It’s the landscape of Argyll that is the main inspiration for my photography but the myths and legends are also hugely influential. I often say that I want my pictures to look magical, like a land from a fairytale. Part of that comes from Argyll’s physical beauty but I also want to capture the spirit I believe this land has in my photographs. I grew up hearing stories of many local myths and legends and was always so intrigued and fascinated by them, particularly when I could visit the places connected with the legends. When I photograph places connected with old stories I like to take a moment and recount the story and think about all the people who may have stood in that place hundreds, if not thousands of years before me. So I thought I would share some of my favourite tales from Argyll with you.
Many people will be familiar with the legend of Dunadd fort in Kilmartin Glen. The story goes that this was the birth place of Scotland, and the place where the first Kings of Scotland were crowned. At the top of the fort lies a rock with an impression of a footprint, it is said that this is where the Kings placed their foot when they were inaugurated. There is a lot of evidence that backs up this legend but there are also whispers that this unassuming hill also has connections with the Stone of Destiny as well as King Arthur which may be a wee bit more imaginative.
More fanciful yet is the ancient story that tells the imprint on the rock was made by Oisín, son of the giant Fingal. The Irish Warrior had been hunting on the hills above Loch Fyne when he was attacked by some wild animal, to get away he took a giant leap to Rhudle Hill and then landed heavily on Dunadd Hill creating the indent.
Another slightly more modern legend tells that this is where fairy people lived and the footprint is the fairies footprint, These fairies were called Daoine Síth in Gaelic. Scotland was once a very superstitious land and people believed that these fairies would steal human babies and replace the human baby with one of their own, these ‘replacement’ babies were known as changelings. Daoine Síth were given the blame when a child was mentally disabled, the parents believed that the Daoine Síth had stolen their baby and left a changeling in the babies place. This is where the phrase ‘away with the fairies’ comes from.
The Ballymeanoch Feast
This next legend comes from another area of Kilmartin Glen around two miles north of Dunadd hill. Ballymeanoch is probably best known for the impressive standing stones which have stood for over 4000 years. They are thought to be connected with the mid winter solstice but there is a much darker tale connected with Ballymeanoch.
The tale tells of Lady Ballymeanoch, a frightfully unpleasant women who was always causing problems and fighting with her neighbours. One day, very uncharacteristically she invited all her neighbours to a giant banquet in her barn as an act of peace supposedly to reconcile their differences. At the feast all her guest were sat in-between her family members and close friends. A giant haggis was brought to the table, as she went to cut open the haggis with her dirk she uttered the words ‘let my friends do as I do’ at that moment all her followers pulled out their dirks and stabbed to death the guest beside them. Forty of her enemies were killed in the barn, only one managed to escape and he ran across the fields shouting ‘Och on Och, Och on Och.’ He was eventually caught and the place where he is said to have fallen is to this day called Killinochonoch.
The Mull Witches
I love Mull and its absolutely full of legends, the one about the Spanish Galleon that is said to lie covered in the mud at the bottom of Tobermory bay is a good one. There are a few variations of this legend but I think this one is the best.
During the 16th century the King of Spains daughter, Princess Viola had a dream one night about the most handsome man she had ever seen. When she awakened the next morning she told her father she had to find this man. The King granted her request and prepared her a ship to travel the world to find this handsome man. After years of searching and with faith she would find this man slowly vanishing she landed in Tobermory on the Isle of Mull. On arrival she finally found the man from her dream. He was a man of nobility, a MacLean from Duart and gladly ‘entertained’ this beautiful Spanish Princess. They say hell hath no fury like a woman scorned and this was certainly the case when MacLean’s wife found out about his encounter with the Spanish Princess. She hired a lowlander called Smollett to kill the Princess, as instructed he blew up the Spanish ship with the Princess on board. On hearing about the death of his daughter the King of Spain set about planning his revenge, he sent a galleon off to Mull laden with a crew who were ordered to cut the right breast off every woman on the island. Lady Duart got wind of this and called upon Doideag, the Mull witch for help. Doideag then called on her sisters, Ladhrag Thiristeach and Ghlaisrig Ileach to help her. Together the brewed a terrible storm with the intention that it would destroy the Spanish Galleon but by this time the Galleon had reached the sheltered waters of Tobermory bay and escaped unscathed. The witches next step to save the women of Mull was to call upon Gormshúil Mhór a Lochaber, an incredibly power woman for help. On her arrival Gormshúil Mhór gathered all the cats she could find on the island and ordered them to attack and kill the men on the Spanish Galleon. She did this by chanting a secret spell. The army of cats carried out her commands by mauled the crew of the Galleon to death and then clawed through the hull of the ship to sink it to the bottom of Tobermory Bay.
