James Lloyd remains in the Inner Hebrides to visit the Isle of Mull, scene of a military tragedy that memory transmogrified into a supernaturally charged love story.
What’s the story in Tobermory? Wouldn’t you like to know?
A certain children’s television programme was filmed in a quaint little town in the Isle of Mull, a town of gaily-painted houses, friendly, Gaelic-speaking locals and an inventor who lives in a pink castle. It is also the site, or so it is said, of the remains of a Spanish galleon, lying at the bottom of Tobermory Bay. There are many legends telling how the galleon came to be there. Here is one of them.
The princess lifted herself from her bed, pushing the hair from her eyes. The night was stiflingly hot but she should have been used to that, just as she was used to the cool breeze that floated through her bedchamber in the Alcázar. She had had the dream again and her bosom was heaving with the hot passion of it.
She had dreamt of the man, that young rugged man, whose homespun but colourful garb concealed an honest heart and one full of love for her. She had seen him run across a landscape of a kind that she had never seen before, lush and grassy and full of strange flowers, running in the cool, even cold air towards her open arms and then, as they sank into each other – she awoke and realized that she was still in her bedchamber, still in the heat of a Spanish night and alone.
The King was unimpressed, convinced that it was nothing more than a feverish dream and yet Princess Viola was utterly convinced that the Holy Mother herself had sent this vision, so that she might live the life of happiness and love for which, ignored while her father plotted his endless wars against the English and the Dutch, she craved and prayed.
In the end, she grew tired of waiting for her father to come round to her view. She paid off a chaplain to write letters purporting to be from the King, while she herself stole his Privy Seal and gave the letters apparent authority. She bore them to Cadiz, waved them at the captain of the first galleon she found and was soon on the waves, crashing northwards through the Atlantic.
Princess Viola knew where they were going. She did not know the name of the place but her fingers traced the route on the map and with every night aboard ship, as she dreamt the dream again, she became all the more certain of the direction in which they needed to go. The captain was wary, as they sailed straight between Ireland and Britain and warned her that the Scots had forsaken the old religion but she would not be swayed, now that the very island she sought was in view: Mull, in the Inner Hebrides.
The galleon’s approach was watched too. On the island, eighteen women stood on the snowy top of Ben More, seeing further than mortal should see, to spy the foreign ship. They saw its name, the Florencia, painted on its side and they saw the swarthy face of the princess whose vision had guided it. Perhaps her vision was the miracle that she believed it to be, or perhaps it was the work of the Eighteen Witches of Mull themselves, whose black hearts never ceased to devise some evil scheme for the innocent and the easily led.
Drawn like a magnet, the Florencia pulled into Tobermory Bay, where the townsfolk watched the unfamiliar ship in astonishment. Children emerged from the schoolhouse, apprentices forsook their workshops and all gathered on the quay, save for the messenger who rode to Duart Castle to tell the Laird. Soon, Sir Lachlan Mor Maclean of Duart had joined his tenants at the harbour and when the eyes of Princess Viola alighted upon him, she let forth something between a sigh and a scream and, hitching her crimson gown, she ran down the steps towards him. The crowds parted, as she billowed towards the bemused highlander, who stood agape at the Latin beauty.
Only then did another woman, in a tartan shawl, interpose herself between them, forcing the Spanish princess to a halt as dignified as she could manage. The Scotswoman folded her arms and snarled “Cò th ‘annad?”
The princess hesitated, struggling to match the unfamiliar words with what little English she knew and assuming that this was some obscure northern dialect. “I apologithe,” she heaved and every boy between twelve and fifty in the crowd sighed to hear her voice. “I am the Printheth Viola, daughter to the King of Thpain and I come here theeking whom Mother Mary would me wed.”
“Are ye English?” the wench demanded.
She understood that. “Thpanith!”
“Well, ye’re out of luck,” the woman replied. “I don’t care who ye are but I’m Madam Maclean of Duart and he’ll have no other lady but me!”
Despite the difficulty of language, the meaning was conveyed and Viola’s every attempt to embrace the not unwilling Laird was defeated by a spousal glance that could weld iron. Eventually, Viola decided to feign defeat and retreat to her galleon, though not without inviting Maclean to join her for dinner before she departed. That was, of course, a custom amongst nobility, even of different nations.
Yet that evening it was not the Laird but the Lady who arrived aboard ship, to give the Spanish temptress another earful. Still Viola insisted that she must have Sir Lachlan and, in the end, she seemed to prevail, as Madam Maclean left the cabin mid-argument, throwing her arms about in despair.
Less than five minutes after she had left, the black sky over Mull turned red and then white, as a fist of fire smashed through the galleon. The second time that day, the townsfolk of Tobermory ran outside to see what had happened but it was in the few seconds that it took them that the ship disintegrated and they had to run back inside again, as smoking timber rained on the bay. The only one who actually saw the explosion was Sir Lachlan, approaching the harbour from his castle. He rode back to the cellars and counted the barrels of gunpowder. One was missing. It would remain missing. His wife did not even bother to deny her involvement.
Little did Madam Maclean know that one sailor, the ship’s cook, had survived, though he had made a cleft in the rock on which he had landed. After many months, he managed to find passage back to his own country, where he told His Catholic Majesty what had transpired. The irate monarch ordered his finest man o’ war to Scotland to avenge his daughter by severing the right breast of every woman on Mull.
The ship’s passage was tranquil but, as it sailed up the coast of the island towards Tobermory, a wind blew up and, one by one, eighteen seagulls settled on the yardarms. As the last alighted on her perch, the wind turned into a storm and one tempestuous, thunderous minute later, the King of Spain had lost a second ship in the bottom of Tobermory Bay.
There are numerous variations on this legend, some departing so much from it that they are really separate stories. The uniting theme is the loss of a Spanish galleon in Tobermory Bay. If such a ship really existed, then it may have been one of the survivors of the Spanish Armada that limped around Britain only to be wrecked on the shores of Scotland or Ireland and be looted by the locals. The two sinkings of the story above may originally have been two such explanatory legends that have been merged in an exercise of folkloric de-cluttering.
To this core have been added several other elements of Mull tradition. The Cook’s Cave (so named, no doubt, for some mundane reason) on the outskirts on Tobermory has been co-opted and the Eighteen Witches turn up in other legends as well. Sir Lachlan Mor (the Big) was Laird of Duart and Chief of the Macleans from his father’s death in 1574 to his own (in battle, the highlander’s usual demise) in 1598. Victorious and chivalrous, he left a mighty reputation on Mull yet he is, perhaps, the most supernatural element in the whole legend: He was courted by the Spanish princess in Tobermory, even though Duart Castle is twenty miles away. It was not only the witches who could fly, it seems.