Mull Mythology

22 November 2016

mull mythology

Photo: Mackinnon's Cave

Scotland is blessed with a rich tradition of myth and legend. Stretching back thousands of years these stories cast a light on our turbulent and curious history. Mull has many physical attractions, its hills and beaches are second to none on the west coast but what few people realise is that it also has a fascinating folklore. What is intriguing is that most of the sights of these ancient legends are not shrouded in mystery or secrecy, you can easily go and visit them, it’s like having a unique window to the past.

Just outside the south east corner of Pennygown Chapel near Salen you can find two carved slabs lying on the ground. These graves are of Lachlan Cattanach, former chief of Clan Maclean and his wife, neither allowed to be buried within the chapel’s grounds due to their habit of burning live cats to summon the devil. By all accounts their marriage was a turbulent one and after surviving poising attempts by Katherine, Lachlan decided on a course of murder. To make it look like an accident he had her taken to a tidal reef just south of Lismore lighthouse, with the intention of her drowning at high tide. Luckily for Katherine, before the water covered the rock, some passing fishermen saw her and she was returned to land where she made her way to her family home while Lachlan held a mock funeral. Some years later she was avenged by her brother who stabbed Lachlan to death in his sleep. The rock on which Lady Katherine was marooned can be seen at low tide from Duart and is still known today as The Lady’s Rock. Carsaig House is an imposing Georgian gothic mansion on the southern coast of Mull. Refurbished to a high standard but still with original features such as a castellated walled garden. A great place to soak up some of the history of this mysterious island.

Mackinnon’s Cave was popularised when it was visited by Dr. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell in 1773. It is one of the deepest caves in the Hebrides and gets its name from Abbot MacKinnon who was reputedly concealed there in the 15th Century. Deep inside the cave lies a large, flat slab of rock, which is known as Fingal’s Table which was used as an altar by hermits and early followers of the Christian church. There is also the haunting tale of the piper who tried to outdo the local fairies in a piping competition here. Anyone familiar with Scottish mythology would know that such arrogance means the story is unlikely to end well. Anyway, the piper while playing, walked into the cave along with his dog. Only the dog returned, crazed with fear and hairless. Some say the piper went right through the hill and emerged on the other side of the headland at Tiroran on Loch Scridain. Kellan Mill is right on the shore about 10 miles round the coast from here and if you want to investigate for yourself it makes for a great day out by bike – and dogs are welcome.

If you are driving around the island, then at some point you will pass below the Gribun cliffs and the heart-breaking tale of Tragedy Rock. In 1700 a young man came across to Mull to marry the girl to whom he was engaged. On their wedding night in the midst of a furious storm the young couple took themselves off to their nearby cottage, right under the cliffs. The storm that raged dislodged a giant boulder which came crashing down the cliffs and landed right on top of their cottage flattening the house and killing the newly-weds. The bodies were never recovered from the wreckage of the ruined cottage, the walls of which are still visible around the massive rock. It is said that rafters from the cottage could be seen protruding from beneath the boulder for some 200 years after the tragedy. Flowers still bloom in the tiny garden in memory of the tragic couple. Cuan Choluim Chille commands breath-taking views over loch Tuath to the islands of Ulva, Gometra and the Treshnish Isles and would make a fantastic, romantic honeymoon spot where you can relax - without the worry of lethal rock fall.

Not all Mull mythology is ancient. One of the most curious tales to emanate from the island is an unsolved mystery from the 1970s. Peter Gibbs was a pilot whose body was discovered on an Isle of Mull hillside in 1976. Four months previously his plane had taken off from Glenforsa airfield and promptly vanished. There were no crash marks on the corpse, no parachute and no sign of the plane. His cause of death was officially determined as exposure and he showed no signs of ever having been in the sea. His plane has never been recovered and nobody has been able to explain how his body came to be in the position it was found. One of the UK’s great aviation mysteries this has been the source of several books and frenzied online speculation concerning spying, gun running and murder. The mystery remains stubbornly unsolved to this day. Glenforsa airfield is still in operation, during the summer there are organised fly-ins of vintage aircraft and Glenforsa House, just next door is the perfect place from which to admire them.