A Small Island’s Part in a Big Story

Bronze cannon from the wreck of the Spanish Armada ship El Gran Grifón, acquired by Shetland Museum and Archives in 1972 with an NFA grant of £1,500. 

Copyright of Shetland Museum

Bronze cannon from the wreck of the El Gran Grifón on display in Shetland Museum

The first artefact secured by Shetland Museum with help from the National Fund for Acquisitions shows how a small island played an unexpected part in one of the most important events in British history – Spain’s attempt to invade England in 1588. The object is a bronze cannon, saved for Shetland with an NFA grant in 1972.

The Spanish invasion fleet was the most powerful armed force ever seen, with 130 ships carrying 30,000 men. Plans went badly wrong, however, when the Armada came to battle in August. The ships were slower and harder to steer, and gales wrecked the battle plan.  Admiral Howard’s English fleet won a famous victory and the defeated Spanish were driven up the North Sea. One hundred ships rounded Scotland trying get southwards.

Copyright of Setland Museum

Bronze cannon on gun carriage built by the Royal Armouries

El Gran Grifón, with a crew of 280, was one of 23 supply hulks that carried stores for the invasion. Off the Isle of Wight she took a broadside from Sir Francis Drake’s Revenge and after seventy hits and dozens killed, the crew made emergency repairs. A crewman onboard the Grifón wrote: “When we thought all hope was gone, we sighted an island ahead of us. This was Fair Isle, where we arrived at sunset, much consoled, though we saw we should still have to suffer. But anything was better than drinking salt water.” Islanders provided shelter but food was scarce and there was little to share. Fifty men perished over the next two months before they were able to get to Fife then home to Spain.

The wreck of the Grifón was discovered by a St Andrews University team in 1970 and this cannon was recovered. Two years ago we had a gun carriage constructed for the cannon by the Royal Armouries in Leeds, Britain’s foremost specialists in historic gunnery, and iron fittings were hand-crafted by local blacksmith Bruce Wilcock.  Appropriately, the metal Bruce used was salvaged from an anchor dredged from the seabed!

Dr Ian Tait
Shetland Museum and Archives