Dons of Westray

Westray lies to the north of West Mainland of the Orkney Islands, just below its better known relative, Papa Westray. The ferry ride is about 45 minutes from Kirkwall, which is in itself an hour and a half by ferry from mainland Scotland. All in all, it’s a fair journey to the far flung corner – and not one where you would expect to find a Spanish connection. I was intrigued, therefore, when I saw a Westray farmer on his tractor wearing a jacked emblazoned “The Spaniard”. He must have bought the jacket on holiday, I thought, but, no, my guide informed me. His family are descended from Spanish sailors from a ship wrecked in the waters of Dennis Rost, off North Ronaldsay, after the Spanish Armada was routed by Drake in 1588.

History tells us that the Admiral of the Spanish fleet issued his last orders off the coast of Norway. These were to head for home west of the British Isles, and best to avoid the Irish shores. However, it is known that some floundered in the Irish Sea and some communities on the west coast of Ireland also have Spanish bloodlines, as do some on the west coast of mainland Scotland. The majority of the ships escaped to the Atlantic through what is commonly known as “The Hole” between Shetland and the Fair Isle. Others were driven on a more southerly course, and one lost mainmast and rudder and drifted as far as North Ronaldsay before breaking up on Dennis Rost. Some of the brave sailors took to the sea in boats, and landed at Pierowall in Westray. The residents offered food and accommodation, and a number of the mariners settled on the island, married Westray girls and this was the beginning of a unique community which lasts until this day. The descendents became known as the Westray Dons, and took Orcadian names such as Petrie, Reid and Hewison. According to an article replicated from the “Orkney Herald” on 1889 written by a Mr. W. Traill Dennison, a recognised authority on the matter, “the union of Spanish blood with Norse produced a race of men active and daring, with dark eyes…. In manners fidgety and restless… a true Don being rarely able to sit in one position for more than five minutes, unless he was dead drunk…” They were great mariners and most men left the county as sailors and many became sea captains. To this day, partly as necessity, the islanders are great sea farers. There are great stories of derring-do by the Dons, including the capturing of a French privateer and pouring oil on the waters of “The Hole” to make passage smoother during a raging storm – an activity definitely frowned on today – but they made it home to Westray, and other boats disappeared.

Anyone who has been to Westray would delight in its beautiful sandy beaches, its laid back way of life and its hospitable people – rather like Spain, actually – except for the weather!

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