The Scandinavian Prince and the Corryvreckan
The Corryvreckan whirlpool which lies between Jura and Scrarba is the third largest whirlpool in the world so it’s only natural a few legends are connected with this place.
A Scandinavian Prince called Breakan visited the shores of Argyll during the reign of the Lord of Isles, here he fell in love with the Lords daughter and asked for her hand in marriage. Her father said he would give his permission for the marriage but only once the Prince had proved his worth and bravery. The task was to spend three nights anchored on the mighty whirlpool. The Prince bravely accepted this task and set sail back to Norway to find the wisemen who would prepare him for this challenge. The wisemen said he should have three different ropes; one was to be made of hemp, one to be made of wool and one to be made from hair of fair maidens. In order for the maidens hair to hold it had to be from a pure maiden, their purity was the key to keeping the rope strong. The Prince did as instructed by the wise men and returned to the Lord of the Isles to carry out his task. On the first night the hemp rope broke but they stayed afloat, on the second night the woollen rope broke but they managed to survive the seas however on the third night disaster struck, the rope of hair broke in a wild gale and the boat was swamped by massive waves and dragged to the depth of the whirlpool. The Prince was drowned along with his crew but his dog survived and dragged Breakan’s body to shore. The Prince is said to be buried in cave on the island of Jura. The tragedy struck because one of the maidens who donated her hair was not pure!
The Duntrune Piper
Dunturne castle is one of my favourite places to photograph and is widely accepted to be the oldest inhabited castles in Scotland. It also has a reputation of being haunted by the a handless piper. This tale is slightly more eerie as during excavations of the castle a handless skeleton was found..
The protagonists in this legend are the Campbells and MacDonalds and it set during The War of the Three Kingdoms where the Campbells and MacDonalds were on opposing sides. One night the the leader of the MacDonalds, a fearsome 6ft 6inch warrior called Sir Alistair MacDonald launched a surprise raid on Duntrune Castle which was held by the Campbell clan. The MacDonalds successfully defeated the Campbells and took the castle as their own. Sir Alistair then left the castle in the hands of a few of his men along with his piper while he attended Royalist meetings. Soon after Sir Alistair’s departure the Campbells launched a counter attack claiming the castle as their own once more. They killed all the MacDonald men apart from the piper who was ordered to play to amuse the Campbell garrison. The Campbells waited patiently for Sir Alistair to return so they could seek their revenge and eventually he did. One day his ship was spotted entering Loch Crinan and the Campbells prepared for their surprise attack. This attack was however thwarted by the MacDonalds piper, he realised the danger his chief was in and took to the castle ramparts to play the warning tune ‘Píobaireachd-dhum-Naomhaid. On hearing this tune the MacDonald chief realised there was danger and turned the ship around heading back to the safety of the Sound of Jura. When the Campbells realised what the piper had done, they cut off his hands and let him bleed to death. It is said that the piper haunts the grounds of the castle, playing his pipes to this very day. Thankfully I haven’t encountered him.. yet!
The Cailleach Bheur
Some of my favourite Argyll legends are about the Cailleach (an old giant woman who lives in the mountains) so I thought I would end with a couple of stories about her.
She was said to bath in a Loch on Mull to rejuvenate herself, wash her clothes in the Corryvreckan whirlpool and she is even credited with creating the Hebrides, Apparently she returned from Norway with a sack full of rock, this sack split and the rocks came tumbling out landing to create the Western Isles. But I think my favourite legend about the Cailleach is the one about how she accidentally created Loch Awe. The Cailleach kept cattle on the slopes of Ben Cruachan and let them drink from a magical spring on the mountain but this spring could only be uncovered between sunrise and sunset, if left uncovered at night something dreadful would happen. The Cailleach was alway very careful to cover the spring before bed each night but one night she was so tired she fell asleep before recovering the spring. She was awakened during the night to a torrent of water thundering down the mountain flooding the glen below. The flood water from the spring stayed in the glen and Loch Awe was formed, The legend goes that she was in such despair at what had happened she turned to stone, a stone that still sits among the other boulders in the Pass of Brander.
I hope you’ve enjoyed these mystical stories of Argyll, there are so many to choose from but I think these are my favourites. I’d love to hear if you have any legends, not only of Argyll but the whole of Scotland.