Replicated from an article in "The Orkney Herald" of 8 May 1889


The usual quarterly meeting of the Natural History Society was held in the Museum, Stromness on Thursday evening last.

Present - Rev. James Ritchie, president, in the chair; Capt. James Mowat, Capt. George Baillie, Messrs A. Stewart, J.A.S. Brown, John Fiddler, James Sinclair, A. Harvey, John L. Knarston, W. Rendall, and Samuel Brown, secretary. The minutes of last quarterly meeting were read and approved, after which the Chairman stated that he had received a paper, written by Mr. W. Traill Dennison, West Brough, Sanday, but as that gentleman was not present, the paper would be read. At the request of the meeting, the Chairman then read the paper as follows: -


The year lately closed, the tri-centenary of the Spanish Armada, seems to point to the present as a fitting time to recall some fragmentary and unwritten memorials of the eventful year 1588. The issues at stake in that year were indeed tremendous. Had Spain conquered England, the struggle for independence in the Netherlands would have been crushed. France must have fallen, and the Reformed States of Germany would have followed in the full. Every spark of spiritual liberty, free thought, and national independence, would have been quenched in blood, and trampled out under the iron heel of an inexorable bigotry. And right nobly did England face the terrible danger. I know not that all history presents a finer example of patriotic compromise than is afforded by the English at that time. England was then divided into many hostile sects, any of whom, excepting the independents, would have persecuted all other sects if it only had the power. Yet, every sectarian difference was laid aside in presence of the all-absorbing danger. Anabaptist and High Churchman, Presbyterian and Papist, all united in the one practical determination, England for the English, and every Englishman for England to the death! Every believing Christian may thank God for the failure of Philip's grand design, and every sceptic may thank his stars - if he has nothing higher to thank - that he can now publish the wildest theory in science of philosophy, and the most heterodox in theology, without the risk of being burned alive. It has been thought, that at this tri-centenary, the meagre traditions connected with the Armada in Orkney might be of some little interest to Orcadians. In this belief the following is given, not as historical facts, but as traditions gathered from the lips of old people, and it is hoped that the very incompleteness of this paper may induce any person possessing traditions on the subject to give them to the public.

As is well known, the mighty Armada, foiled by the gallant attacks of Drake, Hawkins, and Frobisher, under command of the noble Howard, retreated to the North Sea, their huge ships flying before the small but nimble crafts of the English as a flock of whales is said to flee before the onslaught of a shoal of dog fish. History tells us that the Admiral of the Spanish fleet issued his last general orders off the coast of Norway. These orders were that the ships were to run home west of the British Isles, and every ship was told to make sure of standing far enough to the west, to avoid the Irish shores. In obedience to this, the Spaniards stood to the west, most of them, it is said, passing to the north of Shetland. Some of them, however, passed, between those islands and Orkney.

Tradition says that the Spanish fleet was scattered when off the coast of Norway, and driven to the west by a heavy easterly gale. One of the ships, as is well known, was wrecked on Fair Isle. An account of this wreck will be found in every description of Fair Isle; but I should refer especially to Sibbald's description of the catastrophe, as his is the oldest account I have met with. It is said that the crew of this ship was first kindly entertained by the natives, but provisions running short as the winter came on, the Fair Isles men began to fear that the whole population would be starved. It was therefore determined to diminish, as far as possible, the number of their unwelcome visitors, and whenever an unfortunate Spaniard was found by two ore three of the islanders wandering near the shores, he was flung over the precipices that surround the island. But notwithstanding this novel mode of avoiding starvation, the islanders could only see famine staring them in the face.

