The Islanders of Faray (Pharay), Orkney

 (Old Norse: Færey)

The small uninhabited island of Faray has been in the news this week. The island which lies between Eday and Westray in the Orkney Archipelago is a very important breeding ground for the grey seal – the rarest seals in the world. It is also now where Orkney Islands Council has been given permission by the Scottish Government to erect a windfarm. OIC Faray Windfarm Approved by Scottish Government Despite Reporter’s Recommendation to Refuse

Faray Image credit George Brown

But what of Faray itself? Should we care about uninhabited islands or are they fair game for developments?

Faray and the Holm of Faray are a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) – they have this designation because of the crucial role the islands play in the life of the grey seal.

species that are a primary reason for selection of this site

1364 Grey seal Halichoerus grypusThese two uninhabited islands in the northern part of Orkney support a well-established grey seal Halichoerus grypus breeding colony. The seals tend to be found in areas where there is easy access from the shore, and freshwater pools on the islands appear to be particularly important. The islands support the second-largest breeding colony in the UK, contributing around 9% of annual UK pup production.

Although the island is no longer inhabited, this was not always the case. In some of the comments made in favour of the windfarm, scant regard has been paid to the history of the island. So easy it is to dismiss the heritage of Orkney when there is a perceived profit to be made.

The earliest structures found in Faray date back to the Neolithic period. A Chambered Cairn is recorded on the Canmore website as follows:

Field Visit (31 August 1928)

No. 254. Chambered Cairn (stalled), N. end of Fara.

Though marked on the OS map as a broch site, this monument seems much more likely to have been a chambered cairn of the stalled variety. It was excavated many years ago by some of the islanders, one of whom states that there was no trave of any regular construction beyond some very large stones set on edge with the major axis N and S, transversely to the entrance. Of these stones four are still in position, and the intervals between them are respectively 4ft 8in, 4ft 10in, and 4ft 1in. Otherwise the remains are little better than a scattered heap from 40 to 45ft in diameter. What appears to have been the entrance passage is slightly curved and about 2ft 6in wide. At its inner end a considerable kitchen-midden deposit was observed, as well as a large quantity of burnt material and animal bones, and several pottery fragments, some of them decorated. Lxxx (“Brough, Site of”). 31 August 1928.


Orkney Smr Note (1981)

An Orkney Cromarty short horned cairn with stalled chamber, much reduced and disturbed, grass-covered, but with finer, shorter growth which shows up horns and indicates otherwise indeterminate limits of cairn. Body has been circular, about 46ft diameter, with probably 4 horns of which 3 are traceable. NE horn most definite, 6ft wide, 17ft long, square-ended and curving slightly towards the E. SE and SW horns are stumps 7ft and 5ft long but perfectly evident. NW horn not visible, but three slabs in line running from the cairn stones, presumably part of some secondary structure. Body of cairn stands up to 4ft high, but it is howked into at centre where stall-stones of a chamber at least 15ft long, aligned ENE-WSW, are exposed. The remains of the entrance passage mentioned by RCAMS are not visible. [R3] Visited, D Fraser & E J Brundle May 81, [R4]m Information from Orkney SMR

There are other buildings in Faray which belonged to people who lived there in more recent times, the last residents having left in 1947.

The Orcadians who lived in Pharay were farmers and fishers. There are stories left of the life that people had in the island where boats were the main means of transport. The Orkney Family History Society has a series of articles by the late Robert Leslie, sometimes known as Robbie o’ Swartiback. In ‘The Island of Faray, Part 2’ he tells us how dangerous that stretch of water between the islands can be.

There were some sad happenings in Faray. One was concerned with Peter Harcus. i.e. the father of Faray Jack. He, James and Robert Allan were boating a cow to Eday. The cow put her foot through the boat, the boat sank and Peter Harcus and James Allan were drowned. Robert was saved.

