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Historian discovers earliest reference of a Scottish ship sailing to America


The earliest documented reference to a Scottish ship sailing to North America has been discovered by a local researcher at Aberdeen City & Aberdeenshire Archives, in what has been described as 'a hugely important historical find'.

Thomas Brochard (shown centre, with the Lord Provost on the right and Phil Astley, city archivist, on the left), an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Aberdeen, made the discovery whilst reading a late sixteenth century Council Register. He noticed an entry relating to a vessel, the William of Aberdeen, having made a voyage to “the new fund land” (Newfoundland) in 1596. 

Until now, the earliest documented Scottish ship to sail the Atlantic was a Dundee vessel named the “Grace of God”, which had sailed from Portugal in 1600.

From an earlier reference in the same volume it is known that the William had arrived back in Aberdeen in May 1596 from Bordeaux with a cargo of wine, having stopped at Burntisland on route. 

Crossing the Atlantic

The entry in which the ship is mentioned as having crossed the Atlantic relates primarily to debts incurred by Patrick Donaldson younger, a burgess of the town, and burgess William Findlay, the master and skipper of the William

The records reveal that both Patrick and William were involved in the fitting-out and freighting of the vessel between it leaving Aberdeen in July 1596 and its return four years later. 

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The other partners and owners in the Newfoundland venture are given as Archibald Smith and burgess Alexander Kempt. A Colin Campbell is also noted as being on board the vessel as was a carpenter by the name of John.

The William's voyage

The precise nature of the cargo on the outward voyage is not known however, from later entries in the same volume it becomes clear that the William returned to Aberdeen from North America via the port of Aveiro in Portugal where it picked up a cargo of salt, most probably destined to be used for preserving fish and meat. 

Remarkably, several of the Portugal to Aberdeen crew are also named: John Barclay, Alexander Currie, David Morton, David Easton, William Brown, Robert Fleming, Paul Fraser, William Young, and John Dow. 

It is possible that some, if not all these men, might have been crew members on the Newfoundland voyage. They had paid money to Patrick Donaldson, one of the owners and the ship’s clerk, to buy their share of the ship’s cargo of salt. On arrival in Aberdeen the owners refused to pay the crew their whole share as the cargo was spoiled due to a leak in the ship’s hold. The dispute then came before the Burgh Court and was recorded in the Council Register. 

A hugely important find

Thomas Brochard said of the find: “I was trawling through the records when my eyes chanced upon the words ‘new fund land’. This turned out to be an astonishing discovery. I’m sure other gems like this are waiting to be discovered in the burgh records which are an incredibly rich resource for historians and fully deserve their UNESCO designation as nationally important documentary heritage.”

The Lord Provost of Aberdeen Barney Crockett said: “Aberdeen is a proud maritime city, and this is a hugely important historical find.  It clearly demonstrates that Aberdeen was at the forefront of Scottish trade to the New World as far back as the 16thcentury.  

“Our archives are recognised as being of outstanding historic importance to the UK, and we are extremely fortunate that our city’s forefathers had the good sense to keep these records safe for future generations to learn from and enjoy.” 

For more information on Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire Archives visit the website.

QUICK LINK: Six dates that changed Aberdeen's history

History Scotland Jan Feb 2019

(images courtesy of Aberdeen City Council)

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