Scotlands Shipwrecks and Salvage

Posted by True Highlands in Kit and Caboodle | 0 comments

The shipwrecks of the Highlands can tell us a lot about our history, they are reminders of the sacrifices made in wartime, the alliances made in peacetime, the industry of poor coastal communities, of piracy and the international trading throughout the centuries.

One of the most pervasive shipwreck stories in the country is that of the sunken galleon in Tobermory harbour, a treasure ship from the Spanish Armada, leaden with gold just waiting to be uncovered. Or is it? Few tourists can visit without hearing some version of this tale. On the face of it the story is not completely outlandish. At the time of the Armada Spanish vessels were often sighted of the west coast of Scotland and captains unfamiliar with the terrain frequently ran aground in bad weather. From this point concrete details are a bit thin on the ground. What is certain is that all attempts at positively identifying the ship or finding its remains have ended in frustration. Salvage attempts have been made for hundreds of years during which time historians have debated over whether local stories of the boat being deliberately blown up by agents of the king, a worried clan chief or disgruntled locals over unpaid harbour dues have any basis in fact. The silt at the bottom of the harbour has tantalisingly revealed a small number of artefacts over the years (but no gold) despite the numerous salvage attempts. Just enough it would seem to keep the myth alive.

A neat contrast to the conjecture surrounding hordes of lost Spanish gold is the story of the wreck of the Swan and the role it played in British history. Located in 1979 just off the coast of Duart Castle on Mull, The Swan had been part of the King’s Navy during the English Civil War. After the captain went ashore in Dublin in 1645 a dispute over unpaid wages turned into mutiny and the crew switched sides. Now part of Oliver Cromwell’s flotilla the warship was sent to attack Duart Castle, the home of the Clan Maclean who were known to be Royalist sympathisers. A fierce storm sunk the flotilla who had anyway arrived too late, as the Macleans had already fled. The proximity to the shoreline and the lifting of some restrictions on the wreck make this a popular dive spot. The recovery of artefacts is not permitted.


The village of Sheildaig was founded in 1800 with the purpose of training seamen for the Napoleonic wars so seeing a cannon mounted in the centre of the village should come as no surprise. The plaque below claims it as a relic of the Spanish Armada 1588 but a combination of recent research and oral history has revealed a slightly more intriguing story. Analysis dates the type of cannon to the early 1800s, a time when herring was exported from here to the Baltic on armed schooners. The story goes that a local merchant involved in the trade was returning on the Sabbath. Having already fallen out with the local church over Sabbath keeping the skipper decided to defiantly fire his cannon on approach to the town. The cannon malfunctioned, blowing off his arm. It’s possible that this is just another church scare story but a closer look at the cannon reveals its muzzle is indeed missing. Mess with the Free Church at your peril! After years of being used as a makeshift anchor the cannon was salvaged and mounted in its current position in 2007. Go see for yourself.

Often when ships were wrecked on remote stretches of coastline details would be slow to reach the authorities. As in the celebrated case of whisky galore locals would attempt to salvage what they could and for generations remain tight lipped about the details. Even today the older residents of Staffin remain evasive about the bricks that built their village. Visible at low tide at Staffin bay is the wreck of the Tom Telford, a Clyde puffer built in 1844 and lost in a storm in 1919. It was carrying a cargo of bricks, most of which it is alleged slowly made their way into the croft buildings you see today. Almost 100 years on it is unlikely that there would be any legal repercussions from this act of liberation but old habits in the islands endure and the conspiracy of silence remains almost intact.

On North Uist the Irish captain of an ill-fated vessel achieved something of a lasting notoriety after his ship carrying a cargo of potatoes bound for America ran aground. The potatoes that washed ashore, different in variety from any previously available on the island were planted by the locals on the machair and still grow. They are to this day known as Bowman potatoes after the unfortunate captain.

Another historic shipwreck you don’t have to be a qualified diver to visit is the James A Wright, an American sailing ship which struck rocks near the Island of Heiskair (Monach Isles) before running aground on the west coast of the Uists in 1877. Eventually all the American crew were rescued but local legend tells of the sailors being desperately worried about the savagery of the natives and throwing their chickens overboard first to see what the locals would do with them before leaving the vessel themselves. At low tide the outline of the entire hull can be seen sticking out from the sand, a bit like a set of sharks teeth. Shifting sands over the years have covered over and exposed large parts of the hulk but it’s possible to get an impression of just how big the boat must have been back in its day.

When looking into the shipwrecks of the highlands one thing strikes as of particular relevance today, the sheer diversity of the nationalities and backgrounds of the vessels that navigated our shores. Scotland was never an isolated country in the age of sail, our history was one of international commerce as well as conflict. Villages like Rosehearty in Moray were founded by shipwrecked Danish sailors who never left. Legends abound of isolated Moorish sailors living in caves on the north coast and eating local’s horses. The wreck of the Dutch built vessel Wrangels Palais was not identified until 1990 – it was engaged in a hunt for Turkish pirates at the time of its sinking in 1687. Spanish galleons, American Civil War gun runners, Viking longboats, Nazi U-boats and East Indian freighters are all to be found preserved in our waters. Most are now scheduled monuments or war graves to protect them from treasure hunters but the recent research by SAMPHIRE has intriguingly thrown up as many questions as answers with many wrecks on our shores still unidentified and many missing vessels still never accounted for. The Scottish seas hold secrets still.

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