Scandinavians of Shetland on the north, and those of Orkney on the south, that a fleet of hostile longships was approaching their shores.

In the dark days of the twelfth century, when Earl Paul held sway in Orkney and Zetland, his rival, Earl Ronald, was bold enough to invade his dominions. His formidable fleet was seen from the Fair Isle. Eric, the signalman, hastened to kindle his warning beacon; but the faggots had been deluged with water, by a treacherous assistant. No watchfire therefore illuminated the dark peaks of Fair Isle; and Earl Ronald was not again observed till he landed in Westray, Orkney ; soon after which he succeeded in wresting the islands . from his rivaL Thus it would appear signal fires were not always to be depended upon, nor were watchmen above corruption.

The famed Fair Isle hosiery need not here be referred to. The island affords very good pasturage, but frequently the crops have been destroyed by sea blasts. The population in 1861 was 380; but, in 1863, after a season of great destitution, upwards of one hundred of the islanders emigrated to America. In 1871 the Fair Isle contained 226 inhabitants. A day school, as well as public worship on the Sabbath, were long conducted by a teacher employed by the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge, but recently an ordained missionary has been appointed to fulfil this double function, by the Church of Scotland. In 1700, the island was united parochially to the ministry of Dunrossness. In 1794, Fair Isle, Foula, and Skerries were united, and a clergyman appointed to that scattered ministry. The arrangement, however, was found inconvenient, and shortly afterwards departed from, Fair Isle being again joined to Dunrossness. The zealous Wesleyans have adherents even in this lonely isle. Their minister at Dunrossness generally pays them a visit every summer. Clergymen or preachers of any denomination are heartily welcomed by the hospitable islanders, who listen most eagerly to their ministrations, and generally exert their utmost ingenuity in endeavouring to detain their reverend visitors as long as possible. Fair Isle was long the property of Sinclair of Quendale, from which family it passed—as tradition says, at a game of brag—to Stewart of Brough, Orkney. In 1866 it was sold, by the representative of that family, to John Bruce, Esq., of Sumburgh, Shetland—part of whose estate it now constitutes. But it is now high time to leave the Fair Isle and all its interesting associations.


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