The island mission to find the lost cave of ‘Fern Andy’
Cumbrae islanders have resurrected old knowledge to seek the cave where ‘Fern Andy’ lived during the 1920s,
Everyone on the island at one time knew about Fern Andy. In the 1920s, he took shelter in an overhang near Fintry Bay on Cumbrae and forevermore his life has been the stuff of island lore and fascination.
It was in this cave that Fern Andy used plants to weave baskets and mats, which he sold on locally. Some have described him as a hermit but others recall him as an amiable figure who made friends and received visitors to his home.
Food deliveries would be made for him at the old Fintry Bay Lemonade Bar, it has been recalled.
For a generation, the whereabouts of his cave drifted out of local knowledge, the old tales from grandparents slowly evaporating away over time.
Now, a small group of islanders led by Lesley Fraser, who was born and raised on Cumbrae, believe they have found Fern Andy’s cave once again after a year-long search for the legendary living quarters.
Scott Ferris, who runs Mapes of Millport bike shop on the island, described the quest to find Fern Andy’s cave as a “labour of love” for Ms Fraser.
Mr Ferris, 43, said: “I holidayed on the island as a child and he was wellknown back then as the hermit who lived round the back of the island.
“It was almost a kind of mission to find his cave. For a generation, no one really knew where it was.”
Mr Ferris used an old photograph of Fern Andy in his home to locate the cave, which was found off the beaten track after a long trudge through undergrowth.
The image shows him sitting down on a bench set between the natural forms of the cave with other pictures showing a little curtain that was used to conceal part of the cave’s entrance.
Margaret Duthie, 87, grew up on Cumbrae and remembers a family friend, who worked in a butchers, going to visit Fern Andy in the cave.
Fern Andy, who may have come from Ayrshire farming stock, rented a small house, described as a room and kitchen, in Millport during the winter months, it is believed.
It is understood he died in the late 1930s.
She added: “Now is the right time of year to find his cave, when there are no leaves on the trees and the sun is very, very low in the sky.”
Ms Duthie said she was not surprised his story still attracted interest.
“It is part of the old history of Millport. Everyone knew about Fern Andy,” she said.
Cave dwelling in Scotland formally came to an end in 1915 under the Defence of the Realm Act, possibly to keep coastlines free from fires duringthe First World War.
However, research has found that 55 people were still listed as living in caves in the 1917 government census with the natural shelters commonly used by the travelling community, particularly in the far north of Scotland.
It is not clear if Fern Andy had permission from the landowner to live in the cave on Cumbrae but he lived there amid a punitive regime against nomadism, travellers and gypsies in Scotland.
Gypsy Traveller culture had been effectively outlawed in Scotland on June 29, 1865 with the Trespass (Scotland) Act which made it illegal to encamp on private property without the prior consent and permission of the owner.
According to Shamus Mcphee, in a paper for charity Iriss, which compiles research for professionals working in social services, a commission is appointed in 1894 to investigate ways of combating nomadism in Scotland with evidence taken in cities across the country.
The next year, the commission’s report proposes several remedies: ‘extirpation’ (extermination); depor- tation to the colonies and industrial schools to wean nomad children away from a wandering existence.
Living in tents and caves is banned and police are encouraged to monitor caves to ensure that they are not being re-occupied, Mr Mcphee said.
0 Fern Andy (top) lived in a cave near Fintry Bay on Cumbrae (right) in the 1920s with islanders, including Scott Ferris (above) among those who set about finding the shelter.