Sark (French: Sercq; Sercquiais: Sèr or Cerq) is a small island in the Channel Islands in the southwestern English Channel, off the coast of Normandy, France.
It is a royal fief, which forms part of the Bailiwick of Guernsey, with its own set of laws based on Norman law and its own parliament.
It has a population of about 600. Sark (including the nearby island of Brecqhou) has an area of 2.10 square miles (5.44 km2).
Sark is one of the few remaining places in the world where cars are banned from roads and only tractors and horse-drawn vehicles are allowed. In 2011, Sark was designated as a Dark Sky Community and the first Dark Sky Island in the world.
Flag of Sark
The flag of Sark is white with a red St-George cross and a red canton containing two yellow lions.
It was designed by Herbert Pitt in 1938 and adopted the same year. The canton is similar to the arms of nearby Normandy.
The Sark flag started life as Dame Sibyl Hathaway’s personal standard. She was the Seigneur of Sark during the Second World War Occupation.
The flag is white with the red Cross of St George which is a common theme through the island flags.
The red canton (the upper left corner) contains two yellow lions.
The canton is like the arms of Normandy, which the Channel Islands were part of until 1204.
Geography & Geology
Sark consists of two main parts, Greater Sark, located at about 49° 25′ N x 2° 22′ W, and Little Sark to the south.
They are connected by a narrow isthmus called La Coupée which is 300 feet (91 m) long and has a drop of 330 feet (100 m) on each side.
Protective railings were erected in 1900; before then, children would crawl across on their hands and knees to avoid being blown over the edge.
There is a narrow concrete road covering the entirety of the isthmus that was built in 1945 by German prisoners of war under the direction of the Royal Engineers.
Due to its isolation, the inhabitants of Little Sark had their own distinct form of Sercquiais, the native Norman dialect of the island.
The highest point on Sark is 374 feet (114 m) above sea-level. A windmill, dated 1571, is found there, the sails of which were removed during World War I. This high point is named Le Moulin, after the windmill. The location is also the highest point in the Bailiwick of Guernsey. Little Sark had a number of mines accessing a source of galena.
At Port Gorey, the ruins of silver mines may be seen.
Off the south end of Little Sark are the Venus Pool and the Adonis Pool, both natural swimming pools whose waters are refreshed at high tide.
The whole island is extensively penetrated at sea level by natural cave formations that provide unique habitats for many marine creatures, notably sea anemones, some of which are only safely accessible at low tide.
Sark is made up mainly of amphibolite and granite gneiss rocks, intruded by igneous magma sheets called quartz diorite. Recent (1990–2000) geological studies and rock age dating by geologists from Oxford Brookes University shows that the gneisses probably formed around 620-600 million years ago during the Late Pre-Cambrian Age Cadomian Orogeny.
The quartz diorite sheets were intruded during this Cadomian deformation and metamorphic event. All the Sark rocks (and those of the nearby Channel Islands of Guernsey and Alderney) formed during geological activity in the continental crust above an ancient subduction zone. This geological setting would have been analogous to the modern-day subduction zone of the Pacific Ocean plate colliding and subducting beneath the North and South American continental plate.
Sark also exercises jurisdiction over the island of Brecqhou, only a few hundred feet west of Greater Sark. It is a private island, though it has been opened to some visitors.
Since 1993, Brecqhou has been owned by Sir David Barclay, one of the Barclay brothers who are co-owners of The Daily Telegraph, they contest Sark’s control over the island.
However, the candidates endorsed by their various business interests on the Island failed to win any seats in the elections held in 2008 and 2010.
The etymology of Sark is unknown. However, Richard Coates has suggested that in the absence of a Proto-Indo-European etymology it may be worth while looking for a Proto-Semitic source for the name.
This is because the British Isles were likely repopulated from the Iberian Peninsula following the last Ice Age.
He proposes a comparison between the probable root of Sark, *Sarg-, and Proto-Semitic *śrq “redden; rise (as of the sun); east”, noting Sark’s position as the easternmost island of the Guernsey group.
In ancient times, Sark was almost certainly occupied by the Veneti. These people were subdued by the Roman Empire about 56 BC and the island annexed.
After the Roman retreat during the fifth century AD, Sark was probably an outpost of one or other Breton-speaking kingdoms until 933, when it became part of the Duchy of Normandy.
