5.3 Shipwrecks

Shipwrecks are quite distinct from surviving historic ships, and enjoy a similar relationship as that between terrestrial archaeological features and standing historic buildings. The nature of the evidence each can provide, and the processes by which it is obtained and analysed, are for the most part different, although (as on land) there is potential for integrated approaches. The recording of smaller vernacular craft above the low tide mark, whether still in use, abandoned, or partially decayed, in some respects straddles these categories, and requires consideration on its own terms.

Figure 26: Location data of wrecks, losses and casualties. Differentiated by Designated vessels (

Location data of wrecks, losses and casualties. A comprehensive list of losses in Scottish Waters is available in Whittaker 1998 which is kept updated and the data also entered into CANMORE.   ©RCAHMS.

Although shipwrecks are a stand-alone category, they should logically be seen as integral parts of the wider periods and historical processes with which they were associated. A primary characteristic of a shipwreck is that it is usually a secure closed find with a closely defined terminus ante quem for its loss. The circumstances of the loss, and the character of the environment, will determine the survival of various components, and an understanding of the formation processes involved will therefore inform the interpretation of its remains. They are likely to include aspects of the ship’s structure, fittings, and gear; its contents and equipment; items relating to specialised activities such as navigation, medicine, trade, warfare, measurement-taking, and craft skills; provisioning and food preparation; and the domestic and personal possessions of those on board. A ship and its contents, moreover, is not just a random assemblage of unrelated objects and environmental material. but a self-contained and highly organised entity in which each part relates to the others. Its remains will therefore represent not only the focused purpose of a particular voyage but also, in many and often highly significant ways, reflect its parent society on shore. A shipwreck, if properly investigated, may have an archaeological potential on a par with Pompeii or an unopened Pharonic tomb.

Scotland’s first generation of shipwreck archaeology has been largely positive and in several respects innovative. As elsewhere, treasure hunting dominated activities in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, but this was mitigated in 1973 by the Protection of Wrecks Act and the establishment, in the same year, of an Institute of Maritime Archaeology (later the Scottish Institute of Maritime Studies) at the University of St Andrews. Active scholarly fieldwork has been practised in our waters since 1970, when the remains of the Armada ship El Gran Grifón were excavated off Fair Isle to conventional archaeological principles and standards (Martin 1972). In 1972 and 1974 the Dutch East Indiaman Adelaar (1728) was investigated off Barra (Martin 1992 and 2005).

A milestone in the evolution of the discipline was the excavation of the Kennemerland, a Dutch East Indiaman lost off the Out Skerries of Shetland in 1664. Seven seasons of work were conducted on the wreck between 1971 and 1987 (various references cited in Martin 1998: 122). Here the late Keith Muckelroy tested the theoretical approaches to wreck formation processes which led to his seminal book Maritime Archaeology (1978), which has done much to establish an internationally-recognised framework for the subject.

A key project undertaken by the St Andrews group between 1973 and 1975 was the excavation of the Dartmouth, a 5th-rate warship lost in the Sound of Mull in 1690 (Martin 1978). This was the first site in Scotland to be protected under the 1973 Act. The National Museums of Scotland were involved from the outset, providing conservation services and acquiring the full collection for curation and study.

In 1991 it was noted that the wreck of the small Cromwellian warship Swan (see boxed example), lost off Mull in 1653, was under threat from erosion. Historic Scotland, which that year had taken responsibility for the country’s shipwreck resource, designated the site. The project developed as a rescue intervention on which a research agenda was grafted, with funding from the annual round of competitive bidding supplemented by other sources. The NMS came in as an active partner and acquired the full collection of finds from a programme of limited excavation and site consolidation which ended in 2003. Several interim papers have been published and the final report is close to completion (see Martin 1997, 1998, 2005).

From 1986 to 2003 St Andrews University held a contract to operate the UK-wide Archaeological Diving Unit (ADU) in support of the historic shipwreck legislation. Though not specifically dedicated to Scottish waters, the unit’s presence here has had a spin-off in terms of fostering interest and developing expertise in maritime archaeology. Its director (Martin Dean) was instrumental in establishing, in collaboration with the Nautical Archaeology Society, the Sound of Mull Archaeological Project (SOMAP), an initiative which has encouraged amateurs to develop and use skills in underwater archaeology. A monograph has recently been published (Robertson 2007).

In 2002 Philip Robertson, who over the years coordinated the SOMAP programme, organised the investigation of an early 17th century ship with Iberian associations off Kinlochbervie. This project demonstrated the viability of combining amateur and professional input, and resulted in the recovery of a unique collection of Italian majolica of late 16th/early 17th century date (Robertson 2004). This project, which was carried out in association with Historic Scotland and the NMS, was also noteworthy for the expert analysis conducted on an unusual and important ceramic group, demonstrating the still under-utilised potential of closed shipwreck finds within a wider archaeological context (Brown and Curnow 2004).

The ADU has now morphed into ADUS (ADU Survey), a collaborative venture involving the Universities of St Andrews and Dundee. This unit specialises in ultra-high definition multibeam sonar, which works especially well on upstanding metal wrecks, and has made an excellent record of the German ships in Scapa Flow as well as of the British battleship Royal Oak.

The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology is currently edited in Scotland, but there is currently no university programme or research group in Scotland dedicated to shipwreck archaeology, the St Andrews institute having closed in 2002. The lack of current research projects is an issue in that not maintaining a level of active fieldwork runs the risk of losing national capability to deal with resources under threat (such as the Duart Point shipwreck, see below).

Figure 25: The Fuday wreck located on a beach in the Sound of Barra. This potentially significant wreck provides all sections of the research community with the opportunity to study ship remains in a more accessible context than more traditional submerged wreck sites. Such remains provide often well-preserved subject material for multi-disciplinary investigation, ©Headland Archaeology.

The Fuday wreck located on a beach in the Sound of Barra. This potentially significant wreck provides all sections of the research community with the opportunity to study ship remains in a more accessible context than more traditional submerged wreck sites. Such remains provide often well-preserved subject material for multi-disciplinary investigation, ©Headland Archaeology.


See also the ScARF Case Studies Rubh’an Dùnain, Skye and The Duart Point shipwreck