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Did a 14th century Caithness knight visit America?


By David G Scott

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The latest edition of a book about a controversial stone carving in Massachusetts that may record the travels of a medieval knight with Caithness connections, has just been published.

The Westford Knight and Henry Sinclair: Evidence of a 14th Century Scottish Voyage to North America is an updated version of the same title written by David Goudsward in 2010.

The intriguing subject matter concerns what some believe to be the effigy of a 14th century knight – evidence of an early European visit to the New World by Henry Sinclair, the Earl of Orkney and Lord of Roslin.

In 1954, an archaeologist encountered the carving – long known to locals in Westford, Massachusetts and ascribed a variety of origin stories – and proposed it to be a remnant of the Sinclair expedition. The story of the Westford Knight is a mix of history, archaeology, sociology, and Knights Templar lore.

Westord Knight book cover
Westord Knight book cover

The author says that although Midlothian and Rosslyn Chapel are extensively cited in the text there are Caithness connections throughout.

Mr Goudsward said: "Caithness is mentioned in a number of places, starting with Sir Iain Moncreiffe, the Unicorn Pursuivant of Arms, who identified the emblems on the Westford Knight’s shield as the arms of the chief of the Clan Gunn, whose territory bordered the Sinclair lands in 14th century Caithness.

"This means the Westford effigy is of a fallen Clan Gunn chief, so I devote a chapter to the Gunn chieftain lineages to determine which one is represented by the Westford Knight."

Iain Gunn of Banniskirk is the current Clan Chief – the first since 1785 – and resides near Lybster with his wife Bunty. At the Clan Gunn Heritage Centre in Latheron there is a facsimile of the Westford Knight carving that was created through a rubbing of the stone by Marianna Lines, an American artist who specialises in making brass and other rubbings of ancient engravings.

Bunty Gunn, a Lybster Primary pupil, Merran Gunn and clan chief Iain Gunn at the Clan Gunn Centre in Latheron in 2008. A rubbing taken of the Westford Knight carving is behind the group.Picture: DGS
Bunty Gunn, a Lybster Primary pupil, Merran Gunn and clan chief Iain Gunn at the Clan Gunn Centre in Latheron in 2008. A rubbing taken of the Westford Knight carving is behind the group.Picture: DGS

Mr Gunn said: "The Clan Gunn Heritage Trust is glad to display the image of the Westford Knight. It is reputed to be that of Sir James Gunn, Chief of Clan Gunn at the end of the 14th century, who accompanied Henry Sinclair, Earl of Orkney on his expedition to the New World in 1398 – over 90 years before Columbus discovered America.

"The image of the engraving on the rock face in the small town of Westford, Massachusetts has been lent to the Clan Gunn Centre by the Earl of Caithness. It is thought that the image records the death of Sir James during the expedition. The site has recently been restored and preserved by the local community."

Head of the Clan Gunn, Iain Gunn of Banniskirk, has visited the site of the alleged carving of a medieval knight in Westford, Massachusetts. Pictures: DGS
Head of the Clan Gunn, Iain Gunn of Banniskirk, has visited the site of the alleged carving of a medieval knight in Westford, Massachusetts. Pictures: DGS

Mr Gunn said he has visited the site of the carving twice along with his wife. "It is difficult to be certain but clearly possible and there is quite a lot of Viking memorabilia in Nova Scotia and New England," he said.

Rich Gunn, the clan's high commissioner for North America, unveiled a bronze effigy statue of the knight, with a representative of Clan Sinclair in 2015. It was made by local sculptor and fireman David Christiana.

Mr Goudsward said: "Henry Sinclair, the expedition leader, was the Jarl of the Orkneys and controlled the ancestral Sinclair Barony of Roslin which included the Caithness lands.

"I theorize that, assuming the Sinclair expedition did reach North America, he did not announce the discovery because the export of dried cod from Orkney and Caithness was a major revenue source and Sinclair had found the Grand Banks. There are documented trips to Newfoundland in the 1590s, less than 200 years after the Sinclair trip."

The author also points out there is a "Caithness Tomb" in Rosslyn Chapel that was erected in memory of the 4th Earl, the great-grandson of the chapel’s founder William Sinclair (1410–1484) who was the 1st Earl of Caithness and the third and last Earl (Jarl) of Orkney.

The chapel became world famous after featuring at the centre of a conspiracy theory in Dan Brown's book The Da Vinci Code and some believe the Holy Grail to be hidden within it.

A pupil from Lybster Primary School looks at the towering figure of the Westford Knight at a special open day event in 2008.Picture: DGS
A pupil from Lybster Primary School looks at the towering figure of the Westford Knight at a special open day event in 2008.Picture: DGS

"William, who built the chapel in 1446, was Jarl Henry’s grandson, so the tomb is five to six generations removed from my main focus," said Mr Goudsward.

His book unravels the threads of the knight’s history, separating fact from fantasy. This revised edition, published by McFarland, includes a new foreword and four new chapters which add context to the myth-building that has surrounded the Westford Knight and artefacts like it.

David Goudsward is the author of numerous articles and publications on genealogy and New England megalithic sites. He is a frequent lecturer on genealogical and historical topics. He lives in Lake Worth, Florida.

The Westford Knight and Henry Sinclair is 315 pages long, contains 37 photos and can be ordered with free shipping from Eurospan bookstore at www.eurospanbookstore.com/the-westford-knight-and-henry-sinclair-294505.html

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