It was true that the Spaniards paid well for whatever they got from the natives; but, as a Fair Isles man relating the story to me said; - "Spanish money couldna' fill hungry bellies." So the islanders determined on a more wholesale plan of ridding themselves of the unfortunate intruders. A number of the Spaniards lodged in a long low hut, turf build, and covered with large flag stones, probably erected for the shelter of the strangers. The roof of this hut was supported by what was called rooflace, or main-tree running from end to end of the building. Cross sticks were placed at regular intervals, their lower ends on the side walls. When the unlucky Spaniards had retired to rest at midnight, the islanders silently placed a quantity of stones on the roof. Then, digging a hole through the top of one of the gables, they fixed a rope to the end of the roof tree, and pulled it completely away, the heavy roof falling on the sleeping Spaniards. Many of the sleepers were at once killed, and those who were disabled were easily thrown over the rocks, or, to use the native phrase, "pitten ower da banks." The remaining Spaniards got alarmed for their safety, and the islanders were induced to send a boat to Shetland, whither the Spaniards were transported. Sibbald says that the ship wrecked on Fair Isle was the flagship, and that the Admiral, the Duke of Medina, lived on the island with his crew; and, after enjoying the hospitality of a Shetland laird, was by him transported to Dunkirk.

While many of the Spanish ships escaped to the Atlantic through what sailors call "The Hole" - that is between Shetland and Fair Isle - some of them were driven in a more southerly course. One of these ships fell into what is believed to be the Rost of the Keels, south of Fair Isle, where she lost mainmast and rudder, and was drifted helplessly on the North Sea, until she neared the shores of North Ronaldshay. Here, from the ship's lofty decks, her wretched crew beheld themselves being gradually but swiftly hurried on into the foaming waters of Dennis Rost. They saw, from the tremendous commotion of the waves before them, that their disabled vessel could not live in such a sea, yet were powerless to alter their course, or to avoid the death to which they were hastening. It formed one of those frequently occurring and melancholy storms, in which the vaunted power of man sinks into insignificance before the power of nature. Most of the crew were sunk in despair, and commended themselves to the Holy Mother, praying that if she would not save them in this world, she would at least provide for them in the next. A few of the more resolute of the crew took to the two remaining boats, rightly feeling that active exertion in such an emergency was necessary as well as prayer. Not long after the boats left the vessel she fell in two, and soon disappeared amid the roaring waves of Dennis Rost. The boats rowed along the shores of North Ronaldshay, where there were few places of apparent safety at which to land, especially as the shores were enveloped in a heavy surf. So the boats rowed to the westward. One of them had been disabled when the ship was dismasted, and was said to have been badly managed by her crew. At all events, she took a too northerly course, and fell into the Bear Rost, where the whole force of the flood tide, backed by the constant flow of the Gulf Stream and a roll of the Atlantic ground swell, rushes past the north end of Westray from the Atlantic into the German Ocean. Let me here say that I write rost because the word is so pronounced by the inhabitants. Of course, this ill-fated boat and here crew were never heard of.

The other boat was more fortunate. She reached Pierowall, in Westray, where her crew were hospitably entertained by the inhabitants. The Spaniards seem to have taken kindly to the island, where they built houses for themselves, married wives, and formed a little settlement by themselves on what is called the North Shore. They and their descendants became most active as fishermen and in every maritime adventure. After the first union by marriage of the Spaniards with Orcadian females, none of the race were allowed to marry with any but the descendants of the original settlers and their descendants have since been termed dons. These Dons seem to have kept themselves strictly from intermarrying with the rest of the people for a time. But about the middle of the last century, a young don, captivated by the charms of a Westray girl who did not belong to the Don race, got himself three times proclaimed on one Sunday, and , in spite of the warnings of his friends, married the lady of his love. The poor fellow paid hard for his breach of Don etiquette. His neighbours on the North Shore surrounded his house at night, dragged him out of bed from the arms of his young wife, and thrashed him unmercifully, so that he was with difficulty able to crawl into bed-a bed from which the poor man never rose.