In the same article he tells us of the birth of a child in Faray when there was such a storm that it was not safe to put out to Eday to get the doctor. It was decided to call on the services of Old granny Drever of Windywall who had been a midwife in times past. According to the account, granny Drever was in her eighties and went about with the aid of sticks.

She was fairly willing if they could get her there. There was no road except a broken farm track. At that time there were no horses either, only oxen. So an ox cart was yoked and taken as near the door as they could get and with a man on each side of her in case the wind blew her over, granny was lifted into the cart and an oilskin put over her head, as it was sleeting, they set off. In the darkening word went from one house to another that a baby girl had been born and all was well and granny was staying the night. Next day was much better and granny was put home in the same way.

Faray and the Holm of Faray were owned by landowners (absentees) and those who lived there farming and fishing, were tenants.

Farming in Faray was using the runrig system and even by the mid 19th Century there was no pier, jetty or road. Houses too had no boundaries and each one had runrigs in various places across the island.

People worked closely together and every one had to take a turn herding the sheep. In his account ‘The Island of North Faray’, Robert Leslie tells us that a great deal of courting went on during the summer months.

Then in 1852, as happened across the islands of Orkney, the way of farming was changed. The old runrig system was done away with and boundaries were laid out. Each farm now measured between 55 and 60 acres. In his account Robert Leslie lists the houses there were on the island.

The houses from north to south were, Quoy, Cott, Doggerboat, Hammer, Lakequoy, Windywall and Holland. The Ness was put up new then. There was another house that had been put in with Hammer in the planking. This house had been the head house in the island. It was an upstairs house (Ed. a two storey house in other words) and was called the Bu.

About a hundred people lived in Faray then and the children attended school.

The new school was a nice house and was a combined house and school with a door from the dwelling house into the classroom. Masons came from Smitlady in Westray to build the school.

As well as farming and fishing in Faray there were 3 quarries. Stone was shipped out from the quarries to Kirkwall and other destinations. Kelp was also produced in great quantities during that particular booming industry. There had also once been a church and the names in the graveyard bare witness to the lives that were once lived in this vibrant community.

In the early 20th Century a road was laid down which ran the length of the island.

Holm of Faray Image credit Douglas Caldow

The courage of the people of Faray is retold in the story of the trawler ‘Hope’ which broke its anchor chain and landed up on the Holm of Faray on Boxing Day 1908. The seas were tremendous that day with gales and blizzard conditions. The men from the trawler could just be seen on the Holm. It was too dangerous to take a boat out in the churning seas so, running from house to house, the people gathered as much rope as they could.

They tied this rope to a boat and then they went down wind and got some of the crew in the boat. The men on Faray pulled on the rope while the men in the boat rowed. They took the crew across in this way. Two more trips were made before all the crew were saved. Some of them were in a poor way with cold. They were all wet and some had very few clothes on. (Robert Leslie)

For their courage the rescuers from Faray were presented with the Board of Trade Silver Medal at Balmoral Castle by King Edward VII. They also received a pipe and a tin of tobacco from the King. Additionally they were awarded £10 each from the Dr Carnegie Hero Fund.

The men who became known as the Pharay Heroes were: Robert Reid, Holland; William Burgar, Cott; James Groat, Lakequoy; John Harcus, Doggerboat; and John Drever, Windywa.

The Islands of Faray by Mila Murphy, Mike Rendall and John Wallace

And what happened to the trawler? Well the men of Faray bought the wreck after a salvage company had removed its boiler and winch. The rest of the trawler, planks of wood etc, was stripped out by the islanders. They even acquired the salvage company’s flat bottomed boat. This was then used for transporting the island’s cattle.

The laird rarely visited the island. A collector would come about twice a year for the rents and of course, sheep, grain and other crops, like cabbages, had to be grown for the laird’s use. One time when he was sailing in his small yacht on a windy day to collect his grain some of the men decided to race him. Robert Leslie recounts:

When they came down to Cleat the laird was having a sail in a small yacht. Robbie Groat told the man to shake out the reef and we will give the beggar a race. So they went flying past the laird and landed below Cleat. When the laird landed he opened the sacks and said that the corn was not properly dressed and to take it back and redress it. So that is what they got for racing the laird. They took the corn home but I don’t think it was redressed. They returned another day when the laird was not there and it was all right.

