Shipwreck may be one of Scotland’s oldest

The shipwreck site is being studied. Picture: Comp
The shipwreck site is being studied. Picture: Comp
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Specialist underwater archaeologists probing a shipwreck discovered off the Sutherland coast believe it to be one of the oldest ever found in Scottish waters.

• Wooden hull, cannons and anchor among finds on the seabed.

The cannons on the seabed

The cannons on the seabed

• Vessel could be one of Scotland’s oldest wrecks.

The vessel on the seabed near Drumbeg is believed to be three to four hundred years old and is now set to be given new protected status.

The archaeologists discovered three cannons, cannonballs, anchors and part of a wooden hull 15 metres down.

Historic Scotland was alerted to the wreck in Eddrachillis Bay by local scallop divers and they sent in specialists to confirm its status.

The experts from WA Coastal and Marine believe it could be the remains of a substantial Dutch vessel that got into difficulty between 1650 and 1750, making it one of the oldest known wrecks off Scotland’s coast.

The site was given emergency protected status earlier this month, but is one of seven shipwrecks proposed for the Scottish Government’s new Historic Marine Protected Area status.

The divers spent four days examining the site last year, using an imaging technique to create 3D models of the wreck and the cannons.


Dr Jonathan Benjamin, of WA Coastal and Marine and the University of Edinburgh, said: “Our job was to confirm that there was a shipwreck there, and find anything else we could, without carrying out a disturbance investigation.

“We gathered quite a lot of information, even though the initial inspection was just for confirmation.

“It is too early to say exactly when this vessel sank or who its crew were, but the finds indicate it could be dated from 1650 to 1750.

“We can say this is a very exciting addition to the heritage assets on Scotland’s seabeds. There are very few intact wooden vessels in Scotland of this age - perhaps fewer than ten. The earliest known are early 1600s.”


Scallop divers first discovered artefacts on the seabed as far back as the 1990s.

But Dr Benjamin said: “It was the cannons on the seabed that they originally found.

“They thought at first it was modern pipe of some sort before they took a closer look. We dusted sand off an area surrounding them to discover a preserved section of hull.”

He added: “This site demonstrates the value of collaboration between archaeologists, local community members and divers to enhance our knowledge of underwater cultural heritage in Scotland.

“We have confirmed it to be of national historical importance and it will now be given the government’s new Historic Marine Protected Area status.”

The 3D models are being used in the effort to better understand the wreck’s story.


Archaeologists have already been able to establish more accurate measurements of the cannons.

This has helped to match them to other cannons which could reveal important details about the ship and its crew, as there is currently no historical record of this shipwreck off the Sutherland coast.

Charles Trollope, an independent cannon specialist, has identified the cannons as being of a type cast in Sweden for use by the Dutch.

The weapons could have been used by the Drumbeg ship’s crew to deter privateers, privately-owned armed vessels commissioned by a state to attack an enemy’s shipping.

Today, the cannons are heavily encrusted and colonised by small red seaweeds.

Also recovered from the wreck was a broken Delft tile decorated with an image of a three-mast ship flying the Dutch flag. Delft is a blue and white pottery made in the Netherlands.

One theory is that the vessel was owned by the Dutch East India Company, also known as VOS.


Founded in 1602, it was the world’s biggest and most powerful trading company until it collapsed in financial ruin in 1799.

Its vessels regularly sailed around the north of Scotland because of the favourable winds and also to avoid the English Channel, particularly at times of war and tensions in Europe.

The wrecking of VOS vessels in Shetland was recorded by the Dutch company, and centuries later the shipwrecks were located by divers.

One reported loss in Scotland outside Shetland, and which has still to be found, was the Trompetteer. It was seized and then burned by French sailors off the Scottish coast in 1692.

The archaeologists claim some or all of the crew of the Drumbeg ship may have survived their ordeal as there is possible evidence of foreign sailors setting up home in the north-west Highlands after their ships foundered.

The First Statistical Account of Scotland published between 1791 and 1799 records how the climate of the area was pleasant enough for “natives of the East and West Indies” to live there.


John McCarthy of WA Coastal and Marine added: “We have conducted a lot of research on new methods of underwater digital survey and the survey at Drumbeg gave us the perfect opportunity to apply this new technology to an entire wreck site for the first time, and with fantastic results.”

Philip Robertson, a Historic Scotland marine archaeologist, said: “There are unlikely to be dubloons of gold but ships of this type did commonly carry coinage. But for us the real treasure is the information. It is quite rare and an exciting find. The wreck gives us a unique window into our history.”

It is planned to investigate the wreck further this summer.