The union of Spanish blood with the Norse produced a race of men active and daring; with dark eyes and sometimes with features of a foreign caste; in manners fidgety and restless-a true Don being rarely able to sit in one position for five minutes, unless he was dead drunk; and in conversation more demonstrative, and more given to gesticulate than the true Orcadian; while in ready wit and to perpetration a practical joke, he was far superior to the native race. The Dons seem to have adopted in most cases Orkney names. Among their principal names were Petrie, Reid, and Hughison etc. Though their descendants in some cases can still be traced, the Dons, as a separate caste, no longer exist. During their existence, however, they were among the most daring seafarers in Orkney in trading to Norway and Hamburg. And when British law laid a duty on the import of foreign spirits, the Dons became the most notorious and daring smugglers. When returning from a most successful smuggling expedition, it was their wont to put a guinea in the poor-box as a thanks offering for their lucky adventure.

Some time in the seventeenth century a party of the Dons was said to have met with a sad disaster. Some five or six of them sailed in a large boat laden with grain and other commodities for sale in Norway. While sailing across the North Sea they were captured by a French privateer or perhaps by a pirate. The Frenchmen ran into the Shetland Isles to trade with the natives. While lying in one of the Shetland bays, the Frenchmen unwilling to be encumbered by their prisoners, set the Dons at liberty a day or two before the Frenchmen intended to sail. The Dons were set on shore stripped of everything, and arrayed in the rags of the French sailors instead of their own clothes. The high spirit of the Dons could ill break such treatment; and they determined on being revenged. They took their way to the house of a neighbouring laird; where they were kindly entertained, and secretly furnished with weapons. They determined to board and seize the French vessel, but even the Dons felt that this was a desperate undertaking considering the number of the crew. The Dons therefore determined to make the attempt when some of the Frenchmen were on shore. They sat and watched in a house near the shore, consoling themselves in the weary hours of watching by long draughts of gin. At last word was brought to them that a boat had left, the French vessel, and had gone ashore for a supply of fresh water. The dons hurried out but to their dismay one of their mates was unable to move. Entreaties, curses and blows were of no avail. The fellow had taken more than his share of the potable gin, and lay on the floor utterly insensible. However the opportunity was not to be lost; the sober Dons seized the first boat they could lay hands on, concealed their arms in the bottom of the boat, and rowed deliberately to the French vessel as if to trade with the Frenchmen. No sooner, had they made fast alongside than they sprang on board, sword in hand. The Frenchmen were taken wholly unawares. A desperate struggle however ensued; but no one came back to tell how the struggle went; only, in half an hour after the boarding of the Frenchmen, her cable was cut, and she was seen to stand out of the harbour in full sail, greatly to the horror of the Frenchmen on shore. There is no doubt that the dons succeeded in capturing the vessel, for their victims were found floating in the bay, viz: the bodies of the Frenchmen, nine in number. During the succeeding night a heavy gale set in, raising a dangerous sea all round. And the brave Dons, who had fought so gallantly, must have perished along with their prize, as they were never more heard of. Their drunken comrade returned home to tell what he knew of their story and he obtained the sobriquet of drunken Hugh ever afterwards.

