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Traditions and Stories of Scottish Castles
Castle Fraoch-Eilean, Loch Awe


THE scenery of Loch Awe is deservedly held in remembrance by the tourist who has once witnessed its beauty. It is not easy to select from amongst the Scottish lakes that sheet of water which most fully exhibits the characteristics of Highland landscape; but it will be found that those travellers whose experience of Scotland’s lochs and hills is widest are inclined to ascribe a very high position to Loch Awe in comparison with wilder and more northern scenes. Embosomed amid "Heaven-kissing hills," and dotted with many islets crowned with verdure, this vast inland loch washes a shore-line which presents many varied aspects to the beholder. The glen in which it lies is formed by the overhanging hills of Argyllshire which rise precipitously all around, sometimes attaining so extreme an altitude that the extent of the loch is dwarfed beside them. Although nearly thirty miles in length, Loch Awe does not exceed two miles in breadth, and the frequent storms which come sweeping down from Glen Strae and the Pass of Brander keep the waters in such constant motion that it seems to be some gigantic river rather than a peaceful mountain-lake.

The isles which lie cradled in its bosom are rich in foliage, which contrasts with the bare, brown, heath-clad mountain summits, whose bold outline stands relieved against the sky, and in the midst of the overwhelming grandeur of the scene they assume fairy-like proportions which their actual extent does not justify. Far away north rises the peak of Ben Cruachan, whose summit is 3611 feet above the level of the sea. The springs which feed the tributary streams in this quarter mostly owe their origin to this mountain, and the valley which stretches from its base forms the bed of Loch Awe. The tradition which accounts for the origin and present position of the loch may be of special interest to the reader, and is not well-known.

In the times of remote antiquity, ere wizards, witches, and fairies had been scared from Scotland, the rich and fertile valley now covered by the waters of the loch, was in the possession of a brave and fearless woman, the daughter of a former chief who held the locality. For years she ruled the land which belonged to her wisely and well; but by some hidden means the "uncanny folk" gained an ascendency over her, and wrought their wicked purposes upon her. She was laid under a spell which doomed her to death unless she performed a certain task with unfailing regularity. Her duty was a peculiar one. Midway up Ben Cruachan there was a tiny spring whose limpid waters had often solaced the chief’s daughter and refreshed her followers upon their return from the chase; for in those days the toils and dangers of this sport did not terrify the softer sex. This spring she was enjoined to cover each night with a cabalistic stone whose potency should avert unheard of dangers from her. The unknown is always terrible; and in dread of a peril which she could not understand, she did not fail to perform her nightly duty, though with fear and trembling.

At last a moment’s weakness accomplished her destruction. Returning after a weary and fruitless chase one day, she was separated from her companions, and, footsore and "forfouchten," disappointed in mind and exhausted in body, she sank down at the base of Ben Cruachan, unable to reach her home. There are times when the most vigorous intellect must succumb to the influence of physical exhaustion, no matter how important the duties may be which lie before it, and .then the overburdened spirit, weary of resistance, abandons the contest.

"Is it not pitiful
Our souls should be so bound about with flesh,
Even when they leap and
smite with wings and feet,
The least pain plucks them back, puts out their eyes,
Turns them to
tears and words?"

And so this Highland Diana, this mighty huntress, sank to rest beneath a beechen tree at the foot of the hill. She knew that the setting sun had its duty for her, but, reckless of consequences, she fell into a deep and troubled sleep.

She was destined to endure a rude awakening. Ere long there came the ceaseless drip-dripping of a running streamlet, which mingled pleasantly with her dreams, but soon increased to the murmur of the rill, the rush of the mountain-torrent, the thunder of the cascade and the Cailleach Bhe’ir awoke to find herself in the midst of a raging flood. The insignificant spring which she had despised had now become a foaming sea, and the fair and fertile vale, once her loved inheritance, was now the prey of the merciless waters. Regret became despair, and she plunged into the seething abyss never more to return. And now Loch Awe stretches its waters, glistening in silver sheen, over this once fertile Vale of Tempe; and the gentle undulations which arose upon the plain appear as crested islets, crowned with foliage, or fringed with sedge and dwarf willow.