In 1935 the council built a concrete jetty in Faray.

During World War 2 a Spitfire had to make an emergency landing due to engine failure. The pilot successfully landed his plane in a field but to get it back to Kirkwall it had to be taken apart and put on a boat.

Attracting and retaining teachers for the school was difficult. It was also expected that when a women teacher married that she would give up her post.

In 1940 The North Faray school was struggling to get a teacher. The Director of Education had offered the position to Miss Innes and then to Miss Scott. Both had declined to take up the job. He then returned to the previous teacher, Miss Rousay, who had offered to stay on after she was married. At the time of her making this offer it was refused. Now the Director was desperate to obtain a teacher for the school and asked her to return to her old post. Miss Rousay informed him that she was now no longer able to do so. The school had been closed since her departure on February 18th 1940.

Pictured 17 years ago: The old school building was restored to provide accommodation on the island during lambing season. It appears on the 1880 Ordnance Survey map (revised 1900, 2nd edition printed 1903). Image credit Douglas Caldow

After the war the island had only two children left on it and a population of about 60. The council closed the school in 1946 and the children were to be boarders. The parents could not thole this and the family left. Then Robert Leslie says:

In 1947 everybody decided to leave the island. The Seatters left Doggerboat and went to Elsness in Sanday; the Rendall family went to Scalbigger in Tankerness; the James Seatter family left Holland and went to Brendale in Rousay; my brother and family went to Bigswell in Stenness; the Wallace family went to Orphir.

The ‘evacuation’ from Faray was lamented in the local paper ‘The Orkney Herald and Advertiser’ which saw emigration of the young people of the island as the end of the community.

“Unless there is a fresh batch of tenants,” the report says, “Faray bids fair to become derelict, a holm little better than a skerry, a breeding place for gulls and wild fowl, [Orkney Herald and Advertiser 13/05/1947]

The islands of Faray, Holm of Faray and Red Holm were purchased by Orkney Islands Council in 2019 from the Stewart Endowment Trust using the Strategic Reserve Fund.

Commenting on the purchase at the time Leader of OIC James Stockan said:

“The availability of this opportunity at a point when the Council is actively looking at how best to maximise the resources available to them during financially challenging times, was too important to miss.

“There was significant local and national demand for these islands and it was vital that the Council did all it could to secure them as a strategic development opportunity. There are a number of potential routes we could now take with them – some of which offer us the opportunity to generate income, some to make savings – and officers will be exploring these opportunities in due course.”

See also: OIC Faray Windfarm Approved by Scottish Government Despite Reporter’s Recommendation to Refuse

Most of the 30 or so gravestones date from the mid 1800s to the early 1900s. Stony rubble (not visible in the photo) in the southeast corner of the walled enclosure indicates the site of an earlier chapel. Image credit Douglas Caldow

Fiona Grahame

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6 replies »

  1. Contradictions – Part 7……..

    Mr Stockan
    In his wisdom
    States that Orkney tourism
    Needs Cruise Liners
    Carrying thousands
    Polluting and disrupting.

    And yet
    He also supports the Faray turbines
    Visible for miles
    From ferries traveling to the Isles
    Bringing visitors
    To see wildlife

    Including seals?


    BB – December 2022.

  2. Faray – on-going…

    In reply to my letter to various organizations about the possibility of a wind farm on Faray….

    I received the following, very helpful, response from the RSPB….

    “Dear Bernie

    Many thanks for your email and sorry to hear of your concerns. I am passing your email to our conservation officer who covers Orkney and they will reply to you separately.