Following the Norman conquest of England in 1066, the island was united with the Crown of England.
In the thirteenth century, the French pirate Eustace the Monk, having served King John, used Sark as a base of operations.
During the Middle Ages, the island was populated by monastic communities. By the sixteenth century, however, it was uninhabited and used by pirates as a refuge and base.
In 1565, Helier de Carteret, Seigneur of St. Ouen in Jersey, received letters patent from Queen Elizabeth I granting him Sark as a fief in perpetuity on condition that he kept the island free of pirates and occupied by at least forty of her subjects. This he duly did, installing forty families, mostly from St. Ouen, on the island.
A subsequent attempt by the families to endow a constitution under a bailiff, as in Jersey, was stopped by the Guernsey authorities who resented any attempt to wrest Sark from their bailiwick.
In 1844, desperate for funds to continue the operation of the silver mine on the island, the incumbent Seigneur, Ernest le Pelley, obtained Crown permission to mortgage Sark’s fief to local privateer John Allaire.
After the company running the mine went bankrupt, le Pelley was unable to keep up the mortgage payments and, in 1849, his son Pierre Carey le Pelley, the new Seigneur, was forced to sell the fief to Marie Collings for a total of £1,383 (£6,000 less the sum borrowed and an accumulated interest of £616.13s).
During World War II, the island, along with the other Channel Islands, was occupied by German forces between 1940 and 1945. German military rule on Sark began on 4 July 1940, the day after the Guernsey Kommandant Major Albrecht Lanz and his interpreter and chief of staff Major Maas visited the island to inform the Dame and Seigneur (Sibyl and Robert Hathaway) of the new regime.
British Commandos subsequently raided Occupied Sark during the night of 3–4 October 1942, capturing prisoners and gathering intelligence.
In August 1990, an unemployed French nuclear physicist named André Gardes led a small group, armed with a semi-automatic weapon, that attempted an invasion of Sark.
The night Gardes arrived, he put up signs declaring his intention to take over the island the following day at noon. While sitting on a bench, changing the gun’s magazine and waiting for noon to arrive, he was arrested by the island’s volunteer constable.
Transition to new system of government
In 2008, Sark dismantled its previous system of government, which had evolved gradually from its original system established in 1565.
Change was influenced by the Barclay brothers on the premise that this was necessary to comply with the European Convention on Human Rights.
Under the old system, Sark’s parliament consisted of a 54-member chamber that included the Seigneur, the Seneschal, 40 tenant members and 12 deputies.
On 16 January 2008 and 21 February 2008, the Chief Pleas approved a law which introduced a 30-member chamber, with 28 members elected in island-wide elections, one hereditary member and one member appointed for life.
The old system was described as feudal, and hence objectionable, because the Tenants were seen to be able to sit in Chief Pleas as of right, and the new system has been described as democratic, and hence acceptable.
The Tenants were elected by and from among only the joint owners of each Tenement.
On 9 April 2008, the Privy Council of the United Kingdom approved the Sark law reforms, the first elections under the new law were held in December 2008 and the new chamber first convened in January 2009.
Some Sark residents have complained that the new system is not democratic and have described the powers the new law granted to the Seneschal, an unelected member whose term the new law extended to the duration of his natural life, as imperial or dictatorial.
The Court of Appeal has indeed ruled his powers to be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights and his powers are subject to further legal challenges on these grounds.
In March 2012, the BBC Today programme reported on local disquiet about the influence of the billionaire identical twins David and Frederick Barclay. The New Yorker magazine further illustrated the ongoing and escalating tensions between the Barclays and some of the longer term residents in October 2012.
Dark Sky Community Status
In January 2011, the International Dark-Sky Association designated Sark as Europe’s first Dark Sky Community and the first Dark Sky Island in the world.
This designation recognises that Sark is sufficiently clear of light pollution to allow naked-eye astronomy.
Although Sark was aided in its achievement by its location, its historic ban on cars and the fact that there is no public lighting, it was also necessary for local residents to make adjustments, such as re-siting lights, to cut the light pollution.
Following an audit in 2010 by the IDA the designation was made in January 2011. The award is significant in that Sark is the first island community to have achieved this; other Dark-Sky Places have, up to now, been mainly uninhabited areas, and IDA chairman Martin Morgan-Taylor commended Sark residents for their effort.
