Henry Sinclair

Henry Sinclair



Christopher Columbus - not unlike a La Liga defender - late and brutal

Every schoolboy and girl will tell you -
Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492.

Christopher Columbus - not unlike a La Liga defender - late and brutal

Which is pretty much conclusive proof, if such were needed, that schoolchildren today know absolutely bugger-all.

Because it wasn’t Columbus at all – it was Henry Sinclair. Oh yes it bloody well was.

Who he?

Henry Sinclair was born in Rosslyn (now Roslin) Castle, Midlothian, and became Baron of Rosslyn at the age of 13 after the death of his father, Sir William.

In 1378, at the age of 33, he was offered the Earldom of Orkney by King Hakkon of Norway, who ruled the outer isles at this time.

Sounds awfy generous but in actual fact Hakkon was fed up trying to control the troublesome islanders and was glad to pass the task on to his Scottish pal in return for a token “rent”.

In order to police his new fiefdom, Sinclair built Kirkwall Castle and, using imported wood from his Rosslyn barony, an impressive battle fleet of 13 vessels.

Having tamed the Orkneys, Sinclair turned his attention to subduing the unruly Shetland Islands (let’s face it, there was bugger all else to do in Orkney in those days.) and around 1390 his fleet set sail for what amounted to a full-scale invasion.

Around this time, two momentous occurrences took place which would change Henry Sinclair’s life. The first was a shipwreck of a Venetian vessel captained by one Nicolo Zeno, with his brother Antonio, who had been exploring the area.

An old boat

An old boat

Sinclair saved the Zeno brothers and their crew from the marauding Shetlanders who deemed any shipwreck or grounded vessel thrown up on their shores as theirs by right, and invited the grateful Italians to join him. Their nautical expertise (one little shipwreck notwithstanding) would prove invaluable in the events that were soon to transpire.

The second occurrence was the sudden appearance in the Orkneys of a fisherman who had been missing for over twenty years, and who claimed to have sailed clear across the Atlantic, having been driven West by heavy storms.

The fisherman’s tales of a great land over the sea, where the natives had “insisted” he and his colleagues stay before eventually being released, impressed Sinclair greatly and he resolved to see these fantastic new lands for himself.

He and Antonio Zeno set sail for what they called the “New World” (this was the first time this now famous term was used) and after a brief stop in what seems likely to have been Newfoundland, they continued west to “a fertile land, mild and pleasant beyond description”.

Based on the reports of Antonio Zeno and Sinclair himself, and after gathering a mass of relevant geographical, social and geological data, the historical writer Fredrick J. Pohl came to the undeniable conclusion that Henry Sinclair had landed in Nova Scotia.

Sinclair had discovered the continent of North America.

Where’s the evidence?

Well, here’s some.

The Micmac tribe of Nova Scotia have legends which speak of a king with three daughters (Sinclair had three daughters) who came from an island far across the sea, landed with many soldiers, stayed for a year and left again. Sinclair’s timeframe in Nova Scotia was almost exactly one year.

Henry SInclair The text on this stone in Westford, Mass.

The text on this stone in Westford, Massachusetts. reads:

Prince Henry First Sinclair of Orkney Born
in Scotland made a voyage of discovery to

North America in 1398. After wintering in
Nova Scotia, he sailed to Massachusetts
and on an inland expedition in 1399 to
Prospect Hill to view the surrounding
countryside, one of the party died. The
punch-hole armorial effigy, which adorns
this ledge is a memorial to this knight.

While waiting for good winds to take him home, Sinclair sailed south west along what, if he did indeed set out from Nova Scotia, would be the coast of New England. On one of his last trips ashore, one of his knights died, and it would appear that his demise did not go unmarked.

In a place called Westford, Massachusetts, there is a rock with a strange motif on it, made by punching holes on the rock’s surface. These markings have been dated at several centuries old and the image itself shows an armoured head, a shield and a 14th century sword and pommel. The heraldic emblems on the shield have been positively identified as those of the Gunn clan, one of the tribes of Northern Scotland and vassals of the Sinclairs.

Further evidence was uncovered in 1849 when a cannon was dredged from the harbour of Louisberg on Cape Breton Island. It was identified as being a naval cannon of late 14th century Venetian design. Exactly the kind of cannon employed by the Zeno brothers and then recquisitioned by Henry Sinclair for their joint venture.

Sinclair returned to Orkney in 1399, full of himself and full of the stories about his adventures, which were handed down through the generations.

So why, you might well ask, did Henry never return to this amazing New World?

If it was that amazing, surely he must have planned to go back?

The answer is simple. It was all the fault of those bloody English. In 1400, the year after his homecoming, Henry IV of England raided Scotland and from his base in Edinburgh attacked Orkney. Despite being heavily outnumbered, Sinclair left the protection of Kirkwall Castle to launch an attack on the English raiders and was promptly killed in battle. There would be no return trip.

But what of the surviving Zeno brothers? Ironically, for such apparently accomplished seafarers, they appear to have underestimated their achievement and made the mistake of thinking that Sinclair’s “New World” could only be reached from the Mediterranean by the long and torturous route via Scotland, Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland.

Apprentice Pillar in Rosslyn Chapel with maize carvings

Apprentice Pillar in Rosslyn Chapel with maize carvings

In their estimation, it simply wasn’t worth the effort. If only they’d realised it was possible to just go straight across, how different history might be.

In 1444 Sinclair’s grandson William built a beautiful chapel at Rosslyn which stands to this day.

Inside are original carvings of what can only be described as cactus and maize, uniquely American vegetation the like of which had never been seen in pre-Columbus Europe.

The question is, how on earth could William Sinclair possibly have known about American botany nearly 50 years before Columbus discovered America?

Unless, of course, grandpa Hank got there first.

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