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  The Westray Dons and the Spanish Armada

There can be few people who don't know the story of the English nobleman, Sir Francis Drake, and the Spanish Armada.

When the Armada was sighted on July 19, 1588, Drake was playing a game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe in England. Legend has it that he finished his game boarding his vessel, the Revenge.

But although this historical tale of the Spanish Armada is well-known, few outside Orkney know the historical impact the Armada had on the islands.

After Drake had foiled the invading Armada, the remnants of the crippled Spanish fleet were scattered into the North Sea. With the English vessels in pursuit, the Spanish Admiral of the Fleet ordered his ships to run for home, crossing the north of the British Isles, before limping homeward through the Atlantic.

But not all the Armada ships made it past the Northern Isles.

Writing in 1889, the Orkney antiquarian and folklorist, Walter Traill Dennison, of West Brough, Sanday, recorded the fate of some of these ships.

In a paper he wrote for the Orkney Natural History Society, he recited a number of oral traditions “gathered from the lips of old people.”

Wrecked on the Fair Isle

Among these was the loss of the Armada flagship, El Gran Grifon, commanded by the Admiral, The Duke of Medina, which was wrecked on the Fair Isle, the island between Orkney and Shetland.

According to historian, Sir Robert Sibbald, the islanders had, at first, kindly entertained the crew but, as winter approached, they feared the extra population would quickly exhaust food supplies, causing everyone to starve.

But although the Spaniards have been paying well for all they received, a Fair Isle man, relating the tail to Traill Dennison, said: “Spanish money couldna' fill hungry bellies”.

Accordingly, wrote Traill Dennison, the islanders threw any unfortunate Spaniard, found alone, over the cliffs. Then a quicker plan was devised - the islanders deliberately collapsed the flagstone roof of the dwelling where Spaniards were sleeping.

The surviving Spaniards, including the Duke of Medina, then fled to Shetland. Here, the Duke enjoyed the hospitality of a Shetland laird who, it seems, later arranged his repatriation as far as Dunkirk.

Westray hospitality

However, if the hospitality of the Fair Isle's inhabitants left something to be desired, the folk of Westray more than compensated. Here, they were offered sanctuary, with a number not only settling on the island, but also marrying and beginning a unique community, vestiges of which survives today.

These Spanish settlers, and their descendants, became renowned as daring seafarers and notorious smugglers.

The Spanish seamen found themselves in Westray after a ship was wrecked in the fierce water of Dennis Rost, off North Ronaldsay. The surviving crewmen, who had taken to the lifeboats, then made their way to Westray looking for a safe place to make landfall.

The came ashore at Pierowall, thereafter, according to Traill Dennison, they:

“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.

“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.

“The Dons seem to have adopted in most cases Orkney names. Among their principal names were Petrie, Reid and Hewison. Though their descendants in some cases can still be traced, the Dons, as a separate caste, no longer exist.”

Traill Dennison's own grandfather, who lived at Noltland Castle, and who, in the summer months, traded with Continental ports, used to teach navigation and nautical skills to the young men of Westray.

He wrote: “During a pretty long life, he taught the nautical science to 140 young men, 80 per cent of whom are said to have been Dons.”

“Most of these men left the county as sailors and many became sea captains,” he added.

Apart from their proficiency as mariners, the Dons were also said to be fine actors who could entertain islanders with winter drama productions.

But although Traill Dennison had written that “the Dons, as a separate caste, no longer exist”, he stressed that physical features remained that could still identify the descendants of the Armada survivors.

He wrote:

“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 ready in wit, and perpetrating a practical joke, he was far superior to the native race."

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