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  • Writer's pictureMike Shepherd


Updated: Sep 19, 2022

A sixteenth-century ship, probably sent by King Philip of Spain six years after the Spanish Armada, lies wrecked offshore just north of the Aberdeenshire village of Collieston. Mystery surrounds this shipwreck because there are no documents from the sixteenth century to explain why it is there and where it had come from. Ten cannons are known to have been recovered from the wreck site, raising speculation that this is a ship which sailed with the Spanish Armada in 1588 (unlikely), or that it was a Spanish gun-runner intended to land cannons for the 1594 Catholic rebellion in the north of Scotland (probable).

This article summarises what is known about the shipwreck, and provides informed speculation about what may have happened.


First up, I explain why this is probably not a ship from the Spanish Armada. The aftermath of the failure of the Spanish Armada to invade England in 1588 saw the Spanish ships attempting to sail north around the British Isles to return to Spain. Many of these were shipwrecked, one on Fair Isle between Orkney and Shetland, and many more on the rocky coasts of Ireland (the little-known story of the survivors from the Fair Isle wreck is in my forthcoming book North Sea Heroes). Given the wind direction, it is believed that the Armada sailed up the North Sea closer to Norway than to the east coast of Scotland. Not only that, there is no record of any ship from the Armada having been lost on the Aberdeenshire coast.

St Catherine's Dub, Collieston

Part of the shipwreck lies in an inlet known as St Catherine’s Dub, raising speculation that the inlet is named after the ship wrecked there, the Saint Catherine, or Santa Caterina in Spanish. It is known that a ship by the name of the Santa Caterina sailed with the Armada, although it is also recorded that it returned home.

It is more likely that the Collieston ship was a gun-runner sent by King Philip of Spain in 1594 to provide arms for a Catholic rebellion in the North of Scotland. One of the leaders of the rebellion was Francis Hay, 9th Earl of Erroll, who lived in Slains Castle, located on a headland one mile to the north of the shipwreck. This is the first Slains Castle and not New Slains Castle, which is five miles to the north-east of the old castle.

The first part of this article provides the background to the Catholic rebellion. It uses information from the book I wrote with Dacre Stoker on the history of Slains Castle, Slains Castle’s Secret History.

When Scotland officially became a Protestant country following the Reformation in 1560, the rural areas including the North of Scotland remained predominantly Catholic. Rural Aberdeenshire was strongly pro-Catholic - a stance supported by George Gordon, Earl of Huntly, the most powerful baron in the area. He was joined later by Francis Hay, Earl of Erroll, in his efforts to overthrow the Reformation and to restore the Catholic faith as the national Church in Scotland.

What is not well known today is that the Earl of Huntly and his allies tried to persuade Philip II to invade Scotland as an alternative to the Spanish Armada. The big idea was that if the Spanish took over Scotland, they would be in a position to invade England from the north. Philip discussed the scheme with his advisors, but eventually rejected it in favour of the Armada.

When the Armada failed, Philip then became a lukewarm supporter of the plan to invade Scotland. But he insisted that it should follow a Catholic uprising in the country. Philip sent gold from Dunkirk on a ship that landed at Montrose in early 1594, which was used to hire horsemen for the Catholic army. The Pope sent gold in a ship from Calais to Aberdeen in July. The gold was intended as a bribe for King James VI to get him to openly declare tolerance for Catholics in Scotland.

The Aberdeenshire earls also needed arms, and sent a joint letter to Philip II on August 12, 1594, which survives today in the Spanish archives. The letter is summarised in the records as follows: ‘In very fervent terms they pray for prompt aid to uphold and establish their Catholic faith, and to extirpate the curse of heresy under which for so many years their country as laboured.’ Source – State Papers, ‘Simancas’.

It is plausible that the Collieston ship and the cannons on board it were sent in response to this request, and, if so, it would have been dispatched from France or the Spanish Netherlands.

