Lying between Flotta and Hoy, the island of Fara is only two miles long, just over a mile wide, and has 729 acres. The name Fara comes from the Old Norse word Faerey, meaning 'sheep island'.
In 1805 in The History of Orkney, the author Barry writes that "Faray... is noted chiefly for its excellent sheep pasture".
Settlement is first recorded on the island in Lord Sinclair's Rental Book of Orkney 1497-1503 when the island was valued at three pennylands. This was a land measurement with Norse origins. The earliest features that are visible are the turf, peat and rough stone boundaries. It is possible these boundaries were divisions between farmed (taxable) and common grazing land.
There are no records of the population of the island before 1838, but the first census in 1841 showed there were 49 people living on Fara, and occupations included a general service domestic, master mariner's wife, boat carpenter, grocer, dressmaker, a school teacher and a knitter.
By 1881 there was an increase in the population with the census showing 68 inhabitants. In 1891 there were 76 people who were all described as crofters.
In 1907 Fara had around 70 inhabitants but by 1957 there were only five people left, one of whom was aged 84. The last two people left in 1965 when they moved to Stromness. Sadly, their advancing years made crofting difficult. The island was sold.
Fara as a military site
With three summits, Fara had good observation posts and was ideally suited to defending Lyness from any attacks from the east. Fara had its highest population during World War II when the island had an additional 200 soldiers and airmen who arrived to man the barrage balloons protecting Scapa Flow.
In 1940 an advance party of 20 men established a headquarters at a camp at Ore Hill on Hoy. They were given the task of establishing barrage balloon sites in the area to protect the east side of the Fleet anchorage. The main HQ was in the building that had previously been the school.
That year Fara had four barrage balloon sites and this was increased to six in 1943. Along with the 19 on Hoy, 19 on Flotta, two on Cava, six in South Walls, one on Rysa Little and 26 waterborne, this made Orkney the site of the biggest balloon barrage defences in Britain. [Aviation Research Group Orkney & Shetland - CT].
Storms are frequent in this area and there are many stories about the havoc caused by them. One officer related how he had to crawl as close to the ground as possible while crossing the island and only when he reached the summit and was well over the other side, did he feel it was safe enough to stand up.
In 1942 after a hot dry spring there was great concern when a severe heather fire threatened to reach the ammunition dumps, which had just been made. All the personnel and islanders turned out to prevent this happening. It is believed the fire started after a match was dropped by a cigarette-smoker.
There was a narrow gauge railway around Fara, used to move ammunition and hydrogen gas bottles for the balloons [Tait, Orkney Guide Book, P398 –CT].
The railway system ran from the pier, up the hill through a deep cutting to one of the headquarters, which was close by. The engines were diesel and pulled trucks which transported the hydrogen cylinders. Derailing was a regular occurrence as the rails were built on heather and often sunk with the weight of the equipment carried.
There was a football pitch on the island and, before it could be used, many large stones had to be removed from the site. The men stationed there often played against men from the ships. The pitch was on the high part of the island and high winds often made control of the ball difficult. Sometimes very strong gusts made play impossible.
The church held a service each Sunday and there was a good reed organ played by one of the crew. It was said that, although three different denominations were represented, it was not known which one was being celebrated unless you asked the minister.
The shop and travelling shop
A small room in one of the small farmhouses served as the island shop. As well as food, it sold razor blades, cigarettes, writing paper, toothpaste and other goods.
Local people sold eggs to the crew members who sent them to relatives in England where eggs were in short supply. The eggs were packed into biscuit tins or small boxes and the spaces between them filled with sawdust and newspaper. In this fashion, many of them successfully found their way to the recipient intact.
Grouse shooting was a popular pastime with the men, and officers from the ships came over for this sport. The island still has a grouse shoot to this day.
In later years a floating shop visited the island every Monday and was run by R Garden of Kirkwall. A small boat took Fara islanders to the floating shop. The boat had three different compartments, which catered for groceries, drapery and feeding stuff.
The schoolhouse consisted of three rooms – the school room, kitchen and living room. There was wood panelling on the lower wall and the roof was covered in slate.
At one time there were 25 children attending the school and in 1886 a schoolmistress taught 21 pupils. Sometimes the school role was increased when visiting children from traveller families would attend.
Children from Cava were also on the school roll but it is not known if they travelled across daily, which seems unlikely, or if they lodged on Fara during the week.
The school day began at 10am and ended at 4pm. Lessons included Latin and Greek, times tables, singing and practical subjects such as sewing and knitting.
Pupils were often absent as they were needed to help with the herding of animals, peat-cutting and agricultural work. The numbers fluctuated and by the early days of World War II, only three pupils were attending.
There were 17 crofts on the island; many of the homes were built from stones brought up from the beach. Often families numbered between seven and nine, but as soon as children left school they had to go elsewhere to find work. Mrs Mackay, who lived at Upper House, South Fara, remembers that her home had no oven, so they would bake oven scones in a flat-bottom pot, which was put on the cooker, with another pot placed over the top. Coals were put in a tin above this and, in around 10 to 15 minutes, they had lovely oven scones.
Making a living
There are six jetties on the shore and seven definite boat nousts (shelters), although a survey carried out several years ago suggests there may be as many as 19 possible nousts here. This reflects an island community's dependence on the sea for transport, communication and food.
The men went lobster and cod fishing in their yawls and dinghies. All lobsters had to be over nine inches long, or they would not be sold. They got six pence (2.5p) for each lobster.
Light was provided by the home fire, where peats were burnt, and from paraffin and tilley lamps. Peats were raised and sold to residents of Longhope and Graemsay, although it was hard work. Some of the peats were sent as far as London and these were used in a distillery for making whisky.
All water was brought from wells and the land was manured using seaweed brought up from the shore. Cattle and a few horses were kept.
The small church was built in 1897 and once had a healthy congregation and its own minister. But, as the population dwindled, there was no need for a resident minister. For five months every year during the summer period a missionary stayed on the island.
The dead were not buried on Fara but were taken across to the neighbouring island of Flotta.
The number of people living on the island gradually declined and the situation reached crisis point in the 1960s when less than ten people remained. The last two people left in 1965 when the island was sold.