Treasure hunt: Orkney farmers uncover ancient shipwreck

A group of farmers have been praised for their stoic efforts to preserve an ancient wooden shipwreck, after it emerged from the sands at Sands o’ Erraby, on the east side of Sanday, one of the North Isles of Orkney.

The shipwreck, which measures more than 8m long and a little over 4m wide, was first discovered by Alfie ap Dafydd, who was running on the beach when a significant part of the upturned hull appeared from nowhere.

See also: Oldest YFC couple in England reminisce on love of farming

Specialists Ben Saunders (Wessex Archaeology) and Hamish Darran

Specialists Ben Saunders (Wessex Archaeology) and Hamish Darran © Roderick-Thorne

The ship had been buried for quite some time and is believed to be at least 200 years old, but was in danger of breaking up and being swept out to sea as the tides ebbed and flowed. 

Roderick Thorne, a member of the island’s heritage group, was one of the first on the scene, and, following the advice of a team of specialists and marine archaeologists, he enlisted local farmer Raymond Brown, from Colligarth Farm, who agreed to bring his tractor and trailer to the beach – after he had fed his cows.

After initially moving two large timbers to safety, Mr Brown recruited farming friends James Muir and Adam Towrie, who also brought their tractors and telehandlers to the beach, where they shifted approximately 8t of timbers – made up of more than 60 individual pieces, including trennels, planks, floors and futtocks, saving the ship from the sea.

Shipwreck rescue team

The rescue team © Roderick Thorne

Window in time

While there is little hope of reconstructing the ship, preserving the findings will offer a window in time and inform archaeologists of its age, method of construction, country of origin and former use.

Speaking to Farmers Weekly, Mr Thorne explained that he used to be the head teacher on the island and the three farmers, “who are all pillars of the local community”, were his former pupils. 

“It is surprising and delightful that they are still speaking to me, never mind reacting so quickly to an urgent request,” he said.

“The result of their labours was that all of the ship’s timbers and planks were brought back to the Heritage Centre on the island. 

“The advice and guidance we were given by the experts was to try to keep everything soaked in water, and if possible covered in damp cloths and covered over with plastic.”

While the exact age and provenance of the ship is still to be determined, the experts have taken samples for further testing. 

“They believe the ship may be of such an age that it may be extremely important, but we are awaiting the results of laboratory research before we know just how significant the wreck is,” said Mr Thorne. 

See more