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A Victorian Tourist on Fair Isle

The name Fair Isle is evidently a corruption of Faroe, which signifies in Icelandic, Isle of Sheep. Torfaeus calls it Fara, in his historical account of the Orkneys. Rising abruptly from the sea, and standing aloof alike from the Orcadian and Shetland groups, there is sublimity in the awful loneliness of the rock-girt Fair Isle. It is very difficult of access, and on dark stormy nights, when vessels are expected, a beacon-fire is kindled on the Fair-hill or Sheep Craig, not in imitation of the Cornish wreckers, but for the laudable object of giving the bearings of the outlying rocks. Much of the land is unreclaimed and unreclaimable, and the cultivated portions, lying in runrig, shew evident traces of the most primitive modes of husbandry. The spade is the chief implement employed in turning over the soil, which grows scanty crops of oats here, and potatoes. Field-labour is prosecuted with little energy, and only by fits and starts, when the weather or the season is unfavourable for fishing. Hitherto the island and the fishings have been let by the proprietor to tacksmen on a lease of nineteen years, the inhabitants possessing from year to year under the principal tacksman. It is scarcely possible to conceive a more pernicious system than the one thus described, and I am not aware that the last purchaser of the island has yet done much to redeem the people from their condition of poverty and serfdom. The tacksmen have been in the habit of taking the fishings on lease along with the land, and the inhabitants, who occupy their small holdings from year to year, pay their rents in the fish caught around the coast. An amphibious life, leading only to privation, is the inevitable consequence of this arrangement, and no improvement is possible until the relations between tacksmen and tenants, are entirely changed, and the people are permitted, under a better system, to enjoy the fruits of their industiy. Less than half a century ago, a somewhat similar state of things existed to a large extent throughout the whole of Orkney, and if a thorough change had not been effected, the now flourishing Islands of the group would still have been in the same helpless condition as their forlorn and outcast sister.

The Fair Islanders, despite the privations they endure, are an ingenious, industrious, and intelligent race of people. The admiral's flagship of the pish Armada, as previously mentioned, was wrecked on the island, and as several of the survivors clung to the spot where the sea had cast them, it is believed that many of the present in habitants, like the Dons and Donnas of Westray, have a mixture of Iberian blood in their veins. They are, from whatever cause, a race per se, being distinguished by certain peculiarities alike from Orcadians and Shetlanders. The females are famous for their skill in making curiously-coloured woollen stockings and mittens, which are exceedingly comfortable, and wear well. This manufacture is stated to have been introduced by the shipwrecked pish seamen, but it is just as likely to be an industry of native growth, like the knitting of frocks in Faroe. The men display equal ingenuity in the construction of canoe-shaped skiffs, which have all the buoyancy of life-boats, and which run little risk of being swamped in stormy seas. These skiffs are rowed or paddled with great dexterity by the islanders themselves, but they are very unsafe in the hands even of skilled boatmen who are unacquainted with their management, and amateur oarsmen have not unfrequently rued their temerity when, after capsizing the skiffs, they were dragged dripping and disconsolate to the shore. The natives of Fair Isle feel safe in their frail craft in all weathers, and they fearlessly follow vessels many leagues from land. When ships, outward or homeward bound, are descried from the island, numbers of skiffs, freighted with woollen goods, fish, and eggs, are immediately launched and pulled away for miles, and their swift motion, darting over the crests of the waves, seldom fails to excite attention and interest on board the stranger vessels. The skiffmen make good bargains in bartering, and as the island, from its solitary situation, affords excellent facilities for smuggling, it is shrewdly surmised that a brisk trade is carried on in Hollands, corn-brandy, tobacco, and other contraband articles. It occasionally happens, however, that the islanders outwit their customers who wish surreptiously to evade payment of the customs duties on tobacco and liqueurs. The corn-brandy, which tastes so rich and refreshing as it gurgles from the bottle, not unfrequently turns out to be a very commonplace and colourless liquid when purchased in a keg. Amusing stories are told of the blank dismay that has more than once fallen upon the jovial faces of eager and expectant guests when a Fair Isle keg - produced by the happy host, and pronounced to be brimful of invigorating aqua vita - disgorges only a liquid insipid and brackish as the water of a coastside spring. The difficulty of detection, tempts the islanders to evade payment of custom, but the scantiness of their agricultural produce forms also an inducement for trafficking in contraband commodities. This immoral practice does not now exist to the same extent as in former years, but he must be a very innocent person who believes that it has altogether ceased. Some lawlessness may naturally be expected in a dependency where no legal functionary resides, and where the Gospel is preached as the land is cultivated - by fits and starts. Some years ago the Home Mission of the Church of Scotland appointed a clergyman to act as evangelist among the islanders, but the worthy divine soon wearied of his exile in the northern Patmos, and stepped across to Shetland. A successor has recently been found in a gentleman who endeavours to combine the functions of minister and schoolmaster. But the dwellers on that lonely spot do not all belong to one religious sect. Denomination alism extends to Thule, and Methodism has its sectaries in the Fair Isle. To do the islanders justice, however, it must be admitted that they are no bigots, since they give a rapturous welcome to anything in the shape of a clergyman, and follow in crowds the itinerant Baptist preacher. Strangers, in fact, who intend visiting the island would do well to provide themselves with a volume of manuscript sermons, as an invitation to conduct religious service in the school-house is almost irresistible. The arrival of a bona fide minister is considered a perfect windfall, and the poor people have recourse to all sorts of devices to retard his departure. When the visitor has been plied in vain with arguments and entreaties to prolong his stay, some old skiffman, turning suddenly round to the weather-side of the island, looks knowingly across the sea, snuffs the briny breeze with a sagacious shake of his head, and predicts a heavy gale from the nor'-east or sou'-west.

