Cumberland Academy

Henry Sinclair, 1st Earl of Orkney: Biography on Undiscovered Scotland

Henry Sinclair lived from about 1345 to 1400. He is known primarily for (possibly) being the man who first discovered the New World, a century ahead of Christopher Columbus. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.

At the age of 13 in 1358, Henry Sinclair inherited from his father the titles of Baron of Roslin, Lord Chief Justice of Scotland and Admiral of the Seas. The family seat was at Rosslyn Castle south of Edinburgh close to the site of Rosslyn Chapel, built by his grandson. Meanwhile King Håkon of Norway was having a difficult time resolving the question of succession for the title of Jarl of Orkney. The obvious male lines of succession had died out, and the only available maternal line ran to Henry Sinclair, who as a result was invested as 1st Earl of Orkney by King Håkon on 2 August 1379.


n return, Håkon expected Sinclair to pacify Orkney and Shetland, which had become increasingly disordered during the period without a Jarl, or Earl. Sinclair built Kirkwall Castle to serve as a base from which he could exercise control over the Northern Isles. By 1390 Sinclair had Orkney under firm control and set out with a fleet of 13 warships to, in effect, reconquer Shetland for King Håkon from the Norse warlords who had taken control. Sinclair was successful in bringing Shetland back under the control of the Norwegian Crown.

The story so far is relatively uncontroversial. Take a deep breath, because from here on it is anything but… While in Shetland, Sinclair is believed to have rescued two Venetian brothers, Nicolo & Antonio Zeno, whose ship had run aground and who were under threat from the islanders. In return the brothers undertook to put their undoubted seafaring skills at Sinclair’s disposal.

Meantime, a fisherman turned up in Orkney who had been missing for twenty years. He told a remarkable story of having been driven far west by storms and reaching a temperate land peopled by strange natives. Greenland was already known and, indeed, had been claimed by Norway since 1261, and the fisherman’s stories suggested that there was somewhere beyond. Sinclair was determined to find out what lay behind these stories, and some time in the late 1390s led an expedition west, accompanied by the Zeno brothers.

Passing beyond Greenland, they landed in what could well be Newfoundland, before pressing on to “a fertile land, mild and pleasant beyond description”. Sinclair returned to Orkney in 1399, telling stories of the land he had found and making plans to return on a more organised scale. It was not to be: he died fighting English raiders in Orkney in 1400.

It would be fair to say that this story is far from universally accepted. The main documentary evidence comes from letters supposedly written between the Zeno brothers in around 1400, which some regard as forgeries from the 1500s. Even if the letters are genuine, the story hangs on the man they refer to throughout as Zichmni being Henry Sinclair. There are also geographic problems with the letters: they refer to islands off the east coast of Iceland that do not exist, and there are other discrepancies.

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