The Island of Faray Orkney’s lesser known North Isle

The island of Faray – abandoned in 1947 – is something of an enigma, having been almost forgotten in the course of less than 100 years.  Debates rage over the pronunciation, the impending works on a new slipway or the proposed OIC windfarm.  Finally, Faray is back in people’s minds.    This, therefore, seems like as good a time as any to look at a bit of history of the island.   

Orkney has two sets of islands with similar names; North and South Ronaldsay and north and south Fara(y).  It is easy to distinguish between our two Ronaldsays, and they are rarely, if ever, written without their geographical prefix (and I’m not going to get bogged down in North Ronaldsay’s original name of Rinnansay).  However, the same can’t be said about our Fara(y)s.  Spelling is not an indicator, as both islands can share the same spelling, even within the same text.  The only way to really differentiate is to see which other islands are mentioned.  Any mention of Hoy, Flotta, Rysa or Scapa Flow mean south Fara, whereas anything about Westray, Eday or Stronsay would indicate north Fara, or Faray.

The name Faray comes from the Old Norse Færey sheep island or ram island, and has been variously known as Faray (modern spelling), Pharay, Fairay, North Pharay, North Fara, North Fairay, Fara, and Fairy. The island amounts to 180 hectares/445 acres and rises to a height of 32m/105 feet.  There is a single chambered cairn near Lavey Sound at the north of the island, which is its only documented prehistoric monument.   Faray Holm lies to the north of the main island and consists of mainly heather moor used for sheep grazing, it connects to Faray – at low tide – by a rock path.   Until it was bought by Orkney Islands Council in 2018, the island was owned by the Stewart Endowment, a charitable trust which has been in existence for over a hundred years. 

As to its pronunciation?  Fair-ee.

Faray once flourished and despite its small size, in 1871 it boasted a population of 83 people when there were eight crofts plus the schoolhouse.  Into the late 19th century, a metalled road ran the entire length of the island.  The people were once given the choice of a road or a pier by the then Orkney County Council.  By choosing the road the island was destined to isolation from its neighbours, but this was an impossible choice to have to make.  A road meant easy transport within the island.  A jetty meant easy transport to and from the island.   I am ever grateful to Ruth Sutherland and her family, who took me to the island in 2016. No jetty meant a leap from a small boat into the sea at the very edges of a beach.  Not elegant, but it got the job done. 

In 1946 the school was closed, making the island untenable for young families, particularly as no mention is made in any source to there being a regular visit from a doctor or midwife.  The last residents left in 1947.    Many of its former inhabitants settled in Eday or Westray, and between 1972-2009 the island was rented by first one family from Westray, and then another from Eday in order to raise sheep.  The first tried to raise deer on the island, who were not entirely impressed by their new surroundings with one stag and two hinds throwing themselves into the sea with the idea of swimming to Eday.  Unfortunately, one of the hinds didn’t make it, but when they were eventually captured and returned to the island it set off a chain reaction, with one deer after another making a break for it.  This daring new venture was eventually abandoned. 

We all know that education has a long history in Orkney, Kirkwall had a Grammar School in existence before the royal charter was granted in 1486, and by 1841 every parish had a Parochial School as well as other schools operated under the auspices of the kirk.   On the eve of the 1872 Education Act, around 80% of all Orcadian school-age children were enrolled in a school, though attendance was purely seasonal depending on their labour involved in collecting tangles, working peats or herding animals.    The School Boards began an ambitious building programme across Orkney, with five estimates received for Faray’s new schoolhouse in 1884.  There is no record of where the children received their schooling before this new schoolhouse was available.   Teachers seldom stayed long in the island schools, and weren’t often local, meaning they had little understanding or tolerance for the dialect.  One teacher at Sanday’s Cross Primary School noted “the old pronunciation still lingering notwithstanding continuing efforts to eradicate it.”  Faray too suffered from this problem with predominantly non-Orcadian speaking teachers, “The children have a nasty habit of pronouncing the long and broad sound of or as ahSaw, they say s(ah!), in every instance.” 

