FOR anyone who cares about Scottish history, the date December 18, 1660, is one that should live in infamy. It was 358 years ago on Tuesday that a great treasure trove of Scottish history disappeared forever under the cold waters of the North Sea. In one dreadful event, much of the written history of the Kingdom of Scotland over several centuries was destroyed.

Like conquerors everywhere around the world, two men who invaded and occupied Scotland took away our state records as a sign of this nation being subjugated. One was King Edward I of England and the other was Oliver Cromwell. We can fairly blame them for the fact that, compared to other ancient nations like England and France, Scotland has a giant dearth of written material recording our history up until the 16th century.

Yes, many, many documents and artefacts were lost at the time of the Reformation, when John Knox’s followers destroyed everything they felt was contaminated by Roman Catholicism. As cathedrals, abbeys, monasteries and individual churches were repositories for many records, a serious amount of destruction of history took place. Poor preservation accounted for the rotting of many more records. But without a doubt Edward I and Cromwell were the biggest plunderers of Scotland’s archives, though as we shall see the latter figure cannot be directly blamed for their loss.

Not content with removing the Stone of Scone and the then Scottish regalia in the 1290s, Edward Longshanks pillaged the national archives and removed them to London as a sign of his overlordship of Scotland.

As the National Registers of Scotland explained: “The Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton ended the first War of Independence in 1329 and provided for the return of the records to Scotland. But they remained in London, many disappeared, and when their remnants were sent back to Scotland in 1948, only about 200 documents remained.”

Cromwell had come north in July 1650 after the Covenanter-led Scottish Parliament acclaimed Charles II as “king of Great Britain, Ireland and France”. The Scottish army formed strong defensive lines east of Edinburgh but with the Covenanters convinced they had divine backing, on September 3 the inexperienced Scottish troops were thrown against Cromwell’s New Model Army and were thoroughly beaten, with huge casualties and perhaps 4000-5000 Scots captured, many of whom died in captivity or were sold into slavery.

The English took Edinburgh but allowed the national records to be taken from the castle to Stirling where they were made safe. In August 1651, Cromwell’s general in Scotland, George Monck, later the 1st Duke of Albemarle, captured Stirling Castle, including most of the national archives which consisted of both legal and state records.

At this point Cromwell ordered the archives taken to the Tower of London as he was already planning his grand idea – the first union between Scotland and England under his Commonwealth, with him as Lord Protector from December 1653. Like Longshanks he had no real interest in the history of Scotland, his interest was owning that history as a symbol of his power.

The problem was that there was no room for them, and legal cases in Scotland proved difficult to resolve, so Cromwell let the legal documents – all 1600 volumes of them – go back home the year before his death in 1658. After the Restoration of the monarchy, which came about largely due to General Monck, King Charles II ordered the Scottish state records and remaining legal documents taken back to Scotland in December 1660 – not 1661 as is often quoted.

The tons of documents were put aboard the frigate Eagle at Gravesend, but with a storm approaching about half of the consignment was moved to a merchant ship, Elizabeth of Burntisland, under its captain John Wemyss.

His cargo consisted of 85 hogsheads of paper, possibly two tons in weight. We cannot be exactly sure of what was in those giant barrels, but early accounts say almost all the charters and records of King Robert the Bruce and his successor King David II were included, and many other state documents from the 14th and 15th centuries.

From the records of the Scottish Parliament which ordered an inquiry into the sinking, we know exactly what happened. Walt Young, a 21-year-old merchant’s son who was a passenger, told the inquiry that Wemyss did not want the hogsheads aboard but was pressed to do so by the Eagle’s captain.

With the weather worsening, somewhere off the Northumbrian coast the Elizabeth of Burntisland, which was already known to be a leaky ship, began to founder.

The ship’s mate, John Masterton, 43, from Kirkcaldy, survived to give his testimony early in 1661: “By God’s providence the witness and the company pumped their ship from Sunday at 8 o’clock in the morning to Tuesday at 3 o’clock in the morning, at which time they were forced to take boat, being 18 miles off land.”

The ship sank and one historian has estimated that 99% of Scottish national records for many decades went to the bottom. The loss is being felt to this day.