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Titanic mystery on Dunnet Beach - at a stretch


By David G Scott


FILTHY bundles of latex that have washed up on the Caithness shore may have come from the historic ocean liner the Titanic, according to a Cornish-based conservationist.

This dirty looking bundle on Dunnet Beach has a strange story to tell.
This dirty looking bundle on Dunnet Beach has a strange story to tell.

Steve Trewhella has published a guide to beach combing and when shown photographs of the mystery bales lying on Dunnet Beach declared it was “gutta-percha” – a dense form of latex similar to rubber and used extensively in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for a myriad of domestic and industrial purposes.

“Your photos show they’re the same as the bales we find down here,” he said.

“People sometimes think they’re bales of drugs or there are chemicals wrapped up inside them but they’re just sheets of this gutta-percha that have probably come to the surface from a shipwreck.”

Steve Trewhella has written a book on beachcombing and has discovered ingots of gutta percha on the south coast of England.
Steve Trewhella has written a book on beachcombing and has discovered ingots of gutta percha on the south coast of England.

Two of the bundles are lying near the top of the shoreline close to the Seadrift Visitor centre and have rusty and oily marks signifying they may have escaped from a rusting hulk’s cargo hold.

“It was hugely popular around a century ago and there is evidence from the existing logs that the Titanic was carrying gutta-percha when she sank in 1912.

The Titanic was carrying gutta-percha when she sank in 1912
The Titanic was carrying gutta-percha when she sank in 1912

“It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that the bales could have come from that ship. We get a lot of debris floating over to the UK from the Newfoundland coast which pass over the wreck site.”

Steve stressed that though gutta-percha is a natural substance and biodegradable “it was worrying from an ecological standpoint” that the material was in a relatively good condition.

Gutta-percha latex comes from the sap of a tropical tree of the same name and one of its uses was as an insulator for underwater telegraph cables – the remains of one can still be seen on Reiss Beach.

Conservationists such as Steve have been finding gutta-percha bales and solid ingots of the substance stamped with the name of the Indonesian plantations they originated from. “If you were to rip open that bale you photographed I’m pretty sure you’ll find the name of the plantation it came from stamped on the sheets,” he said.

Much of the gutta percha originated from plantations like this one in Indonesia.
Much of the gutta percha originated from plantations like this one in Indonesia.
“These bales and ingots have been appearing all over northern Europe over the last few years. Some are in such fine condition that they could have come from a ship that had just sunk.”

Similar bundles have been seen around the Keiss and Papigoe coastlines by locals such as Chris Aitken, Dan Mackay and George Campbell.

Mr Campbell talked of “big bundles of rubber that came ashore after storms in the 50s and 60s” and how he often saw them on the beaches.

Dan says that he had also seen such bundles around the same time and believes they came from a boat that went aground at Duncansby.

“I remember calling the coastguard out to Papigoe when similar bundles got washed up. We thought it was gonna be a drugs bust,” he recalled.

Similar bundles have turned up around Europe's coastline such as this one found on a Portuguese Beach recently.
Similar bundles have turned up around Europe's coastline such as this one found on a Portuguese Beach recently.

Before modern plastic began to be widely used, gutta-percha was also made into such items as golf balls, teddy bear noses, picture frames and jewellery.

The situation almost turned into an ecological disaster with gutta-percha being harvested to the point that the trees were almost completely wiped out mainly to provide insulation for the
transatlantic cable telegraph system.

The core of the Reiss Beach cable, if carefully analysed, is surrounded by gutta-percha and with a length of 122 nautical miles it needed tons of latex to cover the distance to Shetland. However, with the advent of new materials such as Bakelite in the early 20th century and then with other plastics being produced it’s use waned and the tree numbers rose again.

It is now mainly used in dentistry for root canal treatment and the gutta-percha trees are no longer endangered.

Steve said: “Considering these bales are at least 100 years old and when you see the relatively good condition they’re in, it doesn’t bode well for all the plastic that currently pollutes our seas.”

Steve has written a book with his wife Julie Hatcher called The Essential Guide to Beachcombing which is available on Amazon.



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