The Catholic rebellion culminated in the Battle of Glenlivet in October 1594, fought against a government army comprising mainly Highlanders. Although the Catholic army won the battle, they lost many men, and this effectively put an end to their rebellion. The collapse of their cause saw the castles of both earls blown up under the supervision of King James VI, and the earls sent into exile abroad. Only two walls from the original Slains Castle survived the explosion.

Old Slains Castle

What is notable about the Battle of Glenlivet is that the earls employed cannons to good effect; probably the first time cannons were used in a battle in the North of Scotland. They started off on the road to Glenlivet with five cannons, abandoning two of them because they were almost impossible to transport along the rough tracks of the time. A dramatic first-hand account has been given of the firing of the three cannons eventually making it to the Battle of Glenlivet:

‘a little to the left hand of the left wing the Earle of Huntly had stelled his three pieces of artlillerie, which now, everything being ready, he commanded to play upon the enemy’s van. To the first, Sir Andrew, now Colonel Gray, knight, gave fyre, but did no knowen harme, only it made the van divide itself and make a lane the way as the bullet went, as if the nixt should have been obliged to which they pleased.

The second was fyred by [unclear] and killed bot a few, yet especially one Niel Mackuaren, who in a braving manner had advanced himselfe before the ranks, waving his sword about his unhappy head, now made less by the one halfe. He was one of the most redoubted amongst the Islanders, and in whom the rest (as herds of beasts used to do) had put such confidence, as they tooke his death as a thing ominous (for to this kind of superstition the Highlanders generally are all of men most addicted), and were seen to stagger and reel to and fro in great disorder. The third did no notable harme, only augmented the disorder so far, as almost the whole van for feare clapt downe upon their faces to the ground, nor could be raised on so far after the Lieutenant, that, in spyt of all commandment to the contrary, they joined with the van in great confusion.’

Shortly after, the front guard of the Catholic horsemen led by the Earl of Erroll charged to take advantage of the confusion caused by the firing of the cannons – cannons I suspect that were rescued from the shipwreck of the ‘Santa Caterina’ at Collieston. Otherwise, it is not known where the cannons used in the battle came from (and they had to come from somewhere).

It is possible that more than just cannons were rescued from the ship. The following is an excerpt from Slains Castle’s Secret History.

It is a family tradition amongst those with the surname of Phillips in Aberdeenshire that they are descendants of the men who came ashore from the wreck. It’s said that the survivors became known as Philip’s men after Philip II, the King of Spain, and the name stuck - Phillips. This is plausible. A small fishing village had grown up around old Slains Castle not far from the location of the wreck (it was abandoned in 1900). The 1881 census shows that out of the fourteen cottages in the village of ‘Old Castle’, ten were occupied by families with the surname Philip or Philips.


The first-known attempt to recover material from the wreck at St Catherine’s Dub was made by local coastguard Lieutenant Paterson in the summer of 1840. He recovered a cannon, its whereabouts now unknown. It was described as very much corroded, and a portion appeared to be broken off at the muzzle. Some reports mention that two cannons were found by the coastguard and that he sent a sketch of the guns to the Illustrated London News.

In 1855, the Reverend James Rust, Minister of Slains Parish Church, raised another cannon. For a while it was on prominent display outside his manse at Collieston. He then presented it to the Earl of Aberdeen who placed it at the front of Haddo House, where it can still be seen today.

The cannon at Haddo House raised from St Catherine's Dub

Two more cannons were raised in 1876 by a diving team employed by the Countess of Erroll, and were sent to Queen Victoria at Balmoral Castle. One of the guns was complete at five and a half feet in length, while the other is greatly corroded. An anchor was also recovered – it measures nine feet in length, ‘is broken a little from the neck, and one of the ends is much wasted.’ This survives today and is in possession of the current Earl of Erroll.

The cannons were later sent to the United Services Museum in Whitehall, London, where they were placed at the entrance to the building. The museum shut in 1962, and the exhibits dispersed to various museums up and down the country. I do not know where the cannons are now.

