The Great Michael

— #19 Andrew Wood Court

Overview Andrew Wood of Largo The Great Michael The Michael’s Armament

Newhaven-on-Forth owes its existence to James IV’s ambition to make Scotland a naval power.  The largest of his ships had been The Margaret constructed in Leith but there had been great difficulty getting it out of harbour due to a sandbar at its mouth.  Another place to build even bigger ships would have to be found.  The King and Master Shipwright, Jacques Terrell settled on the deeper water of a hamlet about a mile or so upstream of Leith.  This new Royal dockyard was to become the Novus Portus de Leith, the New Haven.

1_6002 The model of The Great Michael by George Scammell that used to be on display in the Newhaven Community Fishing Museum and is now to be seen in Ocean Terminal.(Photographed by founder George Liston, courtesy of The Liston Legacy)

It was thought that James IV had as many as sixteen ships in his fleet but the largest by far was the 1000 ton Great Michael.

The Great Michael was a carrack which is a large sailing man-o-war with a large square aftercastle and a smaller forecastle — literally a fort at sea.  It was built under the superintendence of Sir Andrew Wood, James IV’s Admiral of Scotland.

The largest ship of its age, it was to be called the Archangel Michael.  Michael the Archangel, in the Bible and in the Qurʾān is repeatedly described as the “great captain,” the leader of the heavenly hosts, and the warrior helping the children of Israel.  Soon the name was shortened to just The Michael and when it was built and people saw how huge it was, it became known as The Great Michael.

1_6006 The finest Scottish and Continental craftsmen worked on "the great schipp" to significant effect,

The Great Michael was stunning to look at and impressed all who saw her — the craftsmanship that went into her decoration, for example.  For anyone visiting Edinburgh Castle and the Great Hall, look up and see the beautifully carved ceiling. It was carved by the same craftsmen who worked on the Michael.

It was said to use all the woods in Fife (except the one at Falkland which King James kept intact, for he loved hunting) as well as wood from Norway, the Baltic and France.  Fully 240 feet long and 30 feet abeam plus sides of oak ten-foot thick, it was so large, the whole of Christopher Columbus’ fleet that sailed to the New World could fit inside the hull. 


1_6025 The forecastle at the ship's bow was used by soldiers who would fight it out with other ships when in battle. Even today, this term of forecastle is used today on modern ships where it used in a shortened term called a “fo'c'sle”.

It had four masts and a huge beam at the front that carried a large lantern. It was, in effect, a fort on the seas with two castles, one at the stern called the after-castle, and one at the front — the bow — called the forecastle. From here the soldiers would fight it out with other ships when in battle. Even today, this term of forecastle is used on modern ships where it is known in a shortened term as the “fo’c’sle”.

The building of this sizeable ship began in 1507 and launched on 12th October 1511.

The Great Michael proved to be a difficult ship to steer and it took great skill to sail it.  The Admiral in overall charge was the skilful Sir Andrew Wood. It was also very expensive to run. As a result, it wasn’t used in battle.

1_6012 The Ship's anchor was larger than the version at Route Stop #9, Great Michael Rise

Shortly after King James was killed at the Battle of Flodden in 1513 she was sold to France. where she became known as “La Grande Nef d’Ecosse” (The Big Ship of Scotland). In March 1514 the Michael was reported to be docked at Honfleur because she was too big for the harbour at Dieppe.  One expert historian suggested that under her new French name she may have taken part in the Battle of the Solent in 1545, the French attack on England that led to the sinking of the Mary Rose.

1_6005 It was heavily armed with 24 guns on the broad side. and multiple other guns and small arms.