Launched in 1722 the Dutch East India ship Adelaar measured 44m x 11m x 4.7m and weighed 810 bm. She carried a heavy defensive armament of 36 muzzle loading guns, 8 breech loading guns.
She was registered in Middleburg in Zeeland, Holland. Between 1722 and 1727 the Adelaar (Dutch word for Eagle) made two successful rounds trips from Holland to Batavia and in early 1728 preparations were made for a third voyage under a new skipper, William de Keyser. She left her home port of Middelburg on 21st March, manned by a crew of 220 men and with a cargo of specie, mainly in the form of silver ingots and coins, for the purchase of her return lading of spices, tea and porcelain. Her route took her around the north of the British Isles and on 4th April, in severe weather, she struck an exposed headland of the island of Barra which she had evidently been trying to weather. There were no survivors.
A remarkable salvage operation to recover the treasure was set in train by Alexander MacKenzie an official of the Scottish Court of the Admiralty in Edinburgh, who used his family connections to engage the services of Captain Jacob Rowe, a diving pioneer with a patented diving engine. This machine, in effect a closed wooden cylinder with sealed sleeves through which the divers arms protruded, could be used (albeit with great discomfort) at depths of up to 18m. The Adelaar lay in less than half that depth. Almost all of the specie was recovered and brought to Edinburgh where subsequent litigation over its division has left a wealth of documentary information about the Adelaar, the circumstances of her wrecking and the saga of the salvage operation.
Information derived from the documentation together with a surviving local tradition about the wreck led to its discovery in 1972. Two years of investigative work under the direction of Colin Martin revealed that a combination of the sites extreme exposure and the thoroughness of the 18th century salvage had scrambled degraded and dispersed much of the archaeological evidence but some valuable finds were still made. The configuration and deposit of the wreckage allowed the diving team to deduce the probable sequence of events that occurred when the ship was wrecked.
They suggested that the ship must have approached the area from the north east in a strong north north west gale and struck the reef bows first tearing her bottom and releasing most of the ballast of bricks and lead ingots stored below. With the loss of this weight the ship was probably then swept over the reef and pinioned parallel to the shore with the bow facing east in the narrow gully inshore of the reef. The ship then quickly broke up depositing the guns, remainder of the ballast and most of the crew in the gully between the rocks and the shore. The bodies of the crew were washed ashore all over Barra and beyond.
The wreck site lies near Greian Head, on the west coast of Barra on a reef known locally as Maolach Sgier (Cursed Reef). The reef complex comprises three rocks which break the surface about 100 metres from the north side of Greian Head. The majority of the wreckage remaining after excavation lies on the landward side of the reef in approximate position 57° 00.851’N, 007° 31.330’W.