Although the Fair Islanders dwell apart, like the remnants of a lost tribe, they are by no means destitute of intelligence or of the desire for information. Reading is an art which they seem to have picked up intuitively, and every scrap of printed matter - half-sheet of newspaper or leaf of book - that comes in their way is perused with an avidity which might shame their more fortunate fellow-countrymen, who too frequently abuse their ampler opportunities of gaining instruction. So anxious are the islanders to know what is doing in the great world, that they often lie in wait for the Shetland mail-steamer, and call lustily to the passengers for newspapers as they dash boldly forwards in their light skiffs amid the foam seething away in white-green waves from the revolving paddles. Four or five years ago when a number of these primitive people emigrated to Canada, it was noted, as a highly creditable circumstance, that the greater portion of them could read and write.

The islanders are warmly attached to their remote island-home and to each other. They are, in fact, so closely connected by intermarriages, that they may be regarded as forming one extensive family, united by patriarchal affinities. Lerwick is preferred by them to Kirkwall as a place of call, but they hold comparatively little intercourse with the groups of islands on either side. Some years ago they were in the habit of coming to Kirkwall about the time of the Lammas fair, to barter for provisions, but their canoe-like skiffs are now rarely seen in the harbour or the bay. They have a great dread of approaching any place where an infectious disease exists, and they seldom ventured on shore when they visited Kirkwall until assured that the town was free from fever. There is a wise instinct in this dread of infectious disease, as the miserable cottage accommodation which they possess would accelerate and increase its ravages if once introduced.

During the Norse occupation of Orkney, Fair Isle was regarded as an important outpost. Wardfires to signal the approach of hostile long-ships seem to have been first used in the twelfth century, when Earl Paul was threatened with invasion by Earl Ronald. From its position, midway between the two groups of islands, Fair Isle was recognised as the principal signal station, and the kindling of its great beacon started an answering flame on all the ward heights, as if some unseen messenger had sped from island to island, firing the hill-tops with his torch. The leader of Earl Ronald's expedition hit upon a notable device to cause Dagfinn, the warder or signalman in Fair Isle, to give a false alarm, and thus excite suspicions of treachery. In Shetland he got together a number of small boats, and ordered the boatmen when they sighted Fair Isle to hoist their sails to the middle of the mast, and gradually to raise them higher until the sails reached the masthead. The ruse succeeded; Dagfinn was deceived; the beacon blazed up into thenight,and the islanders hurried to the standard of Earl Paul only to discover that they had been made the victims of a hoax, not unlike the celebrated Fenian raid on Unst. The signalman was acquitted of treachery, but the beacon was committed to the charge of another. Eric was equally unfortunate with Dagfinn. An assistant whom he employed to protect the pile of wood turned out to be a scout of Earl Ronald's party, lately arrived from Shetland. In the absence of Eric this knavish Norseman deluged the faggots with water, and thus prevented the beacon from taking fire when the hostile fleet was seen at last from Fair Isle. The stratagem proved a complete success, as Earl Ronald landed unawares in Westray, and soon wrenched the Islands from the grasp of his rival. These incidents may serve to show that the system of fire-signals was really of little use among a people so treacherous as the Scandinavians.

Source: Summers and Winters in the Orkneys, 2nd edition, pp 327-340 (1868) by Daniel Gorrie

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