Shetland Museum and Archives Unveil Spanish Armada Cannon

by Deborah Leggate -

Shetland Museum and Archives are set to unveil a bronze cannon with gun mount, salvaged from a Spanish Armada ship. The 'media sacre' gun, which has been fully restored, was discovered off Fair Isle in 1970and is at least 422 years old.

The supply ship, El Gran Grifón was the flagship of the urcas (supply ships within the Spanish Armada) sent in August 1588 to invade England. A combination of poor weather conditions and the positionand tactics of the English Navy resulted in defeat for the Spanish Armada. Duringbattle, the El Gran Grifón, captained by Don Juan Gomez de Medina, was attacked by the English ship Revenge captained by Sir Frances Drake.

The surviving ships navigated up the east coast ofBritain, with the prevailing winds pushing them north. Many were wrecked around the coasts of Britain and Ireland. The El Gran Grifón was buffeted back and fore between Ireland and Shetland, before finally running aground at Stromshellier in Fair Isle. The ship ran aground and sank on 28th September 1588.

Shetland has a tradition of hospitality and the islanders provided shelter to the stricken sailors. There were 300 souls on board, most of whom survived the wreck. However food was scarce and there was little to share. 50 of the Spaniards perished in the island over the next two months before they were able to secure transport to neutral territory in Fife and then on to Leith in mainland Scotland. From there some eventually made it back to Spain.

In 1727 a salvage mission was initiated to recoveritems from the wreck. Two undamaged bronze cannons were raised during this retrieval from a total original armament of 38 guns.

A team of marine archaeologists under Dr Colin Martin of St Andrews University in 1970 salvaged another complete, undamaged bronze cannon. This now belongs to Shetland Museum and Archives and is on display for the first time.

Dr Martin's advice and input over the last two years has led to Shetland Museum and Archives being able to fully restore the gun and commission the recreation of an authentic gun carriage.

The wooden gun carriage has been constructed by the Royal Armouries in Leeds who are Britain's foremost specialists in historic gunnery. The iron fittings have been hand crafted using authentic methods by blacksmith Bruce Wilcock from Hillswick in Shetland. The wrought iron was salvaged from an anchor dredged off the sea bed off the coast of the islands. The iron rings, hooks, bolts and cladding have all been accurately recreated.

Shetland Museum and Archives curator Dr Ian Tait is pleased with the 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."

The cannon with its recreated gun mount will be on showin the foyer of the Shetland Museum and Archives from Monday 2ndAugust 2010 until 13th January 2011. The public are encouraged to come along and view this extraordinary piece of maritime history. Entry is free.