Sark was considered the last feudal state in Europe. Together with the other Channel Islands, it is the last remnant of the former Duchy of Normandy still belonging to the Crown. Sark belongs to the Crown in its own right and has an independent relationship with the Crown through the Lieutenant Governor in Guernsey.
Formally, the Seigneur holds it as a fief from the Crown, reenfeoffing the landowners on the island with their respective parcels. The political consequences of this construction were abolished in recent years, particularly in the reform of the legislative body, Chief Pleas, which took place in 2008.
Although geographically located within the Bailiwick of Guernsey, Sark is fiscally entirely separate from it and has been granted its own UN country code (680) to assist in identifying this fact to the world at large.
Together with the islands of Alderney and Guernsey, Sark from time to time approves Bailiwick of Guernsey legislation, which, subject to the approval of all three legislatures, applies in the entire Bailiwick.
Legislation cannot be made which applies on Sark without the approval of the Chief Pleas, although recently Chief Pleas has been delegating a number of Ordinance making powers to the States of Guernsey. Such powers are, however, in each case subject to dis-application, or repeal, by the Chief Pleas. By long standing custom, Sark’s criminal law has been made by the States of Guernsey, and this custom was put on a statutory basis in Section 4 of the Reform (Sark) Law, 2008, by which Sark delegates criminal law making power to the States of Guernsey.
The Seigneur of Sark was, prior to the constitutional reforms of 2008, the head of the feudal government of the Isle of Sark (in the case of a woman, the title was Dame).
Many of the laws, particularly those related to inheritance and the rule of the Seigneur, had changed little since they were enacted in 1565 under Queen Elizabeth I.
The Seigneur retained the sole right on the island to keep pigeons and was until 2008 the only person allowed to keep an unspayed dog. In 2008, the latter privilege was abolished (on the proposal of political opponents of the Barclay brothers) supposedly because it did not comply with the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Seneschal of Sark is the head of the Chief Pleas. Since 1675, he has also been the judge of the island (between 1583 and 1675, judicial functions were exercised by five elected Jurats and a Juge). The Seneschal is appointed by the Seigneur. Recently, following the decision of the English Court of Appeal, the Chief Pleas decided to split the dual role of the Seneschal.
Pursuant to the royal letters patent, the Seigneur was to keep the island inhabited by at least 40 armed men. Therefore, from his lands, 39 parcels or tenements, each sufficient for one family, were subdivided and granted to settlers, the Tenants. Later, some of these parcels were dismembered, and parts of the Seigneurial land were sold, creating more parcels.
Originally each head of a parcel-holding family had the right to vote in Chief Pleas, but in 1604 this right was restricted to the 39 original tenements required by the Letters Patent, the so-called Quarantaine Tenements (quarantaine: French for a group of forty). The newer parcels mostly did not have the obligation to bear arms. In 1611 the dismemberment of tenements was forbidden, but the order was not immediately followed.
In Sark, the word tenant is used (and often pronounced as in French) in the sense of feudal landholder rather than the common English meaning of lessee. Originally, the word referred to any landowner, though today it is mostly used for a holder of one of the Quarantaine Tenements.
Chief Pleas (French: Chefs Plaids; Sercquiais: Cheurs Pliaids) is the parliament of Sark. Until this decade, it consisted of the tenants, and 12 deputies of the people as the only representation of the majority, an office introduced in 1922. The Seigneur and the Seneschal (who presides) are also members of Chief Pleas. The Prévôt, the Greffier, and the Treasurer also attend but are not members; the Treasurer may address Chief Pleas on matters of taxation and finance.
The executive officers on the island are:
The Seneschal (President of Chief Pleas and Chief Judge) and Deputy
The Prevôt (Sheriff of the Court and of Chief Pleas) and Deputy
The Greffier (Clerk) and Deputy
The Treasurer (Finances)
The Constable (senior police officer and police administrator) and the Vingtenier (junior police officer)
The Seneschal, Prevôt, Greffier and Treasurer are chosen by the Seigneur, while the Constable and Vingtenier are elected by Chief Pleas.
Since 2000, Chief Pleas has been working on its own reform, responding to internal and international pressures. On 8 March 2006 by a vote of 25–15 Chief Pleas voted for a new legislature of the Seigneur, the Seneschal, 14 elected landowners and 14 elected non-landowners. However, it was made clear that this option was not on the table.
