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Spanish Armada arrives in Anstruther

On 26 November 1588 a strange ship arrived in the harbour at Anstruther. On board the damaged vessel were over 200 men – remnants of the crew and marines from the Spanish Armada supply ship El Gran Grifón, which was wrecked off Fair Isle two months earlier. The ships of the Spanish Armada – defeated by a combination of more accomplished English seamanship, inexperienced Spanish command and adverse weather conditions – reached the Northern Isles as they retreated through the North Sea in an attempt to circumnavigate the British Isles and return to Spain. Those onboard El Gran Grifón were able to make it to land without loss of life, though some died before leaving the island. The vessel which found its way to Anstruther was a relief ship acquired by the Spaniards, probably en-route to the Netherlands, then under Spanish rule, repatriating the stranded crew from Fair Isle.

Spanish Armada

The arrival of the Spaniards in Anstruther is recorded in the diary of James Melville, at the time the local parish minister, who was approached by elders of the town for guidance on how to treat the unexpected visitors. He advised that, although the Spaniards onboard the vessel were Catholics, they should be treated with kindness and respect in order to demonstrate the humanity of the Protestant faith. It is recorded that the foreign arrivals were well treated and provided with “kale, pottage and fish”. Also, that the Spanish commander of the vessel demonstrated his gratitude for the reception received by presenting the ship’s chest, salvaged from the wreck of El Gran Grifón, to Melville. Subsequently, in a further gesture of thanks, the commander helped secure the release of a ship from Anstruther detained in the port of Calais. The remnants of the crew and marines of El Gran Grifón eventually returned to their homeland. Local tradition maintains, however, that some of the Spanish survivors remained behind in Anstruther.

There was also a Scottish element present in the origins of the Spanish Armada. The execution of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587 was a contributory factor in the decision of Catholic Spain of Phillip II to attempt an invasion of Protestant England of Elizabeth I.

Anstruther harbour today

More recently, in 1984, Anstruther received a delegation from Spain associated with the Spanish Marine Corps who also visited the Fair Isle in commemoration of the events of 1588.

Anstruther harbour in the late 16th century was very different from what it is today. It probably consisted of little more than the central pier which divides the two basins of the modern harbour.


Spanish Armada painting by Cornelis Claesz van Wieringen, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Anstruther harbour image © Richard Webb, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Geograph