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The Henry Sinclair myth

"Fourteenth and fifteenth century Orkney has two histories: alongside the ordinary evaluation of historical sources, there has grown up a body of what is essentially popular romantic semi-fiction composed of stories of fairly recent origin which are not well supported by documentary evidence."
William P.L. Thomson - The Orcadian, April 11, 2002

When it comes to the life of Henry Sinclair, there is an incredibly fine line between historical fact and legend – and that line grows fainter by the day.

A mushrooming body of material now links Earl Henry Sinclair with a mythical trip across the Atlantic - a voyage that supposedly took place 94 years before Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of the New World in 1492.

Not surprisingly the idea is surrounded by controversy. It has been generally met with considerable scepticism and, depending on your viewpoint, has been proved to be nothing more than a literary creation. But even if there is a kernel of truth in the legend, it is remarkable, and disturbing, how many people, organisations and even schools, now present the Henry Sinclair Atlantic Cross as indisputable fact.

So where did it all begin?

The mythology surrounding the historically unremarkable figure of Henry Sinclair has grown steadily for centuries. We know, for example, that later Sinclair genealogists transformed Henry's relatively mundane rule over the Earldom into a period of legendary magnificence.

The idea that he made a trip across the Atlantic is now widely accepted by many as legitimate history. This is despite the fact that the interpretations and suppositions simply do not bear up to close scrutiny. Click here for Brian Smith's investigation into the growth of the Sinclair legend and dismissal of the Atlantic crossing.

No tradition exists within Orkney of Henry Sinclair’s fabulous journey, something I find particularly strange bearing in mind the durability of Orkney myth and lore. Surely if the earl had made such a momentous voyage, remnants of trip would exist, in one form or another, in our local culture.

But there is nothing. And if truth be told, these days it is doubtful that the typical Orcadian would even know who Earl Henry Sinclair was.

At the root of Earl Henry's legendary claim to fame is a single Venetian document - a 16th century document known as the Zeno Narrative.

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