Offered two options for reform involving an elected legislature, one fully elected, one with a number of seats reserved for elected Tenants, 56% of the inhabitants expressed a preference in a totally elected legislature.
Following the poll, Chief Pleas voted on 4 October 2006 to replace the 12 Deputies and 40 Tenants in Chief Pleas by 28 Conseillers elected by universal adult suffrage.
This decision was suspended in January 2007 when it was pointed out to Chief Pleas that the 56% versus 44% majority achieved in the opinion poll did not achieve the 60% majority required for the constitutional change.
The decision was replaced by the proposal that Chief Pleas should consist of 16 Tenants and 12 Conseillers both elected by universal adult suffrage from 2008 to 2012 and that a binding referendum should then decide whether this composition should be kept or replaced by 28 Conseillers.
This proposal was rejected by the Privy Council and the 28 Conseiller option was reinstated in February 2008 and accepted by Privy Council in April 2008.
In 2003, Chief Pleas voted to vary the longstanding ban on divorce in the island by extending to the Royal Court of Guernsey power to grant divorces.
Bailiwick of Guernsey Laws and United Kingdom Acts of Parliament can (the latter as also in the case of all the other Channel Islands) be extended to Sark with the consent of Chief Pleas.
In practice, Sark does not make its own criminal laws; the responsibility for making criminal law is formally delegated to the States of Guernsey by Section 4(3) of The Reform (Sark) Law, 2008.
Clameur de Haro
Among the old laws of the Channel Islands is the old Norman custom of the Clameur de haro. Using this legal device, a person can obtain immediate cessation of any action he considers to be an infringement of his rights.
At the scene, he must, in front of witnesses, recite the Lord’s Prayer in French and cry out “Haro, Haro, Haro! À mon aide mon Prince, on me fait tort!” (“Haro, Haro, Haro! To my aid, my Prince! I am being wronged!”).
It should then be registered with the Greffe Office within 24 hours. All actions against the person must then cease until the matter is heard by the Court. The last Clameur recorded on Sark was raised in June 1970 to prevent the construction of a garden wall.
A local resident on Sark has set up an online newspaper called The Sark Newspaper, which voices his concerns about the way the island is governed and the impact of its policies, although contributions or comments from others are not published.
A group of islanders has set up a quarterly magazine called Sark Life, which promotes a positive view of the island and welcomes contributions.
Sark’s economy depends primarily on tourism and financial services. Sark has no company registry and relies on Guernsey’s financial services commission.
Sark is fiscally autonomous from Guernsey, and consequently has control over how it raises taxes. There are no taxes on income, capital gains or inheritances.
There is also no VAT charged on goods and services, though import duties (Impôts) are charged on some goods brought onto the island at around 70-75% of Guernsey rates.
However, the island does levy a Personal Capital Tax, a Property Tax, a Poll Tax (Landing Tax) on visitors coming to the island, and a Property Transfer Tax (Stamp Duty) on residential properties when they are sold.
The island has its own tax assessor, who collects the Property Tax, PTT, and the Personal Capital Tax (direct tax). Currently, the Personal Capital Tax ranges from a minimum of £320, to a maximum of £5,760 or 1% per annum (whichever is the lower).
In 2014, there were 5 taxpayers who paid the maximum amount of £6,400 (PCT and Property Tax combined), and 6 who paid zero tax.
Residents over the age of 69 do not pay the PCT. If a resident chooses not to declare the value of their personal assets, they can elect to pay a flat-rate under the Forfait method.
In 2006, Property Transfer Tax replaced the feudal Treizième. This used to be calculated by dividing the purchase price of any of the 30 tenements or 40 freehold properties on Sark by 13. The proceeds from doing this were then paid directly to the Seigneur.
Since the abolition of the Treizième, The Chief Pleas has replaced it with an indexed-linked pension of £28,000 per year, payable to the Seigneur.
An individual is considered to be a resident for tax purposes if they have remained on the island for at least 91 days in any tax year.
Sark generally follows the education system of England though this is not strictly adhered to.
Sark has one school, the Sark School, which takes residents from the ages of 4 to 15. School is divided into 4 classes. Class 1 takes children from the ages of 4 to 7 (reception to year 2), class 2 caters for 7- to 10-year-olds (year 3 to year 5), class 3 has 10- to 14-year-olds (year 6 to year 9) and the older children attend class 4 (years 10 and 11).
