Finding The Utrecht

A marine archaeology project led by Kevin Heath of Sula Diving and funded by Orkney Island Council. Research completed by Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA).

Even now the weather in Orkney can cause difficulties for modern ships. With all our sophisticated navigation equipment and ships, vast seas and gale force winds can combine to close down the islands to all communications. Just imagine trying to sail around our beautiful, but treacherous islands while at war – in a small wooden ship – without local knowledge and without weather forecasts. Then imagine heading into mountainous seas with just your skill as a seaman to keep you from smashing against the rocks. That was the reality facing the warship Utrecht in the winter of 1807.

Built in Rotterdam, the Utrecht was part of the Dutch Navy. On 15th February 1807 the 38 gun warship was on it`s first voyage and was one of three frigates that were sailing to Curacao to reinforce the Dutch garrison stationed there against the British. The vessel was driven off course in a blizzard and was stranded off the North coast of Sanday with a recorded loss of 50 – 100 men. The remaining crew and soldiers came ashore and were stripped of their valuables by the islanders. A detachment of soldiers proceeded to Sanday where they found the survivors “in great distress… objects of pity rather than fear… [who]… had delivered themselves to the authorities in Orkney”. The survivors were brought to Kirkwall where they were briefly imprisoned at a makeshift prisoner of war camp at Gaitnip. They were subsequently taken to Leith where some of them joined the Royal Navy. The remaining survivors were returned home to Holland.

The project aims to build on previous work that located and conducted a preliminary assessment of the remains of the Dutch Frigate Utrecht, which was stranded off the Holmes of Ire, Sanday in 1807.

The remains of the Utrecht represent a unique resource in Orkney waters. The Utrecht is the only vessel of its type known to have sunk in Orkney waters – the closest equivalent being the remains of The Svecia off North Ronaldsay.

The second phase of this project recorded and planned the extent of the site and its artefacts. This would provide an invaluable baseline by which to monitor the wreck site, deterring high risk activities such as the site being plundered before protection measures are instigated. Recording the remains of the vessel through completion of this project contributes to local and national heritage management strategies e.g. Historic Scotland’s Strategy for the protection, management and promotion of marine heritage 2012 – 15, and the Scottish Historic Environment Policy. This project also carried out side scan and magnetometer surveys in order to define the extent of the wreck site. The archaeological dive team carried out site analysis; producing an archaeological record, wreck site and artefact distribution plan.

An illustrated report will be produced and lodged with the relevant local and national bodies. The initial display at the Sanday Heritage Centre will also be added to, using data from the project to highlight the story of The Utrecht.

A 3D model using photogrammetric software will be created of the wreck site elements; this will raise the profile of the wrecksite and will provide an interactive tool to encourage diver tourism in the Outer Islands.

Although the story of the shipwreck has been recorded in local archive sources and regional shipwreck anthologies, the location of the remains and associated artefacts were unknown until discovery during the initial phase of this project. There are several conflicting reports about the size of the vessel, the numbers of crew and passengers and the number of people who lost their lives as a result of this stranding – conflicts that will only be resolved by more detailed desk-based assessment and further investigation of the wreck site.

Click through to video of the cannon discovered in situ.

Thanks to :

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