HMS Dartmouth

Anchor on Dartmouth site

Anchor on Dartmouth site

Divers visiting Historic Wreck Site

Divers visiting Historic Wreck Site

The Dartmouth lies in shallow water just of the coast of the small island of Eilean Rubha an Ridire, which is a good haul out for seals. The wreck itself is usually obscured by kelp forest, but several of the original guns remain on the site to be rediscovered.

HMS Dartmouth was a Fifth Rate Royal Naval frigate lost in 1690. She was subject to extensive archaeological survey in the 1970’s under the direction of Colin Martin of the University of St Andrews.

Up until November 2013 the site was designated under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973. Designation of the wreck has now changed and now anyone interested in diving the Dartmouth is free to do so without the need for a visitors license. Historic Scotland still request divers refrain from disturbing the site in any way, including removing mementos and maintaining good buoyancy.

The HMS Dartmouth was built in 1655 in Portsmouth. The frigate was built for the British Royal Navy as a light and manoeuvrable warship, based on the Dutch and Danish designs at the time. Rated at 240 tons, she had a keel length of 80 ft, a beam of 25 ft, and carried up to 32 cast-iron guns. After a long career which included service in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean she was involved in naval operations following the accession of William and Mary in 1688. In 1689 Dartmouth participated in the Battle of Bantry Bay and was a major player in the relief of Londonderry. The following year she was engaged in anti-Jacobite operations off the west coast of Scotland, based at Greenock and Carrickfergus. While preparing to attack the Macleans of Duart on Mull she was struck by a violent storm on 9 October 1690 and wrecked.

In October 1690, Dartmouth, under the command of Captain Edward Pottinger and in company with two smaller ships, entered the Sound of Mull in order to persuade, by force if need be, the Jacobite MacLean of Duart to sign Articles of Allegiance to William and Mary. This small squadron had been based at Greenock since March with the object of demonstrating the authority of the new regime on the west coast of Scotland, and of supporting government land forces operating there. These extended patrol duties had placed a heavy strain on the serviceability of the ships and their equipment, and on 2nd December Captain Pottinger, writing from the Ardgour Channel at the head of Loch Linnhe, noted ‘our best bower cable, with often anchoring . . . is so extremely worn as not to be trusted’ (PRO ADM 106/399). As the ships sailed down the Sound from the north-west bad weather threatened, and a precautionary anchorage was made in Scallastle Bay, some five miles short of Duart. At 6pm on 9th October a violent storm parted Dartmouth from her anchors and drove the ship across the Sound to strike a rocky islet and become a total loss. Of the 130 or so on board only six survived.

There are many stories surrounding the Dartmouth and her sinking, one of which  attributes the loss of the ship to Jacobite-inspired witchcraft. It was said witches tied a rope through the centre of a heavy millstone, then used the rope to pull the millstone over a rafter, so causing the warship anchored in the bay to capsize and sink. The analogy of the toppling millstone and the capsizing ship is particularly vivid in the story, and stress is laid on the considerable effort needed by the witches to pull the heavy and awkwardly balanced stone over the rafter. Several times it almost came over but fell back, and several times the ship heeled critically in the gale but then righted herself. It seems likely that this precise and graphic description of the vessel’s behaviour in the storm derives from an eye witness account of what actually happened.

The north-western face of Eilean Rubha an Ridire has collected at least two wrecks subsequent to that of the Dartmouth. The most recent, that of the coaster Ballista which was lost in 1973, overlies the remains of a coal- carrying vessel of the 1940s. Fortunately the Dartmouth site is not overly polluted with material from the modern wrecks because of a rock spur which separates them from it. Though a steady tidal stream runs across the northern side of the islet from north-east to south-west, the site itself is largely free from currents and is reasonably well protected from heavy seas. The wreck lies at the foot of a sloping rock face hard against the side of the island. At the shoreward end wreckage is contained within a wedge-shaped gully only 8 to 10 ft (2.44 to 3.05 m) deep at low water springs, and one gun lies close to the apex of this gully at an even shallower depth. Another gun lies partly up-ended in a rock cleft nearby, while three more are noted close to the base of the northern rock face. Excavation of the shoreward end of the wreckage has yielded a group of artefacts clearly associated with the after end of the ship. These include navigational and surgical instruments, a sea-service flintlock pistol, balance weights, and fine pewter and ceramic tableware. The artefactual evidence thus supports the traditional account that the ship struck stern first, and this is further confirmed by complementary evidence from the other end of the site, discussed below. The main spread of coherent structure begins where the mouth of the gully starts to widen out, and slopes gradually seawards, following the rock base for some 40 ft (12.19 m) until it reaches a depth of 17 ft (5.18 m). About 18 ft (5.49 m) of the keel survives at the inshore end.

Link to more information: How to visit this site

Moir and Crawford 1997, 162-3
Fenwick and Gale Historic Shipwrecks, 1998, 110-1