    In the meantime we do have a range of useful documents on the RSPB website to help guide concerned individuals through the Scottish planning system. The guidance can help hold decision makers to account and ensure impacts on nature from developments and businesses are avoided or minimised. Our planning pack here: Protect Wildlife in Scotland | Local Planning Pack – The RSPB

    I hope this information helps and in the meantime thank you for contacting us and for your interest in the RSPB.


    Colin Tate
    Homeworking | contact me via email | Tues & Thursday only: usual hours between 8 am and 5.15 pm

  3. Sent to ‘The Orcadian’ 09.01.2023……

    Dear Editor

    I sent the following email to any relevant organizations/individuals I could think of, under the heading of ’Save The Seals’….
    This is something of a desperate plea. Please read this article in ‘The Orkney News’ about the proposed wind farm on the island of Faray – including the comment.
    Can any of you please do anything about this? It’s a travesty of governance.
    If Britain was still in the EU the matter could have been taken to the relevant Court – but – Britain is no longer in the EU. By the time Scotland is independent and back in the EU, Faray will have been despoiled.
    As you can see – I am angry and, once again, feeling powerless in the face of The Powers That Be – even our own Council, who allegedly are there to work for the good of Orkney.
    Thank you
    Bernie Bell
    I have started to get responses to my letters, and thought I’d send them to ‘The Orcadian’ as others might find the information provided to be useful.

    First from the RSPB…..

    “Dear Bernie
    Many thanks for your email and sorry to hear of your concerns. I am passing your email to our conservation officer who covers Orkney and they will reply to you separately.
    In the meantime we do have a range of useful documents on the RSPB website to help guide concerned individuals through the Scottish planning system. The guidance can help hold decision makers to account and ensure impacts on nature from developments and businesses are avoided or minimised. Our planning pack here: Protect Wildlife in Scotland | Local Planning Pack – The RSPB
    I hope this information helps and in the meantime thank you for contacting us and for your interest in the RSPB.
    Colin Tate

    Then from ‘Wild Justice’ …..

    “Hello Bernie,

    Many thanks for taking the time to brief Wild Justice about this situation, we appreciate the distress it’s clearly causing.

    However, we’re sorry that due to very limited time and resources, we’re unable to commit to taking any additional campaigning at this time.

    We appreciate this won’t be the reply you’d hoped for and it’s always difficult to send responses like this out because we are all doing as much as we can and it’s never enough.

    We wish you well with this endeavour and hope you’re able to get some support from appropriate organisations or groups”

    My response ….

    “Thank you for responding.

    Your organization wouldn’t necessarily need to campaign, as such – just mention that you are aware of the situation. It’s all publicity and adds pressure on those involved, to stop this going ahead.

    Thanks anyway


    A much more fulsome response from The Scottish Wildlife Trust….

    “Hi Bernie,

    Sorry for the delay. Since the holidays we have been very busy responding to everybody’s enquiries.

    Land use and development is a key activity affecting wildlife in Scotland. Inappropriately located and badly designed developments have significant, detrimental impacts on Scotland’s biodiversity and on people’s quality of life. Scottish Wildlife Trust believes the planning system needs to be well informed, organised and implemented in a way which ensures Scotland’s biodiversity is adequately safeguarded and enhanced. The Trust believes that the planning system should act as a guardian for biodiversity and actively support and promote its conservation, enhancement, restoration, and expansion. The following principles should be adopted by planners, policy makers and practitioners to ensure that the potential impacts on biodiversity from land use and development are fully considered.

    Scottish Wildlife Trust has extremely limited capacity to respond to planning related casework. The Trust must limit itself to responding to cases of national importance and even then, our resources are limited. The Trust therefore relies on our network of volunteers and members of the public to highlight wildlife related impacts during the planning process. To this end the Trust has produced guidance which can be helpful when responding to planning applications and this is available here:

    You may also find the following links of interest:

    Thank you for getting in touch. “

    I hope that you will see fit to publish this letter.

    Thank you

    Bernie Bell


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