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Formerly known as Grimsey, Old Norse for Grim's Island, Graemsay is the smallest inhabited island of the South Isles of Orkney.

It is about 1.5 miles long by one mile wide and stems the tides of Hoy Sound, while its two major lighthouses guide shipping to the harbour of Stromness.

Late in the 16th century, Jo Ben noted: "Gramsay [sic] is a small island, but cultivated, and very harmful to ships.”

Evidence confirms that the island's fertility and rich fishing attracted some of Orkney's early settlers. Prehistoric dwellings and cist graves have been unearthed.

In 1977, a long cist with a full skeleton, carbon dated as late 11th century, was exposed and excavated on the shoreline at the bay of Sandside.

Local lore indicates the possible former existence of a broch overlooking the bay of Sandside.

There are two chapel sites, dedicated to St Colm and St Bride.

 Ruined cottage on Graesmay with Stromness in background © Tom Muir

Much of the island of Graemsay was shared among odal (Norse system of inheritance) landholders, along with the earldom estate. Then, in the late 16th century, Earl Robert Stewart acquired, in addition to the earldom share, much of the odal land. The Graemsay estate included the Holms of Cairston, Clestrain, the Bu of Orphir, the Barrel of Butter skerry, the mill of Kirbister, and part of Ireland in Stenness.

In Graemsay, at Sandside – 'the manor place and principal house' – the earl placed his favourite, his illegitimate son James, the first in the family who would occupy the Graemsay Estate throughout the 17th century. The ruin of this modest manor house, later converted to a byre, still exists.

The doings of the Stewarts coloured the life of the island. In January 1597 James Stewart had to keep his feu charter from the clutches of this half-brother Earl Patrick, by lodging it with his lawyer in Edinburgh. One of the family had such a rapport with is mother-in-law that he reputedly dragged her in the sea at the stern of his boat.

James, the fourth laird, ran up huge debts as a young man, probably the reason he was 'met by his father with blows of a cane' and threatened with a sword. His sister Lilias had been driven out of Graemsay by the same loving patriarch, 'without any allowance for maintenance'.

In the 1690s the islanders took James Stewart's wife Margaret Louttit to court for having "wrongfully compelled them to labour on her lands of Sandside because she did not have sufficient resources of her own for the work".

To help pay off huge debts the rights of the Graemsay estate were sold to Harie Graham of Breckness in 1696. Then, after three years, it became the dowry of Graham's daughter, Cecilia, when she married Robert Honeyman, grandson of Bishop Honeyman. They took up residence in the Hall of Clestrain, leaving the manor farm of Sandside to tenants.

Graemsay. (c) Tom Muir.Writing in the 1640s, the Reverend Walter Stewart comments on Graemsay as "producing crops, grass, hay and rabbits, and not without fish to be caught on the hook. The inhabitants... use peats brought from the moor of Clestrain... and from Hoy".

Stewart had evidently enjoyed the hospitality of Sandside: "This island is adorned with a dwelling, not indeed so large, but very old, and a common refuge for all, both Orcadians themselves and foreigners who come there."

When Bishop Mackenzie visited the island in 1678 the kirk elders, the laird among them, were rebuked for swearing and profanity, and were warned "that all that did bed promiscuously should be punished as fornicators".

A century later, members of the Stanley expedition, en route for Faroe and Iceland, paid a brief visit to Graemsay and dined with the tenant of Sandside, Mr Thomson. It was noted that Mr Thomson "appeared to be an honest religious man with a vast fund of morality which he uttered with every sentence".

Church services were at that time infrequent, depending on visits from the minister in Hoy, every third Sunday, until the kirk on the shore of Burra Sound became ruinous and was abandoned. The faithful were then obliged to cross Burra Sound to the Kirk of Hou.

A new kirk would not be built in Graemsay until the later 19th century. A series of lay missionaries were based in the island until the mid-20th century. The island is now served by Stromness Church.

Despite its relative isolation, Graemsay was destined to become the base of a branch of the Mormon faith. Under the stern disapproval of the Church of Scotland, Brother William Petrie was quietly seeking converts. On meeting a fisherman, William Johnston, who was gathering bait on the Bu Sands of Hoy, Petrie returned with him to his home in Graemsay. The following day, 22 May 1851, five members of the Johnston family were baptised in the waters of Burra Sound.

Petrie continued in Graemsay as priest and president of the Orkney branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints for the next 30 years. Meanwhile, 10 of his 11 children left the island for the arduous journey to live in the seat of Mormonism, Salt Lake City in Utah, USA.

A school with more than 60 pupils was operated from 1718 by the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge under the tutelage of William Flett. Its existence was conditional on the establishment of a parish school and, since there was no support for this from the Honeyman lairds, it was closed before the end of the century.

There was another school by 1828, when Thomas Ritch was the schoolmaster, and appears to have continued until the Education Act of 1872, when education became compulsory and parish school boards were formed, answerable to and funded by the London-based Scotch Education Department. The new school, completed in 1877, continued in use until the late 20th century. Pupils, now few in number, are ferried daily to Stromness.

Hoy Low Lighthouse, Graemsay © Tom MuirFor many years Graemsay was divided into four arable areas – Sandside, the only farm, along with the crofting tunships of Surrigarth, Corrigall and Outenile. All shared the common hill-grazing that ran the length and breadth of the island.

Rev George Low, who visited Graemsay in 1774, wrote of "a very stout, raw-boned race of men" due to "their not mixing with others". A slate quarry was worked on the island.

Tragedy struck when a boat was lost on a sealing expedition to Sule Skerry, leaving many widows.

