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The Wreck by Sgeir Eòrna

Near Kinlochbervie
[58.26213, 5.643]
Brendan O’Hanrahan
North West Highlands Geopark

In 1997, an RAF diving group, stumbled across evidence of a wrecked ship, off the west-facing coast of the Ceathramh Garbh. The divers discovered several canons, anchors and what looked like pottery from the Mediterranean. Speculation mounted that this might be one of the unaccounted losses from the Spanish Armada in 1588. During the 18th…

In 1997, an RAF diving group, stumbled across evidence of a wrecked ship, off the west-facing coast of the Ceathramh Garbh. The divers discovered several canons, anchors and what looked like pottery from the Mediterranean. Speculation mounted that this might be one of the unaccounted losses from the Spanish Armada in 1588.

During the 18th Century, a report from the Rev. Alexander Pope, minister of the local area, states,

It is currently reported that one of the ships of the Spanish Armada is sunk near the rocks there, and that a countryman, at that time, got a trunk with a quantity of gold and fine clothes, and dressed himself in these clothes, and presented himself to his wife, saying “wife, am I not the Duke of Parma”?

And in fact there was a report from the minister for the area, the Rev. Alexander Pope, in the mid-18th century, that ‘It is currently reported that one of the ships of the Spanish Armada is sunk near the rocks there, and that a countryman, at that time, got a trunk with a quantity of gold and fine clothes, and dressed himself in these clothes, and presented himself to his wife, saying “wife, am I not the Duke of Parma”?’. However, this report talked of a wreck near Oldshore Beg, whereas this wreck was found south of the mouth of Loch an Ròin, to the south of Loch Inchard.

Loch Inchard near Kinlochbervie and close to the wreck site

The find generated great interest and excitement, culminating in a series of dives by the Archaeological Diving Unit of St. Andrews University, supported by Channel 4’s Time Team, who filmed material for a programme on the wreck in 2000.

The very detailed and systematic investigation of the underwater areas where the artefacts from the ship were found gradually revealed that, while the ship was very likely to have been Spanish in origin, the earliest possible date for it was at least 5 years after the Spanish Armada, thus authoritatively disproving this theory for good.

The rich pottery finds, combined with the nature of the four guns and four anchors, enabled the archaeologists and ceramics experts to establish that the ship most likely set sail between 1593 and 1625. At least nine different kinds of pottery were found on the seabed.

The majority of the pottery was fragments, but some intact pieces were found. The most spectacular being a large wine ewer in what was called the maiolica style from Italy, either Pisa or Montelupo, which were the two main ceramic centres in Tuscany. All in all, 191 objects were discovered by the divers, with the haul of Mediterranean pottery the richest to be discovered anywhere in Scotland for this era.

There were at least nine different kinds of pottery found on the seabed, with the majority being sherds, but there were some more intact pieces, with the most spectacular being a large wine ewer in what was called the maiolica style from Italy – almost certainly from either Pisa or Montelupo – two pottery-making centres in Tuscany from the Renaissance era.

The ewer was decorated in the grotesque style, featuring snails, birds and sets of insects and salamanders and fantastical long-necked, breasted and feathered creatures.  There were also many olive jars of Spanish origin called redware, as well as various pieces from Faenza, Liguria and Sevilla.

The ship came to rest on the sea bottom just south of a cluster of dangerous skerries called Sgeir Eòrna, not far from a line of formidable skerries called Sgeirean Cruaidhe. One can only imagine the poor ship, trying to wind its way safely through the Minch, without charts, trying to avoid one vicious line of rocks, only to fall foul of another set of sharp and jagged protrusions from the sea.

While it may not have been from the Spanish Armada, it was still a very exotic and unusual ship – if sadly ultimately also unlucky.

Watch the Time Team Excavation on YouTube

Watch the Time Team archaeological excavation of the wreck available on YouTube

Images: 

Archaeology Images Copyright: Highland Archaeology Dept.

Publications:Phil Robertson, Dave Parham, ‘The Wreck of the Kinlochbervie: Partnerships in Maritime Archaeology’, The Archaeologist, Vol. 49, (2003), pp. 32-34 .pdf