The Gran Grifon was Spanish wooden sailing ship weighing around 650 tons. As Captain Burgat Quequerman set sail with his cargo of timber from his home port of Rostock in Northern Germany he could not possibly have imagined what fate held in store for him, his ship and its crew. In the autumn of 1587 he sailed into the port of San Lucar in the Spanish province of Cadiz and into the preparations for the Spanish king’s invasion of England. Many months earlier, in December 1586, King Philip had authorised the requisitioning of all large ships which put into Spanish ports and so, like many other neutral ships of the time, the Gran Grifon was unceremoniously taken over by the Spanish – requisitioned as a supply hulk to carry stores for the vast armada. She was then moved to the Portuguese port of Lisbon but was to remain there for close to a year as the preparations of the huge Spanish fleet proceeded. The Gran Grifon was made flagship of the Armada’s fleet of twenty three urcas (supply hulks) and, as such, the squadron commander, Don Juan Gomez de Medina, came aboard shortly before the fleet set sail for England in the summer of 1588. Her normal defensive armament had been supplemented by eight newly forged bronze cannon – four demiculverins and four demisakers. In addition to her normal crew of 43 the Gran Grifon had 243 troops crammed aboard – invasion troops for the planned landing in England. The cumbersome ship was not a fighting ship and was not therefore expected to take part in the direct confrontation between the two great fleets. However, as the week long running battle unfolded, she did become involved. She lost her place in the protected centre of the fleet and, as day dawned on 3rd August, Medina found himself detached and straggling on the fleet’s exposed right wing. Several English ships, including one described in contemporary reports as the flagship and therefore possibly with Sir Francis Drake himself aboard, swooped down on the lumbering supply hulk and made three passes along the sides and stern of the Gran Grifon. She sustained seventy hits to her hull and seventy men were killed or wounded. The ship was left seriously damaged and partially disabled. However, before the English ships could finish her off, a number of Spanish vessels arrived on the scene and succeeded in driving off her attackers and towing the wallowing ship back in to the heart of the fleet. As the battle drew to a close, like many of his defeated colleagues, Gomez de Medina was now faced with the long and hazardous voyage round the north of Scotland to make good their escape and return to Spain.
As the bedraggled fleet sailed north the Gran Grifon managed to keep apace but, as the fleet turned west round the north of Scotland, she began to fall behind. The terrible cramped conditions on board were worsened as strong headwinds hampered the ship’s slow progress. Gradually, as they turned south to sail down the Scottish west coast, four ships, the 600 tons Barca de Amburg, the 740 tons Castillo Negro and the 1100 tons La Trinidad Valencera, became detached from the main fleet. On 1st September, after twelve days of endless tacking into the teeth of a non stop south west headwind, the Barca De Amburg, her seems sprung and her pumps choked, signalled that she was foundering. The 250 men aboard were transferred to the Trinidad Valencera and the Gran Grifon. Three nights later the three remaining ships lost each other. The Castillo Negro was never heard of again and the Trinidad Valencera was wrecked two weeks later in Kinnagoe Bay, Donegal.
The Gran Grifon was left alone and exposed in the open ocean somewhere west of Islay. On 7th September a violent storm swept in from the Atlantic and huge waves pounded the already fragile vessel. Medina had no choice but to run before the gale. For three days they were swept north, at one point sighting St Kilda, before the wind turned to the north east pushing them south until they were off the west coast of Ireland. The ship, by now, was in a sinking condition and, if the weather had not moderated, allowing much needed repairs to her hull and seams to be carried out, she would inevitably have foundered. The hopes of the miserable men aboard the ship began to rise as they continued their slow progress south but, on 23rd September, they were again dashed as another south west storm rose up and they were again driven north towards Scotland. They swept past the islands of the Hebrides and round Cape Wrath towards the Orkneys. The exhausted men on board had lost all hope and with each passing hour expected to be dashed on the rocks of the many small islands that were now appearing in all directions around them. Miraculously they missed them all and continued their drift north until Fair Isle appeared dead ahead of them. By this time conditions aboard had become unbearable and the ship itself was barely afloat.
Medina was left with no alternative. He decided to run her ashore. It would appear that they had little control over the ship as the place chosen to run her ashore was far from ideal for the purpose. The location was Stroms Hellier – the name, derived from Norse means cave of the tide race – in a cliff bound inlet called Swatrz Geo. However, thankfully, as the ship crashed onto the rocks on 28th September, she held fast and the men scrambled ashore up the masts which were lying against the cliffs. Amazingly none of the crew were lost as they left the ship. From the recent finds made underwater – or the lack of them to be more precise – it seems likely that the ship remained afloat for some time and that most of the stores were removed by either the crew or the local population. Contemporary reports certainly indicate that Medina managed to remove the valuables he had aboard. Life for the residents of Fair Isle was hard and, although they made the crew and the troops reasonably welcome on the island and Medina was able to pay for any provisions required, they were not able to provide sufficient additional food, clothing and shelter for their guests to avoid many of the foreigners succumbing to the harshness of the conditions. Fifty men, including Captain Quequerman were to die before they were able to evacuate to the mainland and eventually find ships to return to Spain. The site of their mass burial was exposed by sea erosion in the early twentieth century near the south tip of the island – a place still known as “the Spinnairts’ graves.”
The first record of diving on the site shows that Jacob Rowe and William Evans found the wreck in 1728 and succeeded in removing two bronze guns. However, after a fatal accident at the site they abandoned the Gran Grifon and she was lost until rediscovered by Colin Martin and Syd Wignall in 1970. After three days of fruitless searching in the area Colin Martin dropped over the side of their Gemini inflatable and finned down into the southern gully of Stroms Hellier. Fifty feet down he spotted the unmistakable green of a bronze cannon protruding from the shingle seabed. Close by he spotted three more iron cannon almost buried in the seabed. They dived on the site for three months that summer and, using an airlift, removed a large quantity of shingle from the site. Although interesting from the archaeological and historical viewpoint the site actually provided relatively few artefacts.