Pupils wishing to obtain a GCSE or A-level qualification often finish their education in Guernsey or in England. Since 2006, however, a limited number of GCSEs have been offered to pupils at Sark School.
The Isle of Sark Shipping Company operates small ferries from Sark to St Peter Port, Guernsey. The service takes 45 minutes for the 9 miles (14 km) crossing.
A high-speed passenger ferry is operated in summer by the French company Manche Iles Express to Jersey. A 12-passenger boat, the Lady Maris II, operates regular services to Alderney.
The island is a car-free zone where the only vehicles allowed are horse-drawn vehicles, bicycles, tractors, and battery-powered buggies or motorised bicycles for elderly or disabled people. Passengers and goods arriving by ferry from Guernsey are transported from the wharf by tractor-pulled vehicles. To the dismay of residents, large tractors, which produce even more noise and dust than cars of the same size, have proliferated in recent years.
There is no airport on Sark, and flight over Sark below 2400 ft is prohibited by the Air Navigation (Restriction of Flying) (Guernsey) Regulations 1985 (Guernsey 1985/21).
The closest airports are Guernsey Airport and Jersey Airport. Sark lies directly in line of approach to the runway of Guernsey airport, however, and low-flying aircraft regularly fly over the island.
In common with the other Channel Islands, Sark is attached to the Anglican diocese of Winchester.
Sark has an Anglican church (St. Peter’s, built 1820) and a Methodist church. John Wesley first proposed a mission to Sark in 1787.
Jean de Quetteville of Jersey subsequently began preaching there, initially in a cottage at Le Clos à Geon and then at various houses around Sark.
Preachers from Guernsey visited regularly, and in 1796, land was donated by Jean Vaudin, leader of the Methodist community in Sark, for the construction of a chapel, which Jean de Quetteville dedicated in 1797.
In the mid-1800s there was a small Plymouth Brethren assembly. Its most notable member was the classicist William Kelly (1821–1906). Kelly was then the tutor to the Seigneur’s children.
Supported by the evidence of the names of the tenements of La Moinerie and La Moinerie de Haut, it is believed that the Seigneurie was constructed on the site of the monastery of Saint Magloire. Magloire had been Samson of Dol’s successor as bishop of Dol, though retired and founded a monastery in Sark where he died in the late sixth century.
According to the vita of Magloire, the monastery housed 62 monks and a school for the instruction of the sons of noble families from the Cotentin. Magloire’s relics were venerated at the monastery until the mid-ninth century when Viking raids rendered Sark unsafe, and the monks departed for Jersey, taking the relics with them.
Despite having its own legislative assembly, Sark voluntarily submits to Guernsey in matters of criminal law. For matters of routine law enforcement and policing the island relies upon the States of Guernsey Police Service.
Sark has a small police station and jail, with two (rarely used) cells available.
The island has no full-time police officers permanently stationed on it, though has access to police services in three principal ways: firstly through the activity of a volunteer special constable on the island (there has been a resident volunteer constable since before the formal policing agreement with Guernsey first began); secondly through the designation of a member of the Guernsey Neighbourhood Policing Team as a dedicated point of contact for Sark authorities; thirdly by means of regular visits and patrols by Guernsey-based officers who cross to Sark on the passenger ferry service.
A resident doctor provides healthcare on Sark, and is available to attend accidents and emergencies. The Sark Ambulance Service operates two tractor-drawn ambulances, and is able to treat casualties and transport them to the harbour for transfer onto the Guernsey marine ambulance launch, Flying Christine III, operated by Guernsey Ambulance and Rescue Service. A small ambulance station houses the two ambulances.
Fire and rescue services are provided by an independent and volunteer service established in 1958. Originally named ‘Sark Fire Brigade’, it is now known as the Sark Fire and Rescue Service.
The services operates two pump tenders and an all-purpose trailer; all three appliances are drawn by tractors owing to the ban on other motor vehicles on Sark.
The original fire station was a large garage. Today the service operates from a large purpose-built fire station on La Chasse Marette.
Lifeboat services are provided by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution from the Guernsey lifeboat station, supported by the RNLI stations on Jersey and Alderney.