Cannon from Armada ship wrecked off Fair Isle to go on show in museum

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A bronze cannon from an Armada ship which wrecked off Fair Isle in the aftermath of the Spaniards’ ill-fated attack on England in 1588 will be on display in the Shetland Museum for the first time from Monday.

The restored “media sacre” cannon, which will be on show in the museum’s foyer area until early in the new year, is at least 422 years old and belonged to the ship El Gran Grifón. It was originally dis­covered at the wreckage site at Stroms Helier in the early 1970s and had been in storage until it was restored this year, complete with recreated gun mount.

Iron fittings on the cannon have been handcrafted using authentic methods by blacksmith Bruce Wilcock, from Hillswick, while its woodwork has been manufactured by the Royal Armouries in Leeds, which specialises in history gunnery, providing an impressive finish for the cannon.

The wrought iron was salvaged from an anchor dredged off the sea bed off the coast of the islands, while the iron rings, hooks, bolts and cladding have all been accurate­ly recreated. The advice and input of Dr Colin Martin from St Andrew’s University has helped the museum to restore the gun and commission the recreation of the carriage and new museum curator Dr Ian Tait is pleased with the end result.

He said: “The Spanish Armada was a major event in European history which should never have affected Shetland – but it did. Many of the crew survived and stayed in Fair Isle for several months. Hund­reds of years on we have this fully restored and magnificent artefact to show the world how we played our part in such a significant event in history.”

El Gran Grifón, which had been chartered from the German city of Rostock as part of King Philip of Spain’s unsuccessful attempt to invade England and overthrow Queen Elizabeth I, became detached from the rest of the fleet in unusually violent North Atlantic storms as the retreating Armada force tried to sail around Scotland and Ireland back to the Bay of Biscay, running into a series of powerful gales.

The ship, which had sustained 70 hits to her hull after being attacked by an English ship captained by Sir Francis Drake, had been further damaged by a huge storm in early September 1588.

Any oncoming sea would certainly have sunk her, meaning she had to run “wherever the weather took her”, according to the book Full Fathom Five: Wrecks of the Spanish Armada by Dr Martin, who along with Sydney Wignall travelled to Fair Isle to excavate the wreck in 1970.

Having navigated up the east coast of Britain, with prevailing winds pushing them north, the El Gran Grifón was buffeted back and fore between Ireland and Shetland. It dropped anchor in Swartz Geo at Fair Isle on 27th September before running aground and sinking on the rocks of Stroms Helier the following day.

The crew and soldiers scrambled ashore and many stayed in Fair Isle for six weeks or so where islanders provided shelter to the stricken sailors. There were 300 on board, most of whom survived the wreck, but food was scarce and around 50 perished before they were able to depart. Some went to Orkney and married locally, becoming known as the Westray Dons, while others were transported on to Fife and then Edinburgh, from where some eventually made it back to Spain.

In 1727 a salvage mission was initiated to recover items from the wreck, including two undamaged bronze cannons from a total original armament of 38 guns.

“In the 1970s the marine archaeology site was excavated,” said Dr Tait. “Not many artefacts were discovered because the site was exposed, a lot of things were taken off the ship at the time and there was a salvage operation in the 18th century. However, the single most important thing that the divers found and raised was this lovely bronze cannon.

“I think there’ll be a lot of interest in it because folk don’t have to be interested in military ordinance – it has a great presence, a lovely oak carriage.”

For interview with Dr Tait, see this week’s Shetland Times.


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