The Faray School Logbook held by the Orkney Library and Archive was started on 14 February 1893, when Jessie Marwick “took charge of this school on the 7th Feb.” Jessie was the first in a long line of teachers throughout the two remaining logbooks covering the years 1893-1946, a list containing 32 individuals.  Life for the schoolteacher in Faray was hard.  They were often cold, lacking in materials and felt that they had little support from the School Board with regards to non-attendance of the bairns.   Although speculatively teachers dating back to c1830 had worked in Faray, when Jessie took charge census records list only five ‘official’ teachers preceding her, four of whom were listed as residents of the island.  She was dismissive of the fact that no sewing had been taught, hardly surprising considering the five preceding teachers had all been male.  Sewing and knitting were seen as purely female pursuits, and on one occasion a separate (female) teacher is engaged to teach sewing to the children.  A few years and many teachers later, a visiting member of the school board comments upon the requirement for just such a person once again to complement the male teacher.  Throughout the pages of the logbooks, comments upon the quality of work and more often, the lack of materials to engage in these pursuits, are made.   Sewing materials appeared to be particularly scarce for the pupils, but jotters, workbooks and song books are also often scarce.

Nothing appears to have been spent on the upkeep or comfort of the school.  Comments such as (May 2 1902) “No supply of coal has yet been sent, for some days this week no fire has been in school and as the weather has been cold, it has been very uncomfortable both for children and teacher” and (Nov 2 1906) “School premises have not yet been repaired, making things very cold and uncomfortable both for teacher & children.”  Though not uncommon across all of Orkney’s schools, one island resident, born in 1865, wrote of being expected to take a peat or two with him to school each day along with his peers to keep the school’s fire going.  Ill-health was rampant amongst the children, with colds, bronchitis and other maladies featuring heavily throughout the log.  Comments such as (Oct 13 1905) “One boy under school age has left as the weather is getting too cold to attend” are relatively commonplace, and in 1918-1919 the school closed for 9 weeks due to a measles outbreak in the island.  Sometimes the thoughts and feelings of the teachers are made clear on the pages of the normally utilitarian logbook.  (Feb 15 1907) “The last teacher seems to have taken a delight in shirking her work.” (June 1 1906) “The singing of the boys is a perfect disgrace, they absolutely refuse to sing, some of them I am afraid to punish as I have already got into trouble about them.”  (July 20 1900) “The two Groat boys played truant two days and I got into great trouble about it, for alleging maltreatment of the children, thus frightening them from coming – a gross falsehood.”  On several occasions, reprimanding the children or providing them with perceived sub-standard schooling would incur the wrath of the parents, which in such a small community must have made for a rather uncomfortable experience.    Attendance was sporadic, with farm work, herding and illness being the main cause in Faray, though the weather is cited on several occasions for children who simply do not go to school in particularly rough weather.  The general shortage of teachers was one of the reasons cited for the island’s abandonment, and it had been closed for some years by the time the last family left the island in 1947.  Transporting children daily to Eday was impractical, so latterly children had been billeted “in more fortunate parts, away from their homes, a course open to criticism and often inadvisable.”

Reports of the “evacuation” of Faray note that it occurred shortly after April 1947 when only one family remained, the Wallace family of Ness.  Despite intensive advertising of the properties on the island no interest was shown, and they left soon after, citing the lack of regular boat service enabling them to maintain regular contact with the outside world.   Both The Orcadian (April 10, 1947) and Orkney Herald (May 13, 1947) give some insight on the eventual departure of the last Faray residents.  They cite the lack of manpower, emigration, the call of young people to war and their subsequent taste for a better life.  This left the older population behind, who began to find it increasingly difficult to maintain their inter-island communications, to man their boats, bring in food and other supplies and export their agricultural produce.  While Faray is by no means inaccessible in moderate weather, it requires considerable effort and skill in less-than-ideal conditions. The arduous work and inherent danger incurred in contacting ships and other islands for shopping, shipment of cattle and for medical and other necessities required a young, healthy population.  Modern life; the telephone, electricity, access to fresh and new foods and contact with new people proved too strong an attraction.   

Lynn Campbell

This first appeared in The Orcadian 17 February 2022

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