One of the loveliest of these islands is that known as Fraoch Eilean, the Isle of Heather. On the mainland, immediately opposite to it, the mountain surfaces descend precipitously, forming the deep valley known as the Pass of Awe. Yet though exposed to the rude Borean blasts which sweep in fury down the loch from this spot, Fraoch-Eilean has ever maintained its fertile appearance. The verdant trees which cluster round the ruins of the ancient Castle effectually screen it from the view; and few save those who care to explore the recesses of the wood are conscious of its existence. But the venturous spirit who threads the weedy maze by which it is encompassed will be repaid for his labour.

Fraoch-Eilean Castle

Though now roofless and uninhabitable the Castle, sometimes called Dunderawe, exhibits traces of its former strength, which plainly show that it was fitted to become the stronghold of a powerful Argyllshire Clan. And from the vantage ground afforded by the crumbling walls and tottering battlements the daring climber may obtain an enchanting view of the valley of Loch Awe. Northward the Pass appears to follow the trend of the basin of the loch, and, but for its elevation, would naturally have been a prolongation of it. The height of the hills which rise on either side causes this spot to become the scene of some of the grandest phenomena of storm and tempest. Their lofty crests, by intercepting the fleecy clouds which float in ether, bring frequent showers at unexpected moments upon the lowly vale, or, by attracting the dark-rolling thunder cloud, precipitate the atmospheric tumult, and thaw down the ruddy levin-brand upon their elevated summits.

Southward, through the interlacing boughs, the silvery lake may be seen extending itself, with many a winding turn and creek, and encircling the sister isles of Innis-Hail, Eilean-taigert, and Innis-Connel, each claiming notice for some tale of long ago; inwoven with its history. To the east and west rise those peaks whose drainage, by stream and torrent, reaches the loch, and whose position compels the wild north wind frequently to rush with irresistible force down the channel thus formed, and to lash the placid waters of the lake into foam and fury. Fenced from the storm by the trees which rustle in the blast, the wayfarer may turn his gaze upon the scene which is thus spread around, and feel that—

"‘Tis pleasant from the loopholes of retreat
To peep at such a world."

Like many other ruins on the shores of the loch, the Castle of Fraodh-Eilean has an unwritten history. Tradition records that the island was gifted to Sir Gilchrist Macnaughton by Alexander III., who caused the first Castle to be built there in 1267, and handed it over to the chief by making him perpetual Castellan. The only duty imposed upon him was the seldom-exercised one of providing entertainment for the King of Scotland should he pass that way. But the journey to the wilds of Argyllshire was not often attempted by the Scottish rulers in early days; for the state of the roads and the manners of the inhabitants made it neither pleasant nor safe for the King’s Majesty to venture within their bounds. And when Robert Bruce made his presence known in the locality, it was as an errant knight in search of a kingdom; and as the sworn foe of Macdougal of Lorn, he could not receive the homage of the lesser Chief Macnaughton. The keeping of the Castle, therefore, became somewhat of a sinecure, so far as kingly visits were concerned. Only once is there record of special preparations having been made for a royal guest, and these ended in disappointment and failure.

During "Scotland’s fule-time" in 1745, when the northern clans became insane upon the subject of government, and madly sought to place their King-Stork again upon the throne, the Macnaughtons were not exempt from the national frenzy. Prince Charlie, the gay inheritor alike of the vices and virtues of his race, was to pass near the shores of Loch Awe upon a semi-royal progress, and it became necessary that his Castellan should furnish his royal seat of Fraoch-Eilean, and provide such entertainment as befitted the heir of a line of kings. Doubtless the silent woods of the heath-clad isle resounded to the din and tumult which the unwonted occasion called forth and made necessary, and the hereditary cobwebs were swept from their places, lest they should offend the eye of Royalty. Horace describes a similar preparation for a feast in these terms :—

"While all the hands were hard at work, and boys and girls ran here and there;
And brightly glowed the fires, which rolled their murky smoke to outer air."