In 1805, Rev George Barry commented in his History of the Orkney Islands: "The men who reside on Graemsay are distinguished for their strength and their stature, and excel much in fishing, for which their situation is admirable. By this employment, and in the production of the land, a hundred and eighty inhabitants subsist comfortably."

In 1828 the new laird, John Balfour of Trenaby, surveyed the island: "Tenants – Thirty-five in number – almost all seafaring persons – or having some who go to Davis Straits and Greenland during the summer. The older persons who are past such service making money as pilots to vessels entering Stromness – and by dealing with such vessels. The sons of the island are generally the finest looking men in Orkney. Houses – some of them are good, but generally speaking they are otherwise, and while the inside is almost always better than in most other places the outside has a very indifferent appearance. Remarks – A stranger would say on seeing this island what a very beautiful farm this would make… it must be remembered that no single tenant could afford to pay such rents as the present tenants do… making their livelihood… by other occupation than farming… leases from 12 to 19 years should be given... most of these people can employ themselves more profitably than in Kelp burning – care must be taken that their leases do not enable them to obstruct kelp burning or to injure the shore."

Graemsay's skilled boatmen were well placed for employment on the ships that thronged Stromness Harbour and the nearby anchorage of Cairston Roads in the days of sail.

In times of war, the islanders were vulnerable to the press gang. One harvest day, the young men fled to their boat to seek safety in a tidal eddy. When an officer grasped the boat's gunwale, his wrist was smashed by a blow with an oar from a young woman, a Sinclair from Dean, and the men escaped.

Less fortunate was a man known as Goldie who, on another occasion, hid in a crevice of the rocks and died in the ensuing struggle. The site is still known as The Chaumers o' Goldie.

Among those who joined the Hudson's Bay Company, John Ritch served as boat-builder with Dease and Simspon (1836-39) on their Arctic survey.

Many went to the Arctic whaling. In 1869 James and Bill Wilson, with their cousin James Skinner, were trapped in the ice on SS Wildfire. They were rescued by another vessel, James Skinner carrying home the weighty harpoon cannon that would serve for many years as a boat mooring (now in Stromness Museum).

There were many ship masters born in Graemsay. Among them Joseph and Henry Linklater, who manned the ships of the Moravian Mission that sailed each summer to Labrador. A century ago, three Ritch brothers, Magnus, Charles and George, were masters of the King Line, successfully competing to bear profitable cargoes to and from Europe, America and the colonies.

In 1841 the population was recorded at 212. As in the rest of Orkney, agricultural improvement soon transformed the landscape.

A regular paddle steamer service had begun between Orkney and Aberdeen. Cattle could now be shipped regularly, and grass was Orkney's most reliable crop. Fields were squared and drained, and the island grew green as grass advanced upon heather. Sandside and the other island holdings grew fourfold; crofts disappeared and people were displaced in the greatest upheaval the island had witnessed in centuries. Among the casualties was Maggie Oman, who was evicted; and the roof of her cottage burned when her four acres were added to the farm of Sandside.

Sandy beach, Graemsay. (c) Tom Muir.Another major 19th century development was the building of the lighthouses, Hoy Sound High and Hoy Sound Low, first lit in 1851. The lighthouses brought new blood to the island through the teams of tradesmen and labourers and then the keepers' families. Situated at either end of the island, the towers were joined by a metalled road which benefitted all inhabitants.

The lighthouses were, however, of no help to the emigrant ship Albion that ran ashore in broad daylight below Hoy Low on New Year's Day 1866. The young men of the island, engaged in playing their annual ba' game on the Lighthouse Road, ran to assist passengers and crew. One of them, Joseph Mowatt, perished along with the passengers when his boat capsized.

The following year Orkney's first lifeboat, Saltire, was stationed in Stromness.

Of the subsistence fishing that played an important role in the diet of the islanders, Cathie (Ritch) Wilson recalled in 1988: "Me father, and Andrew Mowat from Ramray, and Jimmick o' the Netherhoose and Rob o' the Etherhoose, that was the crew.

"So they went off early in the morning, depending on the tide… they went out round Hoy Head, and round to the Old Man… they had a long day when they went to Rora Head… it was usually getting pretty dark, it was short days in winter… the women went out with... creels on their backs… they had on this sackie brats… each fisherman picked up a shell, or a stone, off the beach, and they gave it to an independent person… [who] mixed them up… a child usually went up and laid them on each pile of fish… a stone or a shell… that was how they shared the fish… casing lots... the women got the fish in the creels… on their back… and the men carried up the lines, lit their pipes and away they went, talking and laughing. I think they'd had more than tea… [The women] never complained… they… laid… the dinner for the men, and they had to clean and split the fish before they went to bed. I've seen them splitting them in the dark, under lights."

By 1871 the population had grown to 250, more than the island could support, causing emigration in search of a better living. During the 20th century the population gradually diminished. Economics now dictated the amalgamation of crofts and, at last, the tenants became entitled to buy their land.

With the population hovering around the mid-20s, Graemsay now supports five farmers. There are also several families who have moved to the island who relish its peace and convenience and who make a positive contribution to community life.

The island has a daily passenger service from Stromness on MV Graemsay, which also serves Hoy.

On a fine summer day, a visitor can enjoy a leisurely walk around the island.

Along the low coastline are the many nousts that formerly sheltered yoles and dinghies; and there are the remains of abandoned crofts, in particular those of the Netherhoose, where house and steading were connected by flag-roofed passages.

There is a fine stretch of sand at Sandside Bay, including a rare strand of coral. Seals, birds and wild flowers are in abundance, and there are magnificent views of Hoy and the Orkney Mainland.
© Bryce Wilson