Ancient boat may be unearthed

The remaining parts of the James A Wright wreck in 1996.
The remaining parts of the James A Wright wreck in 1996.

An ancient Hebridean boat could be recovered from beneath the sands of a Benbecula beach this summer- more than 400 years after it sank.

A 40ft Birlinn-style boat – is believed to be buried under the sand on Baleshare beach and could be the subject of an investigation by a team from Project SAMPHIRE (Scottish Atlantic Maritime Past: Heritage, Investigation, Research and Education).

The marine archaeology project, funded by the Crown Estate, has been running for the last year and has already discovered more than 40 archaeological sites including wooden shipwrecks, cannons, ancient anchors, prehistoric fish traps and small fishing vessels around the north west of Scotland.

A further £75,000 has been received for another two years of the project and so the team are hoping to follow up some Hebridean leads.

John McCarthy, SAMPHIRE Project Manager of Wessex Archaeology Coastal and Marine said: “We have a number of sites to investigate in the Outer Hebrides including a birlinn-type boat in the intertidal sands at Benbecula, there are also reports of a possible B17 wreck on the seabed in the same area and a stone anchor found in Lewis.”

Birlinn boats were extensively used in the islands and West Highlands from Middle Ages up to the 17th century, but there is currently no physical record of them in existence.

Mr McCarthy added: “The Birlinn type site is very credible. If we can confirm it it will be the first physical evidence of this type and would be enormously exciting.”

Rev Donald MacQuarrie from Fort William, who has links with Uist, has carried out much research on the unknown shipwrecks of Benbecula and says there have been no sightings of the Birlinn wreck since the late 19th century.

“Sadly there has been no sign of the wreck since it was reported on in 1894,” he said. “A reason for this is that this area has been sheltered by the South Ford causeway – but it is still there. It would now need some expensive ground radar to stand a chance of finding it. If it was found it would be marvellous because we do not have one bit of material that we can say came from a Scottish Galley – yet hundreds were built.”

The Oban Times and The Scottish Highlander reported in March 1894 that there had been a ‘curious find’ on the shore with a boat being uncovered following a storm. It was discovered beside the rocks at known as Sgeir na Birlin, which could be a reference to the shipwreck on the site.

The paper reported that it was believed a Birlinn had been wrecked there in the late 1600s and the crew were buried on the land above the shore. At the time it was reported that the wood of the Birlinn was in ‘an excellent state of preservation and extremely hard’.

Researchers from Project SAMPHIRE are also interested in another wreck site close by which is known about locally but not on the official database.

The story of the James A Wright sailboat has also been researched extensively by Donald MacQuarrie who said there is sadly little still remaining of the masted sailing ship which sank in November 1877.

The vessel floundered during a severe westerly gale that winter en route from Liverpool to Georgia, USA. She was damaged on a reef, west of Heisgeir and drifted towards Baile Sear where she remains to this day.

The SAMPHIRE team have not yet confirmed their investigation plans for this summer but do plan to carry out more community outreach work to find out about unreported wreck sites. Mr McCarthy said this would involve contact with local dive clubs and they were keen to hear from anyone with information on potential sites.

He added: “We are looking forward to new discoveries over the next two years and already have some very exciting leads to investigate.”

Anyone with details of any wreck site in the Hebrides can email with further information.