top of page

The Stewarts and The Reformation


In 1449 Harald Christianson became King of Denmark, followed by Norway and then Sweden, so that by 1460 he ruled over a difficult and complex kingdom.  His daughter Margaret was betrothed to James III of Scotland as a child and they married in 1469, but since Harald could not by this time afford the dowry, the Northern Isles were offered instead.  Even today there is argument that under udal law, if the dowry were to be paid, the land would revert to Norway.  In 1472 King James took the Earldom from the Sinclair family and annexed the islands to the Scottish Crown in perpetuity, an act that was diluted in 1564 when Mary Queen of Scots awarded the Northern Isles to her illegitimate half-brother, Earl Robert Stewart, who became the first Scottish Earl of Orkney and Shetland.  Robert’s interest was in Orkney, where he built up power and wealth at the expense of the local people, using slave labour to build his palace on Birsay.  His half brother, Laurence Bruce, became Sheriff of Shetland.  When Robert’s son Patrick became Earl, he turned to Shetland and set about building a castle at Scalloway to use as an administrative centre, although he also built a new palace in Kirkwall.  Laurence Bruce rightly saw Patrick as an opponent and the two men wrestled for power.  For the ordinary Shetlander, each was seen to be as harsh and corrupt as the other.  


Finally however, Patrick Stewart alienated the Shetland lairds who duly complained to James VI, so that Patrick was taken to Edinburgh and imprisoned.  When his illegitimate son Robert tried to retake his father’s Orkney possessions, the Earl of Caithness was sent to the Northern Isles on behalf of the crown.  Patrick and Robert were executed in Edinburgh in 1615.


While the Stewarts were in power, a foreign fishing industry began to flourish with more than 1000 Dutch ships working around Shetland, harbouring in the Sound of Bressay.  This encouraged trade and as Shetland became wealthier, more Scots moved north and some took advantage of Shetland's udal law that stated that a man’s land was inherited by all his children. A small ruling elite increasingly bought plots of land from local people who had little and were attracted by small sums of money.  Soon a number of Shetland lairds built up considerable holdings, so that now it became the norm to rent land and pay a landlord, often in kind. This ruling class was interested in power and money, marrying off their children judiciously to increase both.  There was intermittent fighting and quarrelling between different factions.


By the 16th century, Fair Isle was ruled either by a Shetland landlord, through his factor, or his tacksman.  Malcolm Sinclair held sway in the Dunrossness area as vicar until 1618, including Fair Isle in his responsibility and he paid for a reader at the church (a necessary position at a time of widespread illiteracy).  He also acquired considerable land over the years (including Fair Isle) and his son James improved the family fortunes further. Fair Isle had by now developed four tiny townships in the south: Shirva, Leogh, Busta and Gaila, people living in rough stone houses similar to those described in “Fair Isle Ghosts”, the men paying their rent through fish and other commodities. As elsewhere in Shetland the people spoke Norn and Scots, until by the 17th century Scots began to dominate, although some Norn remains in the vocabulary today.  James died in 1636, leaving a successful inheritance for his son Laurence.  This family flourished until 1750 when, for a range of reasons, it went bankrupt.  


In 1588 the El Gran Grifon was shipwrecked on Fair Isle, a remnant of the Spanish Armada, already damaged when she came on shore with 300 men.  One of the ship’s officers kept a diary explaining that: “the island was peopled by 17 households, in huts more like hovels than anything else.  They are a savage people whose usual food is fish”.  He explained that although they had cattle, they seldom ate them, (using them as trade goods) and said that they were neither “Christians nor heretics”, since they only received religious guidance once a year.  By the time this group was saved, fifty of them had died and the entire island was starving. 


