The story starts with a ghost ship, a vessel which eludes the usual shipping registers, but which may have slipped into the port of Leith on Christmas Eve, 1803 ...
It is tempting to imagine the vessel entering harbour rather like the sinister Black Pearl in Pirates of the Caribbean. And in truth, our vessel may seem of little more substance than that movie’s ship of phantoms. However, once it tied up, if it tied up, at Leith, an impossible fortune in gold and silver bullion and precious stones - 460 million worth, the story goes - is said to have been transported, in 90 wicker baskets, to the Royal Bank of Scotland and deposited there by a Sir Francis Mollison or Mollinson.
The treasure had been dispatched from Lambayeque, Peru, by a Spanish corregidor or colonial official, Antonio Pstor y Marin de Segura, Marques de Llosa. The vessel was jointly commanded by an American, John Fanning, and a Scot, John Doig or Doigg.
You’re unlikely to find any of the above documented in Scottish harbour records or banking ledgers, although the names de Segura, Fanning and Doig ring true. Fast-forward some 160 years, however, and something very strange - and very much documented - starts to happen. In October, 1965, the Royal Bank of Scotland received the first of a deluge of claims on the "treasure", on behalf of members of the Pstor family, descendents of de Segura, under the terms of what they claimed to be a fifth-generation will, left by the Marques, who died in 1804, and his second wife, Narcisa Martinez de Tejada y Oraye.
Bewildered bankers found themselves dealing with solicitors, with South American banks and with the Grand Lodge of Scotland (enquiring on behalf of its masonic counterpart in Peru), while the Peruvian consul in Glasgow visited the Royal Bank’s head office at St Andrews Square. There was an enquiry from the Procurator Fiscal for Edinburgh, concerning an action being raised by a Seora de Caceres of Lima, Peru, claiming "598 large merchant bags which were dispatched from Lima, Peru, in 1803 by the ship El Pensamiento under Captains J Fanning and J Doigg to the Royal Bank of Scotland and delivery entrusted to Castillo la Rosa".
A Royal Bank executive, Robert Forbes, now long retired, went through all the bank’s strongrooms in Edinburgh and Glasgow. He found nothing.
In a report in 1966, Forbes, who was shown a copy of the Pstor testament - but, noticeably, no receipt - by one enquiring diplomat wrote: "Our records throw no light on the story. Safe custody books only go back to 1860 and we are, therefore, unable to determine whether or not any packages were ever deposited with us by the parties concerned and subsequently uplifted."
Meanwhile, half a world away, newspapers carried headlines about "un fabuloso tesoro" which was going to make certain families very rich indeed. Ecuador’s Ultimas Noticias, for instance, reported how Seora Violeta Aguilar de Caceres had told the Peruvian Press that she possessed "documents of guarantee of the Bank of Scotland that confirm deposits valued at 460 million sterling".
Confusion reigns, but nobody got rich. The story has entered into Royal Bank folklore, and the late James Gilhooley, a design engineer turned historian and freelance writer, undertook some serious research and in 1986 wrote an article about the treasure for the Royal Bank of Scotland Review.
First, though, that 460 million, which today’s values would represent a mind-boggling 26.3 billion-plus. "There’s no way de Segura accumulated this sort of wealth unless he discovered Eldorado, Atlantis, The Valley of the Kings, etc, all on his own," observes Iain Harrison of the Royal Bank’s group communications department. However, Gilhooley reckoned there had been a misconstruing of the will’s reference to French livres. The exchange rate at that time, he wrote, was 24 livres to the pound, making the treasure’s worth nearer 20 million - still a tidy 1.1 billion by today’s values.
Gilhooley, who was almost certainly planning a book about the affair but died two years ago, postulated an intriguing sequence of conspiracies. Pointing to Spanish detailed records of de Segura, he argued that the hostilities between Britain and France and Spain had halted the flow of treasure ships from South America to Spain, with a five-year bottleneck of riches awaiting shipment. In 1802, the Treaty of Amiens gave a short-lived breathing space which would allow such traffic, while at the same time Napoleon demanded that Spain comply with earlier treaties and pay France a hefty "war contribution" which was in effect protection money. The envoy chosen for this was one Comte Louis Philippe de Sgur, who may well have shared a Basque country background as well as an aristocratic family name with de Segura.
Spain looked to the Americas, and very possibly to de Segura, for the necessary bullion. Gilhooley believed that the corregidor was in a position to "hijack" a shipment of treasure, at least partly for himself, leaving it to a fifth generation either because he had fallen out with his immediate family or perhaps putting it beyond any retribution, Napoleonic or otherwise.
The Basques and the Scots both maintained a significant mercantile presence in the Caribbean and the Royal Bank was well known in the Atlantic trading world. However, even if the treasure had set sail from Peru on a ship named El Pensamiento, it would have to be unloaded and carted across the pre-canal Isthmus of Panama and transferred to a different vessel. Also, because of the hostilities, ships sailing from Spanish colonies may well have given false information on their clearance papers and manifests, or sailed under assumed names and flags.
