Islands of Ireland: Last Buss to imaginary island

Islands of Ireland: Last Buss to imaginary island
Medieval map of the north Atlantic island of Buss, spelled Bus and Busse elsewhere

In the realms of the imagination, more is usually better. Why restrict ourselves to one make-believe island? 

Last week we visited Hy Brasil on a flight of fancy

This week all aboard for a trip to the island of Buss, a neighbour of Hy Brasil’s on the northern edge of the Porcupine Bank and to which Ireland can reasonably lay ‘claim’.

A report from a Danish Arctic expedition from 1605 reported on the mysterious island of Buss thus: “This island lieth in the latitude of 58 deg 39 min. 

"It bears W by N, half a point notherly from Mizen-head in Ireland about 256 leagues distant.”

This study places Buss is in the vicinity of Rockall. In 1578 the English explorer Martin Frobisher happened upon it. 

On an expedition searching for the elusive Northwest Passage, one of his ships, Emmanuel, made sight of a mysterious island.

The island was named after one of Frobisher’s ship, in nautical terms, a buss. 

The ship’s captain James Newton, observed an island when the expedition was south of Greenland.

The very first report of Frobisher’s voyage was by a George Best, who wrote: “The Busse as she came homeward ... discoured a great lande which was neuer yet founde before and sayled three days along the coast, the land seeming to be fruiteful, full of woods and a champion countrie.”

Newly commissioned maps took Frobisher’s report as truthful and the island began to be recorded as a real place. 

However, despite the many ships sailing in the vicinity in the ensuing decades no sight was again made of Buss.

In 1656, the French seafarer Boullaye le Gouz as he came near Ireland saw a phantom land “1 to 3 miles distant from his ship, with trees and cattle. 

"His pilot told him of a spectral island, Buss, near Greenland, and of many floating islands near the pole,” wrote Irish antiquarian TJ Westropp.

Map of the island from 1671 by English cartographer John Seller complete with mountains, inlets, and islets
Map of the island from 1671 by English cartographer John Seller complete with mountains, inlets, and islets

However, in 1671 captain Thomas Shepard “visited” Buss but again a follow up expedition failed to find it. 

This led to issues of credibility, though sailors may have thought they observed it, but in fact had seen an illusion caused by the phenomenon of ‘fata morgana’. 

The island became known as the ‘Sunken Land of Buss’ and it was this term that appeared on later maps.

“A possible confusion among storms, mists and icebergs leads to the Buss of Emmanuel Frobisher’s fleet of 1578 to report an unknown island thereafter shown as ‘Buss’ till the eighteenth century,” wrote Westropp.

In 1688, a captain Zachariah Gillam of Nonsuch claimed another sighting. 

And a few years after that journey Thomas Shepherd of the Hudson’s Bay Company and captain of the Golden Lion, not only ‘saw’ the island but claimed to have landed on it. 

His resultant map depicted 12 inlets and bays named after his employers’ directors and included Rupert’s Harbour, Viner’s Point, and Shaftesbury Harbour. 

In 1715 cartographer Louis Renard also depicted Buss but it was not only in 1850 that it was finally eliminated from maps.

In the auspicious year of 1776, soundings taken at the grid reference for Buss reported a depth of only 1,080ft leading to speculation that the island could have actually sunk.

“The shallow-water shells dredged at the Porcupine Bank and at Rockall indicate islands with shoal water around them in comparatively recent times,” wrote Robert Lloyd Praeger in The Way that I Went.

Praeger suggested a sinking of the seafloor could have submerged these islands. 

A kind of geologic evidence then to support the theory that Buss along with Hy Brasil and St Brendan’s Isle may have existed.

Appropriately enough, a new expedition captained by John Ross in 1818 looking for the Northwest Passage confirmed there were no shallows in the area proposed for Buss’s disappearance appearing to confine it to the sphere of reverie.

But never give up! If any reader knows of a way to reach the shores of Buss I can be reached c/o St Brendan’s Cottage, Mountain Road, Hy Brasil, Mid Atlantic.

How to get there: Close your eyes and drift away.

Other: Robert Lloyd Praeger in The Way that I Went; TJ Westropp ‘Brasil and the Legendary Islands of the North Atlantic’, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, vol xxx; 1912; Danish Arctic Expeditions, 1605 to 1620, edited by CCA Gosch

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