Janet Fea and the Burning of Sound

By Fiona Grahame Images by Martin Laird

Thrust into a chair with a sword at her throat, Janet Fea, was forced to watch her house burn to the ground.

What had this middle aged lady done to cause so much hate and retribution that her home was ransacked, looted and destroyed, indeed her very life threatened?

The year was 1746. The after effects of the Jacobite defeat on the battlefield of Culloden reached every part of Scotland, including the islands of Orkney.

Janet Fea, was born Janet Buchanan the daughter of Thomas Buchanan and his second wife Margaret. Orphaned as a young child, Janet’s guardianship passed first to her grandfather, Sir Alexander Douglas and on his death, to her uncle.

She was perhaps as young as 12 when she was married to the 27 year old James Fea of Clestrain, one of the largest landowners in the northern isles. This was a smart move by James Fea.  Janet was the wealthiest heiress to be had in Orkney. She possessed the Estate of Woodwick, its surrounding lands and the island of North Ronaldsay. She also owned Carrick House, Eday, and Sound on Shapinsay. These were large and profitable estates with many tenants. The houses had rich furnishings and a host of servants.

James Fea provided his young bride with a governess, a Miss Kerr, meanwhile he continued his pursuits in Edinburgh, London and the continent, as he had done before the marriage. The couple had no children. Whether Janet was ever pregnant and miscarried, we just don’t know. Life for her was remaining mostly at her home at Sound, Shapinsay in the normal pursuits of women of her class: managing her household, sewing, attending church and possibly reading.

When he did return to the islands, James Fea had the choice of his wife’s many properties. It was at Carrick House on the island of Eday that he captured his old friend John Gow who had taken up piracy and surrendered himself to Fea when escape became impossible. Janet was also at the house ill in bed but that did not deter her husband from arriving with a posse of armed men and John Gow under guard. The Groatie Hoose

Capturing Pirate John Gow in 1725 did not bring great rewards to James Fea, indeed he was beset by law suits from then on until his death. It was the cause of the Bonnie Prince, however, that was to be his real undoing.

It is perhaps reasonable to suppose that when in France the young James Fea had met the exiled King James. When Charles Edward Stuart raised his standard at Glenfinnan in 1745 Fea rallied to the Jacobite cause. He offered to supply men and arms. In return he received a paper from the Prince promising that there would be support for Fea to redress grievances he wished pursued in Orkney.

Unfortunately for Fea there was reluctance in the islands to provide men for the campaign. MacKenzie of Ardlock was dispatched from Caithness and sailed to Longhope, Hoy but succeeded only in plundering some effects from Melsetter House, residence to the Hanoverian supporter, Moodie.

After Culloden, Hanoverian forces, relentlessly pursued fleeing Jacobites, their families and any who had given them succour. James Fea, in disguise, went into hiding in Caithness . In Orkney a naval squadron arrived with 4 ships of war under the command of Captain Lloyd.  Moodie of Melsetter and William Traill, a Kirkwall merchant, descended on Eday with a party of Marines.  Carrick House servants were taken prisoner, as were some tenant farmers. What could be removed was rounded up including a great number of sheep.

Shapinsay was plundered. Cattle, sheep and anything of value in the house was looted. The Marines arrived at night, rushing into the building, fully armed. Janet was dragged from her bed so forcibly that her ankle was dislocated. Forcing her out into the garden ,she was thrust into a chair to watch as her childhood home was set to the torch.

James Fea eventually returned to Orkney after the Act of Indemnity was passed in 1747. Most of his remaining years, however, were spent in Edinburgh and London fighting the many law suits that were raised against him. Till his death he remained a Jacobite, closing a letter in 1752 with a seal which bore the head of King Charles and the words ‘Royal Martyr’.

Ten years after the burning of Sound in Shapinsay the Lords of the Treasury advised King George II to grant ‘James Fea of Clestrain, esquire and Janet his wife the sum of £1,582 13 shillings sterling. The compensation for the destruction of Janet’s home had only been fully settled when James died in London on August 7th, 1756. Janet died later on the same month.

Sound was acquired by Andrew Ross, Stewart depute in Orkney of the Earl of Morton.  In 1784 it was bought by Thomas Balfour for £1,250 from Ross’s heirs. The financing of these purchases arriving into the islands from both inheritance and colonial expansion into India. Balfour set about ‘improvements’:  including the clearing of the people, their relocation to a planned estate village and the building of Balfour Castle to house the new laird.

Remnants of the old walls are still visible within the private grounds of Balfour Castle. The violence of that night in 1746 long forgotten.

This article was first published in iScot Magazine

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