Making Scotland's Landscape tells story of Great Michael

Scotland’s biggest naval project of its time – a medieval feat of engineering to rival the construction of the QE2 – is set to “sail again” in the 21st century.

Great Michael – a 16th century “monster” ship which launched an international arms race – is going to sail again.

Not in reality, though, but on screen, in a CGI reconstruction in the new BBC One Scotland series Making Scotland’s Landscape on Sunday 24 October.

The story of The Great Michael will feature on the television series and in an in-depth two-part profile of the story on BBC Radio Scotland, as part of the BBC Scotland’s Landscape season across TV, radio and online.

Produced by historian Louise Yeoman and presented by ship fanatic and comedian Susan Morrison, The Great Michael radio series will outline the construction of the monster ship and the first emergence of Scotland as a world-beating naval shipbuilder in the early 1500s, from a base on the East Coast – Newhaven, near Edinburgh.

Louise says: “The Great Michael was a special project for James IV, who wanted a truly impressive naval ship to impress the world and that’s what he got.

“Leith had a sandbar at its entrance so it couldn’t be made there, so Newhaven was literally created to make this ship. Newhaven, on the East Coast, was Scotland’s first world-beating shipyard.

“Great Michael was a monster of a ship of around 1,000 tonnes and possibly took up to 72 acres of wood to create. And it would have towered over the houses of Newhaven.”

Presenter Susan Morrison says: “I’m from a shipbuilding family. My Dad worked on the QE2 and Great Michael must have been of an equivalent scale for that time – an amazing feat of medieval technology.”

Louise adds: “Great Michael would spark an international arms race with the jealous monarchs of Europe. She was a revolutionary ship – building her was a massive international project like running a space project. The amazing thing was that it wasn’t one of the European superpowers doing it – it was Scotland. Scotland’s excellence in shipbuilding begins here on the Forth.”

Historians have often thought that it rotted away in a foreign dock but evidence, from French naval documents quoted in the radio series, reveals that the ship became a significant weapon in the war of the French fleet against the Spanish.

Louise continues: “With her crew of 300 drawn from burghs all over Scotland and internationally, never mind all the troops she could carry, she was a fabulously expensive proposition but James had thought of that. He persuaded the French King to pay for Great Michael’s services against England – to hire her off him but this meant that when France went to war, he had to go to war. This would be fatal.

“Great Michael was only used once in anger in Scottish service – sailing round towards France as the naval back-up in the Flodden campaign, she was sent to cause trouble in England’s backyard in Ireland by attacking Carrickfergus, which she did – firing on the town and sending in her landing party. But by the time she arrived in the main theatre of operations off France, James IV was dead and a storm scattered the French and Scottish fleets.

“Great Michael, now renamed La Grant Nef d’Escoce – the Great Ship of Scotland became the flagship of the vice admiral of Brittany and sailed at the head of the Brittany squadron when they blockaded the Spanish castle of Fuenterrabía in the Basque country.

“Thanks to a statement by the Scottish writer George Buchanan, commentating later in the 16th century, people have assumed that Great Michael was simply left to rot but this was not the case. It’s even possible that in 1523 she returned briefly to Scotland when her commander was asked to arrange the safe return of the regent of Scotland (the duke of Albany, regent for James V) from France – sailing round from Great Michael’s home port in Brittany, to Dumbarton.

“If they did, this would only have been appropriate that Scotland’s first world-beating feat of naval architecture would briefly visit the scene of Scotland’s future glories, it’s a wonderful picture to think of the most beautiful ship in the Renaissance world, made in Scotland, sailing up the Clyde.”

Making Scotland’s Landscape, Sunday 24 October at 8pm on BBC One Scotland, and the two-part series The Great Michael will start on BBC Radio Scotland on November 29.

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