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1992 Index Bulletins Index

Caithness Field Club



This is the five hundredth anniversary of Columbus' discovery of America, but was the Genoese navigator really the first European to discover the New World? Recent evidence has turned up which suggests that Christopher Columbus was about 100 years too late and that America was really discovered by the Scots.

The newest addition to the story of the Clan Gunn at the Clan Gunn Heritage Centre at Latheron is an illustrated presentation of the account of the expedition made in 1398 by Henry Sinclair, the Jarl or Earl of Orkney, to the New World and of the stone carving in a rockface In Westford, Massachusetts, of a 14th Century Scottish knight in armour.

Sinclair's journey to the New World is described in a fascinating document - the Zeno Narrative - published in Venice in 1558 which, together with maps and charts, was originally written by Antonio Zeno, Captain of the Sinclair fleet.  Zeno records that they reached the coast of Newfoundland in late May and, being discouraged from landing by the local inhabitants, were forced to sail a further ten days southwest. The land they discovered abounded with fresh water, fowl, eggs and fish. There were also a great many half-wild people in the area, all of small stature and living in caves.

In the legends of the Micmac Indians of Nova Scotia, possibly descendants of these self-same half-wild cave dwellers, there is tell of a god-like creature, a man of wisdom and benevolence, whose name was Glooscap or Kuloscap, which meant 'crafty, wily, a strategist'. This man, who came from a large town on an island far away, spent the winter living among the Indians at about the time of the Sinclair voyage and participated in their festivals and rituals.

According to Zeno, part of Sinclair's fleet of ships returned home and the remainder stayed on for a season to create a settlement and continue his explorations. It is believed that Sinclair sailed on to what is now New England and that one of his lieutenants, Sir James Gunn of Clyth, Crowner of Caithness and Chief of Clan Gunn, died or was killed when the party was exploring up-river from what is now Boston, Massachusetts; and that the carved stone at Westford marks his burial place.

The primitive incision an the stone marks a knight in full armour, helmet, mail and surcoat; with his hand resting on a pommelled sword of the period. The sword is shown to be broken, indicating that the knight died in the field. What is particularly interesting is that the knight appears to be holding a shield bearing the ancient arms of Gunn.


A copy of the seven foot high rubbing of the carved stone, made by the American artist Marianna Lines, will be displayed at the Clan Gunn Centre, along with other evidence of the Sinclair expedition.

Figure 1 shows the reconstruction of the Westford shield. Heraldic sources (1) quote this as "the earliest surviving example of the Gunn chiefs' coat of arms, punch-marked by a mediaeval armourer-smith on a rock in Massachusetts in or about 1395 ... The...shield, borne by what seems to be the effigy of a fourteenth century knight, appears to show arms of a distinctively Norse-Scottish character: a galley, and in chief a star between two large buckles. As with many Scandinavian heraldic boats, no mast appears to be shown: but the oars are crossed in saltire at the blades, as in some Highland coats."

Why did Henry Sinclair make this expedition and why was it not recognised in the history books? The historians who have been following up on this story believe that Henry Sinclair was a prominent Knight Templar, a powerful order of knights whose influence spread throughout Europe, until they were banned in France and many other parts of Europe because they were a threat to national sovereignty. Many Templars escaped to Scotland, where they found a safe haven. Rosslyn Castle and Chapel,(near Edinburgh) the principal seat of the St.Clair family, became the centre of the Order in Scotland. Researchers believe that the Templars, hounded and persecuted in Europe, could have provided the means and the money to finance an expedition to the New World and there is evidence that the Templars did find their way to America. At Newport in Rhode Island there is a round tower similar to fortified structures built by the Templars all over Europe. The architecture and geometry of the building, believed to date from the 14th Century, is sacred, very like church architecture found in Orkney, and its measurements are in old Scots units.

But why was nothing more heard of the expedition until centuries later? Henry Sinclair died two years after his return to Orkney in 1400, defending his earldom against an English attack during Henry IV's invasion of Scotland. Was this an accidental or a deliberate act by the English king to put down the Templars' enterprise?

Niven Sinclair, whose family comes from Dunbeath has donated 200,000 to the Orcadian Trust to prove and publicise the Sinclair Expedition to the New World. Andrew Sinclair, the historian, has been working an the project and four half-hour programmes on the expedition and the Templar connection have been made for television during the coming season.

It will be interesting to see what further evidence is produced.

1 THE HIGHLAND CLANS by Sir Ian Moncreiff, 2nd edition, 1982 ISBN 0091447408

Published in 1992 Bulletin