Another anecdote may be related of one of the Dons - a tale which goes to prove that there is nothing new under the sun. The Orkney boats were waiting in one of the bays on the west coast of Shetland for favourable weather in which to return home. The weather had continued rough for many days. At last the wind fell, and it appeared to the Orkney men that a favourable opportunity for returning had arrived. Two of the boats sailed about midday, but Hugh Petrie, skipper of the other boat, still lingered, waiting for the captain of an Orkney vessel who had been in Shetland on business of his own, and to whom he had promised a passage home. The captain, by the by, was an ancestor of the writer. While Petrie waited for his friend, he surprised the crew by purchasing two kegs of oil from a Shetland man. At last the captain came, he apologized to Petrie for the delay he had caused him; but Petrie said the delay would be an advantage in the voyage, because he did not want to come up to Fair Isles till the flood was run, which would make a heavy sea with the wind at its present quarter. The fair weather that had induced the boats to leave Shetland proved to be only a momentary lull. Scarcely had the boats cleared Shetland, when the wind blew strong, accompanied with a drizzling rain, and the sea was high and dangerous. Petrie's boat was well manned and dexterously handled, and sped on full over the stormy sea lying between Shetland and Fair Isle. But as night came on the wind increased, and the sea became still dangerous, so that some of the crew began to despair of ever reaching land. With the last glimmer of daylight Petrie shaped his course by the compass; and as the ever-increasing depth of the waves made the management of the boat more difficult, and her safety still more perilous, Petrie said to his friend, the captain-"Take this pin in yer hand, gudeman," meaning the helm, "an keep her in the same course, in God's name, as long as ye can." The captain at first refused, knowing that few men could steer better than Petrie; but Petrie said-"Ye're skipper in yer ain sloop, but I am skipper here, an ye mean das what ye're tauld." No sooner had his friend taken the helm than Petrie knocked the head out of one of his kegs of oil, and began to empty the oil on the sea, slowly, in small and regular quantities. The oil had the immediate effect of making the sea smoother for the boat. The moon rose as they neared Fair Isle; and, after a perilous run, Petrie and his crew succeeded in obtaining shelter in the north bay of the island, where they were detained some days by the storm before getting home to Westray. The two boats which preceded Petrie were never heard of and the captain ever after declared that but for the two kegs of oil the boat in which he sailed must have perished like the others; whilst some of Petrie's crew attributed the smoothing of the waters to a charm which they said he had bought from a Shetland witch.

Tradition says that during the tyranny exercised on land and sea in Orkney by Earl Patrick, the Dons propitiated the Earl by presenting him and his adventures with a large share of their profits in trading to Continental ports. But at length the Dons got tired of the Earl's ever-increasing exactions, and a quarrel arose between some of them and Earl Patrick. The Earl sent a boat with an armed crew to Pierowall to apprehend and bring to Kirkwall a Gilbert Hewieson and five other men of the Dons on a charge, among many other grievous crimes, that they had sailed to Norway without a license from the Earl. It was evening when the Earl's boat arrived at Westray. The armed crew surrounded Hewieson's house, summoning him and his accomplices to deliver themselves up. Hewieson came out to the officers, and addressing them in the most friendly style invited them into his house, saying it was too much late to take the firth that night, and assuring them that he and his comrades would accompany them at day break. The Earl's men were only too glad to rest for the night knowing well that the Dons' hospitality would not be niggardly; and in this supposition they were not mistaken. Gin and brandy flowed freely, and the Earl's men, as was intended, soon began to succumb to the effects of the spirits. Shortly after midnight all of the Earl's men were stretched on the floor, with the exception of two, who sat boasting that "na Westray drink could lay them under the table." While the drinking had been going on, Hewieson's comrades had gradually dropped in and Hewieson, when he saw the proper time had come said to his two guests, who still preserved their sitting position, "Faith I'll show you if Westray drink canna lay you, Westray hands can." The two men were seized and bound hand and foot. Each of the drunken companions were served in the same way. The six Dons then hurried to the shore and left the island in the Earl's boat, said to be the best in Orkney at the time. What treatment the Earl's men received from their tyrannical master, tradition does not say. For a time no one in Orkney knew what had become of Hewieson and his comrades; and many gave them up for lost, thinking they had perished at sea in attempting to reach Norway. But after the fall of Earl Patrick, Hewieson and his comrades all returned safe and sound. They had found an asylum in one of the Western Isles, probably Lewis, and from these had traded to Norway, as they used to do from Orkney.

