Nicola here. Today I am talking about the appeal of islands. I’ve just returned from a research trip to Scotland for the book I’m currently writing. It’s called The Lady and the Laird and it’s the first in a new Regency Scottish-set trilogy I have coming out next year. I’ve got to say I’m enjoying the research very much! I’m lucky – I go to Scotland as often as I can, usually once a year, but this trip was even more wonderful than usual. This time I was visiting The Northern Isles, and staying on Fair Isle, the most remote inhabited island in the UK.
Islands are special. In an article here, Nicholas Crane, sums up their appeal. They feel far away from the rush and hurry of modern life. They cast a spell. Fair Isle is extra special. Known as Ultima Thule to the Romans, and Fridarey, the Truce Isle, to the Vikings, it is located between the Shetland and the Orkney Islands off the northern coast of Scotland. This ancient map is roughly the right shape and there are still whales and porpoises in the waters around the isle today.
Fair Isle is a tiny jewel of a place, three miles long and one mile wide, with soaring cliffs, a white sand beach and a scattering of crofts. These days Fair Isle is known for wildlife tourism, stunning views and of course, the world famous Fair Isle knitting! It’s also a place that gives visitors a very warm welcome, which is lucky because when the weather turns and the Atlantic storms blow in you sometimes find, as we did, that you are marooned and have to stay longer than you intended! Then the islanders throw a ceilidh - a party with traditional music - and you wish you could stay forever.
The history of inhabitation on Fair Isle goes back to the Bronze Age. There is a dramatic Iron Age promontory fort on one of the cliffs commanding views over the harbour, which is known as the North Haven. The Vikings were quick to see the potential of the island. It is mentioned in the Norse Sagas and their legacy lives on in that many of the place names on the island are Norse in origin. One of my favourite archaeological sites was the Viking “nausts” at the South harbour here in my photo. These are the cuts in the bank above the waterline where the ships were pulled up out of the sea. The winter nausts were higher up the bank than the summer ones to protect the boats against the stronger winter storms. These cuts are still in use today, over a thousand years later. That historical continuity had my mind exploding with excitement!
The sea is a force to be recognised in a place like Fair Isle, all the more so because it is surrounded by a “roost” a place where currents meet and create particularly turbulent sea conditions. Shipwrecks were common up until the 20th century. The first recorded wreck was in AD 900 when a Viking longship ran aground. One of the reasons for the number of wrecks was that the British Government was very slow in establishing lighthouses on Fair Isle despite the dangerous waters that surrounded it. It took the combined petitions of many organisations that had lost shipping in wrecks finally to persuade the Northern Lighthouse Board to act. It was not until 1890 that Tom Stevenson, father of Robert Louis Stevenson, erected two lighthouses, the North and South light. Robert’s description of the island was romantic: “The coast of Fair Isle is the wildest and most unpitying that we have ever seen. Continuous cliffs tower over huge voes and echoing caverns… The rains and winds beat upon the towering rocks and the mists rise up and conceal it… it bids all defiance and stands there as a fortress…” The spectacular arches, caves and blowholes are absolutely stunning.
We visited the tiny churchyard where there is a monument to the most famous shipwreck of them all, that of El Gran Griffon in 1588. The 650 ton flagship of the transport division of the Spanish Armada had been damaged in battle and was battered by storms when it was driven onto the cliffs of the island. The men escaped by climbing the foremast, which was wedged against the cliff. Seven died in the attempt. At that time Fair Isle had a population of 17 households. Despite the fact that the Spaniards were their enemy they took them into their homes and fed them as best they could. Conditions on the island were dire and food scarce; fifty of the sailors died of starvation but the Spanish paid for everything they took and there was no fighting between them and the islanders. Eventually they were rescued and taken to Shetland and from there to mainland Scotland.
By 1728 there were rumours of treasure on board the wreck and these persisted until a team of divers explored it in 1970, raising the cannon, still loaded for battle, and finding lead ingots and just one silver 4-real coin of King Philip II!
Falcons for a King
In the 17th century the best peregrine falcons in the Royal Mews in London came from Fair Isle and the Royal Falconer to both James I and Charles II was recorded as travelling to Fair Isle specifically to take the birds back to London for sport.
Birds, mainly seabirds, have always been a part of the Fair Isle economy. In the 19th century the island produced six stones of feathers a year and paid some of its rent to the laird in feathers at three shillings per stone!
War, Smuggling, Piracy and the Press Gang
From the mid eighteenth century, smuggling was rife in the Shetlands and around Fair Isle. Many lairds and merchants became involved in smuggling tea, tobacco and gin from Holland and timber from Norway. A ship with a legitimate trade in timber might make a dash for Holland, return and drop off the contraband on one of the remote islands and then set sail for Norway on its official voyage, blaming the delay on the weather when questioned by the Excisemen! There is a cave on Fair Isle called the “Thieves Hole” which was used for smuggling in the 18th and into the 19th centuries. A very disapproving report of 1816 referred to the islanders as all being “professional smugglers.”
The cave also came in useful when the press gangs arrived to force men to join the Navy. The press gangs were ruthless, carrying off almost 60% of the adult male population of Shetland to serve in the Dutch, American and French wars. Fair Isle was too small an island economy to be able to afford to lose its young and able-bodied sailors and so when the word went round that the press gang was in its way the men would hide in the Thieves’ Hole until the danger was past.
Whenever there was a war on the seas around Fair Isle became a hunting ground for privateers. These privately owned warships were licensed by governments to capture enemy merchant vessels. On one occasion during the Revolutionary War with America the men of Fair Isle spotted an American privateer approaching and outran it to pass word to the regiment on Mainland Shetland that the enemy was on the way. On another occasion a French privateer was damaged and towed into harbour. The Captain requested provisions for his crew, saying that he would pay a fair price for them but that if he were refused they would “furnish themselves according to the rules of war.” Faced with this polite threat the laird handed over the provisions!
On one of the days we climbed to the top of a cliff called Malcolm’s Head to visit the ruins of the Napoleonic watch tower that was built to look out for enemy ships. There isn’t a lot of building material on Fair Isle as there are few trees because of the climate – and any wood that was found there formerly came from wrecks and driftwood. As a result they turned to unusual building materials for the watchtower, constructing the first tower from peat stuck together by eggs! It must have been extremely lonely as well as very stormy for the watchmen living on the top of the cliffs manning the beacon fires to warn of the enemy’s approach. On the day we were up there the wind was so strong you could barely stand up!
My favourite house on the island was the Auld Haa, built in the 18th century in the Orkney style with crow-stepped gables. In the 19th century this was the laird’s residence although he seldom visited and it was his factor who lived permanently on the island and oversaw the day to day business of the estate. As you can see, it's solid rather than grand. In 1814 Sir Walter Scott paid a visit to Fair Isle and dined with the factor, James Strong at the Auld Haa. Sir Walter didn’t think much of Fair Isle, referring to the inhabitants as “wild people.” He took a trip up Ward Hill, the highest point on the island. In his day the remains of the Viking beacon station could still be seen on the top. Sir Walter then retired to his yacht and sailed away, happy to leave Fair Isle behind!
Today Fair Isle still feels wild and remote and you can taste the history of the past centuries. You have to be fairly intrepid to get there as the final leg of the journey from Mainland Shetland involves either a rough sea crossing or an exciting flight in a tiny seven seater aircraft. It's worth it, though, for the stunning scenery and the inspiring history! When The Lady and the Laird comes out there will be a number of elements of Fair Isle history featuring in the story!
Do you think you would like to live on an island or would you find it too remote? Do you have a favourite island, one whose history you particularly enjoy, or one that you would like to visit?