Over the 16th and 17th centuries Scotland experienced great change and turmoil, much of it religious in origin.  When James V died in 1542, his daughter Mary was a baby.  Scotland was a Catholic country at this time, at odds with England, where Henry VIII had broken with the Pope to become head of the Church of England.  This institution continued to run much as before, although denuded of its monasteries and much of its religious land.  Bishops were now an independent, managing force.  Mary Stewart’s mother was both Catholic and French, so the girl was duly married to the French Dauphin in 1558, but Francis died the following year and Mary returned to become Queen of Scotland.  However, after decades of agitation and led by people like John Knox and George Wishart, much of Scotland was intent on abandoning Catholicism, as it did finally, in 1560.  The Scottish parliament did not adopt all of Knox’s demands however, including his desire that the new church should inherit all the assets of the old, so some friction remained.  The Church of Scotland finally rejected government by Bishops for their new church (adopting Presbyterian management by elders and ministers) so that the Scottish Episcopal church emerged in 1582, a small group of people who wanted to retain bishops and some of the old ways.  Mary chose to retain her faith, as did other groups of Catholics.  However, dissenters were in the minority and the new religion was embedded in the country with incredible zeal, destroying all vestiges of the old where it could, endeavouring to combine church and state and demanding control over education, both in schools and universities.  The new church followed strict Calvinism, but did not spread as quickly to the highlands and islands, where many people remained Catholic, or Episcopalian.


Mary Queen of Scots was executed by Elizabeth I of England in 1587 and her son James became James VI of Scotland and James I of Great Britain.  So would begin a long, bloody struggle for control of the church in Scotland and efforts to change decisions that were made in 1560.  James tried to bring the Church of Scotland into line with the Church of England and his son Charles particularly liked a high Anglican church.  He tried to force his views on Scotland, offending staunch Protestants, who signed a Covenant to protect their new religion.  Charles angered members of the nobility who had gained from the reformation, so that Scotland’s ruling class was also at war with itself, leading families fighting for power and religious belief over the following hundred years.


These issues cost Scotland countless lives and a great deal of money.  The Presbyterian church was returned to full power with the advent of William (and Mary), the Protestant king from the Netherlands, who was invited to depose the Catholic James VII in 1689.  William was then offered the throne of Scotland and now, all Episcopalian clergy were informed that if they wished to retain their livings, they must ask to be received into communion of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and accept their doctrines.  James Kay, who had been appointed vicar of Dunrossness parish in 1682, petitioned the General Assembly to be accepted in 1698 and this occurred.  Given that the churches in Dunrossness (including Fair Isle) appear to have been fairly spartan, in all probability ordinary people saw little change.  We have no account of the effect that the loss of ritual and old habits had on the lives of ordinary people, or indeed on ministers who felt pressurised to petition to keep their jobs.  We presume that James Kay visited Fair Isle annually, to preach, administer communion, to marry couples and baptise children.  We do no know the extent to which the new religion had already steeped into the island, or how readily it was accepted.


Scotland continued to be riven by dissent based around religious dispute.  The 1715 and 1745 rebellions were led by Jacobites, who were in the main Catholic, or Episcopalian.  Many were Highlanders or Islanders, who wanted to return to the old ways, while others were simply interested in ousting political rivals.  The failure of the two rebellions however, put the Presbyterian church firmly in charge of much that went on in the country for many years to come. 


St Paul is believed to be the name of the earliest church on Fair Isle.  Whether it was based at Kirkalees near Shirva, or on the site of the later church at Kirkigeo we do not know for certain.  Certainly, Malcolm Sinclair was paying for a reader at the Fair Isle church in late 1500s.  In the absence of a minister, after 1698, elected Elders would endeavour to organise church services, aided no doubt by schoolteachers from 1732 when these were appointed by the Scottish Society for the Proliferation of Christian Knowledge. The years of religious turmoil would have a great effect on all Scots, for the new Presbyterian religion was strict.  It eschewed joy and embraced an austere following of the word of God.  For those who lived in remote rural locations, life was often already sufficiently austere.  Whatever the religious consequences of the new religion, where this new church managed to deliver education to the people, it would make a considerable difference to the lives of many ordinary people, although in remote areas this was not always possible.

bottom of page