The heroic five men of Faray

IMAGINE a storm-laden night in late December, 1908.

That is the amazing story of Hope, a fishing vessel from Peterhead which ran aground on Holm of Faray and whose crew were rescued by the five men of Faray. These two tiny islands are formed of a ridge of Old Red Sandstone which almost connects Westray and Eday. At the time, Faray was populated by a mere eight families.

The list of rescuers is resonant with traditional Orkney family names and place names. William Burgar of Cott, John Hercus of Doggerboat, James Groat of Leaquoy, Robert Reid of Holland and John Drever of Windywall. Before I ever went to Faray I read this in The Orcadian Book of the Twentieth Century compiled by Howard Hazell, and stared at the contradictory picture of the five men, dressed in their Sunday best for the newspaperman to take a photo, yet sitting on fish boxes outside what looks like a wooden boathouse. So last week, on Faray for our fabulous picnic, I walked around the ruined buildings of Holland, Doggerboat and Windywall and imagined the lives of these men and their families through dark, storm-bound winters and glorious, sun-filled summers.

Faray, one of Orkney's smallest islands, is now, sadly, uninhabited. With such a small land area, it probably never had a huge population. At the turn of the 20th century just over 50 people lived there. Way back in 1529, author Jo Ben's description of Faray conjures up a green and pleasant land where the cows grazed verdant foliage while local farm boys sang to them, corn grew abundantly and fish were plentiful.

But the early 20th century saw Faray's fragile population decline. Two keystones to an island community - a school and a pier - were denied Faray and heralded her demise. The first was closed in 1947, causing the families of the four children who had been attending Faray School to move away. The second was never built: when other small islands were offered a pier and a regular ferry service as a post-war bonus, Faray made the mistake of choosing a smart tarmac road to connect all her farms instead. The road remains to this day - I walked along its smooth, grassed over surface only last week - but the people have gone. The last family to leave were the Wallaces of Ness, evacuated in 1947 after 60 years of farming there.

Since then Faray has been inhabited by sea birds, seals, sheep and, briefly, red deer. A couple of years ago we were lucky enough to meet the farmer of Faray, the most singular and intrepid Marcus Hewison of Westray, who tends his flock by regularly braving the choppy waters of Rapness Sound in his trusty boat. When he needs to gather his sheep from both islands, he and his dog have to leg it across the Lavey Sound (which runs between Faray and Holm of Faray) at low tide, take on the marathon 100-acre round up and bring the sheep back across the causeway before the tide cuts them off. To take the year's crop of lambs to market, Marcus lands a small ferry, usually the Eynhallow, at the south end of Faray and persuades his sheep to climb aboard. Sometimes they have to swim a bit. Now that's what I call island farming.

In 1981 Marcus decided to have a go at red deer farming and duly landed eight of the beasts on Faray. His experiment was shortlived as the deer expressed their disapproval of their new home by plunging into the sea and swimming to Eday - a bracing distance of two kilometres.

I've never heard what happened to them next. Does Eday have a population of red deer?

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