It was not alone in such adventures that the Dons showed their ability. The writer's grandfather traded to the nearer Continental ports during the summer months; and while residing on his own property at the Castle of Noltland, he used to teach, during the long winter nights, to such young men as wished to learn navigation. During a pretty long life he taught the nautical science of 140 young men, eighty per cent of whom are said to have been Dons. Most of these men left the county as sailors, and many of them became sea captains. Sometime in the fourth decade of the eighteenth century, a number of young gentlemen in the North Isles held a private theatrical entertainment in the old hall of Noltland Castle. The tragedy acted was Cato. The lairds of Clestran, Trenabie, Westove, Tirlet, Airie, and Breck, with one of the Dons, formed the actors in the drama. The Dons' name was George Logie, and he acted Sempronius. One of the lairds, who acted Juba broke down in his part; his place was immediately taken and his part will acted by Benjamin Hewieson; another of the Dons. The acting of the Dons was held to be the best, and a Don also acted as prompter. I suspect, with all the rudeness attributed to the olden times the gentlemen of the last century could appreciate literature as highly as their grandchildren of the present day. Fancy the once famous drama of Addison acted in a remote island of Orkney a hundred and fifty years ago.

It may be thought a needless labour thus to multiply instances of the superior quickness of the Dons. This superiority was not possessed by the Spaniards who were wrecked on our shores; but their contact and amalgamation with the Norse blood of the Orcadians caused this superiority in the descendants of the amalgamated nationalities. This illustrates a curious law in ethnology, and also a great fact in history, which historians have been slow to perceive or too prejudiced to acknowledge the fact that wherever the Norse race has been united to a race suited to that union, the descendants of such an amalgamation have become mentally, morally, and physically the finest specimens of humanity. A slight mixture of Norse blood has made the Scotch highlander a better citizen than his Celtic brother of Ireland, and a better soldier than his Welsh brother. The Norse blood has made Britain, in all the arts of war and peace, if we except painting and sculpture, the greatest nation that ever existed. Had not Charles of Anjou's followers been contaminated with too great an admixture of Gaelic blood, it is probable that the Sicilian vespers had never rung in a night of horrid bloodshed and slaughter, and had the Spanish peninsula been conquered by the hardy Norsemen instead of the Moslem Moors, in all probability Spain would have been today, what it was once - the first nation in Europe.

There are so far as I know, few relics remaining in Orkney of the Armada. The late Col. Balfour possessed a silver cup given by the Spanish Admiral who was wrecked on Fair Isle to his host, the Shetland laird. My friend, Mr. Cursiter, possesses, if memory fails me not, a small gun brought from Fair Isle, probably a vestige of the Spanish vessel wrecked there. The writer has in his possession a rapier said to have been given to the founder of the Traill families in Orkney by a Spanish officer belonging to the Armada. There is a pathos in the tradition regarding this sword. Traill had taken the sick Spaniard to his house and showed him every kindness in his power. When the dying officer took to bed, he kept his sword behind him in bed, and was often seen to grasp its hilt convulsively. And about an hour before the Spaniard died, he called for Mr. Traill, and with tears in his eyes, presented his sword to his host, saying " It is the only reward I can make for your kindness to me. This sword has not done much for me in this world; but if I thought I could use it in the next, I would not part with it yet." I wonder if the owner of this sword was the same who lies buried in St. Magnus Cathedral, and whose simple epitaph was transcribed for me by my friend, Mr. Robert Tulloch. It is as follows:-"Here lyes Captain Patricio, of the Spanish Armada, who was wrecked on Fair Isle 1588."

Perhaps the best account of the Spanish ship wrecked on Fair Isle is to be found in Sir Robert Sibbald's description of the islands of Orkney and Shetland. And there is an interesting allusion to it in the diary of James Melvill, written in the dear old Doric. But, like other historians, there two authorities disagree. The latter, however, makes it plain that it was from Orkney that some of the wrecked Spaniards set out on their return voyage. At the close of the paper, Captain MOWAT moved a hearty vote to Mr. Dennison.

Captain BAILLIE seconded, and the chairman was instructed to convey to Mr. Dennison the Society's indebtedness for his interesting paper.