The largest cannon was raised in August 1880, and was placed on an embankment nearby, which overlooked Cransdale Point: ‘The gun was of malleable iron, was complete in every respect, and not even corroded. The extreme length of it was eight feet; from the muzzle to the touch-hole seven feet three inches; and the diameter of the bore was four inches. The ball and wadding – still there – took up the space of thirteen inches. From the guns being loaded it would appear that the Spanish crew were more prepared to battle with the enemy than with the elements.’ The cannon was later sold to a ‘gentleman in London’, the whereabouts of the cannon now unknown.

In 1881 two cannons from the wreck were recovered by John Bisset, a diver from Peterhead previously employed by the Countess of Erroll in 1876. ‘Both guns, one of which is about seven and a half feet long, and the other about four feet, with a bore of three inches, are of cast iron, but are very much corroded and destroyed by the sea. One of the sides of the smaller cannon is worn away, and the charge, consisting of round shot, is exposed to view. The guns, which were sticking very hard to the rocks at the bottom of the pool, were brought to the surface.’ The following year John Bisset offered the cannons for sale. The fate of these is unknown, although John Bisset is known to have donated a fragment from one of the cannons to Peterhead Museum in 1883.

In 1902, Bram Stoker published his novel The Mystery of the Sea, the plot of which centres on the search for ‘the Pope’s treasure’. in the aftermath of the Spanish Armada, it was hidden in a cave somewhere on the Aberdeenshire coast. The treasure was eventually discovered by the hero of the novel in a cave near the village of Whinnyfold, half way between the two Slains Castles. The plot was undoubtedly inspired by the Collieston shipwreck.

When the contents from New Slains Castle came up for sale in 1925, the inventory listed four Spanish cannons. The cannons had been sited on the seaward side of the front entrance of the castle. It is not known where these cannons came from. Two were sold. The current Earl of Erroll, descendant of the earl who sold the castle in 1916, owns two cannons, their provenance unknown. These are probably the two cannons that remained unsold at the Slains Castle auction.

In 1969, a team of Peterhead divers obtained a lease to investigate the wreck site from Aberdeenshire Council and the Crown Estate Commissioners. That summer they located the remains of the wreck underwater, returning the following three summers.

The first series of dives in 1969 recovered a cannon, a bilge pump, part of a small anchor, some chain links, and straps for hanging the rudder. While cleaning the cannon, a piece of woven fabric six by eight inches in dimensions was found adhering to the cannon. It was sent along with one of the chain links to the Committee for Nautical Archaeology in London. They reported back that the fabric was the same material used for sailors’ jackets at the time of the Armada, and that the chain link, which also came from the same period, was used to attach the rigging to the ship’s gunwales, to ensure that flashes from the cannons would not scorch the ropes. This confirmed the sixteenth-century age of the ship.

The divers having gained experience from the Collieston wreck now investigated the possibility that a similar ship had been wrecked near Boddam. In 1971 they discovered a chain and a bilge pump identical to those found at Collieston. This appears to be the site of a second Spanish shipwreck. The divers later discovered a huge anchor on the seabed at Boddam, which they retrieved, and for several years it was put on display outside Peterhead Museum (one newspaper report erroneously states that the anchor came from Collieston). The divers sent some rope that had been wound around the anchor together with photos of the anchor to the Committee for Nautical Archaeology, who confirmed that the anchor was Spanish and the rope was sixteenth century in origin.

The divers returned in 1972 to the Collieston site, and recovered a demi-culvern (a medium-sized cannon) loaded with grapeshot, a candlestick, iron spikes, and some cannon balls. A lead ballast weight measuring two feet by four inches, recovered from the Collieston site is listed by Aberdeenshire Museum Services.

Unauthorised diving is not allowed on the shipwreck.



The walls of the octagonal hall inside Slains Castle

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