The Westray Dons' and the Spanish Armada

Left: Defeat of the Spanish Armada by Philip James de Loutherbourg. Right: King Philip II of Spain | Public Domain | Wikipedia

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It was in July 1588 that the Spanish Armada was first spotted by English forces off the coast of Cornwall. This immense fleet of 130 ships had been dispatched by the Catholic Philip II of Spain, in an audacious attempt to depose the Protestant Elizabeth I. What followed was one of the most famous military victories in English history, with Sir Francis Drake helping fight off the threat, and Elizabeth herself delivering a rousing, morale-boosting speech declaring ‘I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too.’

We tend to think of the story of the Armada ending with the ravaged remnants of the invasion fleet limping back to Spain. But there’s a curious sub-plot to the saga, set far away from the battles in the English Channel. Forced to flee by sailing up along the east coast of Britain, and then around Scotland and Ireland, the Spanish ships endured gruelling hardships during this grim odyssey, and not all of them made it. The fate of some of the survivors shipwrecked off the coast of Scotland has fallen into folklore, with centuries of writers and historians passing on tales of what became of the ships.

One of them was El Gran Grifon, the flagship supply vessel of the Armada, which had been badly damaged by the English, but managed to escape up the North Sea. Carrying hundreds of soldiers and sailors – many having clambered on board from another ship that had sunk – El Gran Grifon was a cramped, hellish place to inhabit. Pounded by gales, at constant risk of smashing against rocks, the ship miraculously avoided destruction and at the end of September 1588 came ashore in a cove at Fair Isle, a rugged island located between the Orkney and Shetland archipelagos. What happened to the Spanish survivors on Fair Isle? The most widely accepted version of events is they stayed for around six weeks, relying on the hospitality of the presumably baffled islanders until a boat was provided to take them to mainland Shetland. Here, they were looked after by a local laird called Malcolm Sinclair, before moving on to Orkney and the mainland Scotland. Passage back to Spain was then granted. Around 50 Spanish men are thought to have died during that initial stay on Fair Isle, due to starvation and exposure to the bleak, cold conditions.

'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”.'

There’s also the fascinating question of the ‘Westray Dons’ – survivors of the Armada (either from the Grifon or another ship, depending on which account you read) who ended up on the Orkney island of Westray. Here, according to Traill Dennison, the Spaniards ‘built houses for themselves, married wives, and formed a little settlement’, having children with local Orcadian women. The Dons clearly became mythologised over time, with Traill Dennison breathlessly describing how ‘the union of Spanish blood and with the Norse produced a race of men active and daring, with dark eyes and sometimes with features of a foreign caste’, and ‘more given to gesticulate than the true Orcadian.’

Gathering his information from oral traditions among Orcadians, Traill Dennison painstakingly chronicles specific stories of Don derring-do, particularly in terms of seafaring and smuggling, and their tensions with Orkney’s ruling classes. However, these perfectly reasonable and believable reports are mingled with his own romantic musings as a Victorian folklorist, which you’d be unlikely to see in the work of a serious scholar. He seems particularly obsessed with the notion of the mixing of genetic lineages creating superior humans (as an aside, he casually asserts that ‘a slight mixture of Norse blood has made the Scotch highlander a better citizen than his Celtic brother of Ireland’).

The questions around the Westray Dons – who they really were, what really became of them – continue to fascinate Scottish historians and genealogists today. It seems that over generations, the distinct community of Dons gradually dissipated, with Traill Dennison telling us that ‘the Dons, as a separate caste, no longer exist’. But, tantalisingly, he and others have inferred a link between certain surnames – including Petrie, Reid, Logie, Hewison – and the Dons.

Today, Orkney locals and those whose families hail from the islands still speculate about these exotic ancestors. If you’re curious about your own family’s possible and connection to epic historical events of the past, you can sign up for a free 14-day trial at Ancestry, where a sprawling archive of Scottish records can bring your backstory to life.