IN 1588, the Spanish armada set sailed for England not to engage in a naval battle but invade.
However, England's warships outnumbered the huge Spanish galleons and were both faster and had more firepower. Minor confrontations were indecisive until the English, led by Sir Francis Drake, defeated the armada off Gravelines, France. However, much of the fleet escaped out to the Atlantic where south-westerly winds forced them north into the Irish Sea.
The remaining Spanish ships decided to follow the winds and return to Spain by sailing around the north of Scotland, hoping to avoid Drake's ships in the process. However, an unusually strong storm wrecked many ships off the coasts of Scotland and Ireland.
The flagship storage vessel of the armada, the 650-ton 38-gun El Gran Grifn - carrying 43 crewmen and 234 soldiers - and two other ships became separated from the main fleet in late August 1588. El Gran Grifn continued the gruelling voyage until she too was wrecked off Fair Isle, midway between the Orkneys and Shetlands, on 27 September.
The ship foundered in the rocky bay of Stroms Hellier. Most of the Spaniards climbed up the masts as the ship was sinking and escaped on to dry land. Many folk tales surround their stay on the island. Some say they taught the islanders their famous two-stranded knitting technique, but evidence suggests the islanders bartered their knitting with visiting vessels before then. Other tales claim that the islanders murdered many Spaniards. Other folklore has it that the starving Spanish killed and ate the islanders' livestock (including ponies). The fifty Spaniards who died during their exile were most likely killed by starvation or exposure.
Although the islanders would have been unlikely to refuse hospitality to their new, armed guests who outnumbered them, accounts suggest that the Spaniards behaved like perfect gentlemen. The sailors and soldiers stayed for two months, departing first for St Andrews and then Edinburgh before setting sail for Spain after being promised by Queen Elizabeth that they would not be molested. But the Queen only promised that English ships would not attack them and informed the Dutch of their voyage. They were attacked en route by Dutch gunships. Half never reached their home.
In 1970 two divers, Colin Martin and Sydney Wignall, excavated the wreck of El Gran Grifn. They discovered that almost 50 percent of the ship's heaviest artillery had not been fired. When the salvage of other armada vessels showed the same thing, archaeologists speculated this showed design flaws in the Spanish ships that must have contributed to their defeat. In 1984 a delegation from Spain, all dressed as conquistadors, planted an iron cross in the island's cemetery in remembrance of the sailors who had died there.