The Doigs and Fannings were both well-known seafaring dynasties, the Fannings from Stonington, Connecticut (one of them sailed with the Scots-born American naval hero John Paul Jones), while the Doigs were well-known in the Scottish north-east mercantile (and smuggling) town of Montrose. Gilhooley identified a John Doig from there who was active in the Caribbean, while enquiries by The Scotsman revealed another branch of the family, from Ayrshire, to be much concerned with Peru - including a John Doig who was a noted privateer, based in Lambayeque, but whose birth in 1792 makes him too young to figure in our tale.
The Francis Mollison or Mollinson who was supposed to deposit the treasure in Edinburgh was, Gilhooley claimed, a pseudonym for Comte Francois Mollien, a leading French banker who was a member of the same masonic lodge in Paris as the de Segur family (and John Paul Jones).
But if the treasure never reached the Edinburgh bank, where did it go? Gilhooley points to a sudden escalation in the fortunes of the ousted French Bourbon dynasty. For in residence at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, at the beginning of the 19th century, was one Charles Philippe, Compte d’Artois, who would become the last Bourbon king of France, Charles X.
Seeking anything more concrete, we must look to South America - but via Dunbar and the home of Stan Hall, an Edinburgh-born engineer who became so hooked on what he regards as "the missing pages" of South America’s prehistory that he lived in Ecuador for many years.
"Treasures are made to frustrate people," he remarks, and introduces into the story a tantalising document known as the Derrotero, a document presented to King Carlos IV of Spain by a man named Valverde before his death in 1792, which gave directions established by another, earlier Valverde, to a vast cache of Inca treasure, reputedly hidden in a cave in Ecuador’s wild Llanganati region. It is said to have been dispatched there by Ruminahui, one of Atahualpa’s generals, after the Inca leader had been baptised then strangled by the good Christian invaders of his country. De Segura, he says, would have used the Derrotero in obtaining his treasure.
Hall, 67, is no stranger to caves: in fact he has one named after him, one of the mysterious Tayos caves to which he led a British-Ecuadorian expedition in 1976, which included as patron and member the astronaut and moonwalker Neil Armstrong. The treasure of the Llanganti he regards as a side-issue, if an intriguing one, to his real interest, the ancient civilisations of South America, but believes the treasure almost certainly exists - and that some of it may have come to Scotland.
So far as its subsequent disappearance, he believes "the defining hand" could be the eminent Scots banker Thomas Coutts, another Montrose man, who may well have known Doig, and certainly Mollien. Coutts, says Hall, became banker to George III - and was known to assist the Bourbons.
Hall, as did Gilhooley and other researchers, points to a "mysterious absence" of Leith cargo manifests for the years 1795-1805, and suggests that as Coutts is thought to have disposed of George lll’s financial ledgers after the monarch’s death ... well, perhaps he turned his attention to cargo manifests.
In Ecuador, countless explorers have tried to find that Llanganati cave, sometimes with fatal consequences, while following copies of the Derrotero (which Hall believes to have been altered to confuse treasure-hunters), along with a map of the Llanganati region, made in 1827 by a pharmacologist, Atanasio Guzman, who himself perished in the area.
That didn’t stop the veteran Scottish mountain man, Hamish MacInnes, from making three trips to the Llanganati, also equipped with the Derrotero and the Guzman map. MacInnes also made fruitless enquiries about the El Pensamiento and has tried, so far without success, to trace the Spanish royal warrant which would have authorised the original expedition into the Llanganati to procure the treasure, ostensibly for Spain but also for de Segura.
You won’t find MacInnes’s Glencoe home crammed with Inca gold - he didn’t find any, but he does believe that Atahualpa’s riches may well lie within the Llanganti. In his book Beyond the Ranges, he expresses his belief that the Valverde Derrotero is genuine, however, he warns that the Llanganati, high on the Altiplano and near the Equator, is unforgiving country: "Not a place for a bucket-and-spade visit."
But what about those who believed they were the rightful inheritors of de Segura’s treasure? In Quito, capital of Ecuador, an old friend of Hall’s, Dr Michel Merlyn spoke last week to Cesar and Hector Pstor, the sons of Hector Plaza Salvador, who directed the family committee formed to make the claims in 1965. "They said they didn’t feel cheated or enraged at all," recounts Merlyn. "Most of the Pstors, the two of them included, were not disillusioned, although some were, of course.
"They described the whole affair as an experiencia simptica - an interesting and funny experience. They haven’t been investigating since the 1965-1966 episode, but I’m sure they are still interested."
But the story of the lost Pstor millions won’t lie down and die. Another story in El Comercio in May 1965 added a further, intriguing element by recounting how, as far back as 1686, an infamous pirate, Eduardo David, plundered the mansion of the Obaya family in Lambeyeque, stealing, among other things, 598 bags or containers of gold and silver.
Then, as this article was going to press, a Peruvian woman living in Edinburgh, who had helped MacInnes translate the Llanganati documents, told me her version, which mentioned Doig and Fanning, and a fast British ship laden with treasure, but had one of the partners taking his third of the treasure to France - where it was used in the purchase of Louisiana. And, she claimed, the treaure was still lying in the Royal Bank: "But the descendents of the man who put it there cannot prove they are his real descendents, because in Peru there was a fire in the registry office."
So, amid blazing documents and ricocheting conspiracy theories, the lost treasure of the El Pensamiento sails into the sunset - and seems likely to stay there, unless someone locates some vital documents, or a certain cave ...