The first record of Feas in Orkney is the grant of the feu of Clestrain to James Fea in 1591 by Earl Robert Stewart . This was a small property in Stronsay, Orkney. At that time, or shortly afterwards, the Feas owned the much larger estate of Stove in Sanday. However, the head of the main branch of the family continued to use "of Clestrain" as a territorial designation.
There is no certainty as to how the surname was derived. Gregor Lamb in his "Orkney Surnames" (1981) suggests that it is from the Old Norse "fia" meaning "enemy" or "fiend", this being a nickname given to the Celtic peoples of Orkney. Bill Hewison in his introduction to "The Diaries of Patrick Fea of Stove 1777-1796 (1997) considers it a matter of conjecture whether the Feas were descended from the Norsemen, who ruled Orkney until 1468 or are of Scots descent. He presumes that the surname is derived from the Old Norse "fjall" meaning "hill" and there are certainly a number of Fea place names in Orkney, one of them fairly near the Fea's house of Stove.
In the sixteenth century, at least part of the lands of Stove were occupied by a family called Palson or Paulson, who may have been udallers of Norse descent. From 1591, the name of Paulson disappears from the Sanday records. The Feas only appear after this time. Is it conceivable that the Paulson's changed their surname to call themselves Fea after the land with that name at Stove?
There are different pronunciations of the surname. Bill Hewison considers the surname as invariably rhyming with the monosyllabic "fay", although the place name is usually pronounced "feeah" in Orkney, with two syllables. However, Gregor Lamb considers the surname to be pronounced "Fee". As the last person with the surname in Orkney died in 1969, it is not a name spoken frequently in the islands.
There are a number of branches of the Fea family, around the world, and both the "Fay" and "Fee" pronunciations are found, sometimes fairly close within the same branch.
James Fea, who was granted the feu of Clestrain, was the first of a line of six James Feas, the eldest son each being given the name. James has continued to be a common name in the Fea family.