FOR more than 400 hundred years her crew's achievement was forgotten by history, their adventures swallowed up by the mists of time.

And but for a chance discovery by an researcher combing through a city's archives, the exploits of the man who sailed aboard the good ship William would have likely remained unknown forever.

But now the vessel has been identified as the first Scottish ship to cross the Atlantic to North America, bearing a crew of hardy Caledonian traders to the New World.

Until now, the earliest documented Scottish ship to make the trip was a Dundee-built vessel named the “Gift of God”, which sailed from Portugal in 1600.

However, Thomas Brochard, an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Aberdeen, uncovered evidence that the William had already made the trip four years previously while he was reading a late sixteenth century Council Register.

The Herald:

The Aberdeen archives 

In among the spidery script of the centuries-old handwritten ledger, he noticed an entry relating to the “William” of Aberdeen having made a voyage to “the new fund land” (Newfoundland) in 1596.

And as well as the ship's name, he uncovered a wealth of information of the men who owned her and those who sailed on her four-year voyage across the Atlantic.

Mr Brochard said: “I was trawling through the records when my eyes chanced upon the words ‘new fund land’. This turned out to be an astonishing discovery.

"I’m sure other gems like this are waiting to be discovered in the burgh records which are an incredibly rich resource for historians and fully deserve their UNESCO designation as nationally important documentary heritage.”

The entry in which the ship is mentioned as having crossed the Atlantic relates primarily to debts incurred by Patrick Donaldson, a burgess of the town, and his fellow burgess William Findlay, the master and skipper of the “William”.

The records reveal that both Patrick and William were involved in the fitting-out and freighting of the vessel between it leaving Aberdeen in July 1596, and its return in 1600.

The other partners and owners in the Newfoundland venture are given as Archibald Smith and burgess Alexander Kempt, while a Colin Campbell is noted as being on board the vessel, as was a carpenter by the name of John.

The Herald:

Artist's impression of The Gift of God, previously thought to be the first Scottish ship to cross the Atlantic to the New World. Pic: Wikicommons 

In 1596, when the “William” made her long westward voyage, Scottish interests in North America were still very much in their infancy. The tentative trading contacts of the ship would have been making helped develop the settlements which became home to many in the Scottish diaspora during the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Phil Astley, City Archivist, said: “Quirky and unusual stories quite often come to light when reading through original records – it’s part of the fun of working in an archive, however, it’s rare to have a find as historically significant as that made by Thomas.

"It is even more remarkable that we know the names of several crew members.”

The precise nature of the cargo on the outward voyage is not known although from later entries in the same volume it becomes clear that the “William” returned to Aberdeen from North America via the port of Aveiro in Portugal where it picked up a cargo of salt, most probably destined to be used for preserving fish and meat.

Remarkably, several of the Portugal to Aberdeen crew are also named: John Barclay, Alexander Currie, David Morton, David Easton, William Brown, Robert Fleming, Paul Fraser, William Young, and John Dow.

It is possible that some may have been crew members on the Newfoundland voyage. They had paid money to Patrick Donaldson, one of the owners and the ship’s clerk, to buy their share of the ship’s cargo of salt.

On arrival in Aberdeen the owners refused to pay the crew their whole share as the cargo was spoiled due to a leak in the ship’s hold. The dispute then came before the Burgh Court and was recorded in the Council Register.

After the, the ship's fate and that of its crew become obscure once more as it drops out of the record.

The Herald:

Aberdeen remains a busy port today

Lord Provost of Aberdeen, Barney Crockett, said the discovery cemented the city's place in Scotland's maritime history.

He said: “Aberdeen is a proud maritime city, and this is a hugely important historical find. It clearly demonstrates that Aberdeen was at the forefront of Scottish trade to the New World as far back as the 16th century.

“Our archives are recognised as being of outstanding historic importance to the UK, and we are extremely fortunate that our city’s forefathers had the good sense to keep these records safe for future generations to learn from and enjoy.”