But the ways of the Stewarts were not like the ways of ordinary mortals, and Prince Charlie suddenly altered his intention and passed the Castle heedlessly by. Now the boldest Macnaughton in that ancient and honourable clan would scarcely care to invite the royal presence to dignify the grey ruin which was once the seat of his chief.

Though there are few stories related of the Castle, the island itself is not bereft of tradition. By one of those curious coincidences which startle the student of folklore, it will be found that the ancient Greek fable of the Hesperides has its counterpart in a tale which has been handed down for many generations amongst the dwellers on the shores of this remote Highland loch. It may be possible to invent an explanatory theory to account for this fact; but as the romance alone make the frivolous tale endurable, the task would be a thankless one.

Once on a time there dwelt on the borders of Loch Awe a certain lovely "lady, the wonder of her kind," at whose feet knelt the bravest knights and the gayest courtiers of whom the locality could boast. To Sir Fraoch, however, did her heart incline; but with that caprice which so often works woe to womankind, she refused to bestow her hand upon him until he had accomplished some stupendous task which would place him above his rivals in knightly daring. The green isle, against whose shores the waters of the loch were fretting into foam, had long been famous as the natural orchard in which grew apples of gold fitted to charm the life of the possessor, and to confer unimagined blessings. But this precious fruit was jealously guarded by a huge serpent, the rival of Behemoth, whose very name carried fear and dread to the hearts of the natives. With that folly and unreason which is sometimes found even in the tenderest bosom, the Lady of Loch Awe charged her knight as a true man and faithful lover to bring her some of these golden apples of fabled virtue, in defiance of the grisly monster in whose charge they were held.

Sir Fraoch thought not of the toil or danger, but only of the glorious reward which should be his, and at once addressed himself to his task. Entering his skiff he rowed rapidly towards the Isle of Heather, and daring wind and tide at last beached his tiny vessel. Drawing his sword from its sheath to be ready for any emergency he boldly leapt ashore, and looked around in vain for an opponent. The dreaded serpent seemed to him but a phantom of the imagination, since no trace of it was visible. Advancing through the wilderness of verdure which covered the isle, he sought to gain the spot where tradition had placed the auriferous tree.

"His path was rugged and sore;
Through tangled juniper, beds of reeds,
Through many
a fen where the serpent feeds,
And man never trod before."

But at length he won the coveted prize, and plucking some of the wished-for fruit he endeavoured to reach his boat. To his dismay he found his return prevented by the wily monster, who had suffered him to land upon this Circean isle that his prey might be more secure. Powerless are the emissaries of evil against the true-hearted knight (in fable at least), and after a deadly struggle Sir Fraoch escaped to his skiff, leaving the terror of the island vanquished and overthrown.

Faint from the fury of the fray in which he had been engaged, the knight rowed more slowly back to his lady’s hall than he had set forth at early morn; and, tempted by the beauty of the fruit he had won, he partook of the spoil thus dearly bought. Ere long he felt that sudden chill which creeps along the veins and paralyses the nerves, thus giving the first hint of poison; and before he reached his destination he knew full surely that his hours were numbered. Yet not without a glow of triumph did he meet her for whom he had endured the extreme penalty, to lay at her feet the tokens of his victory. But the glazing eye and the interrupted speech told the tale too readily to her, and she soon saw that she had thrown from her the love and respect, nay, the life of her knight, to gratify an idle whim, and to indulge in wanton sport and wicked jest. The situation offered no escape for her save one; and, as was the custom with mythological heroines when placed in similar circumstances, she tasted of the poisonous fruit, and then expired in her lover’s arms.

Such is the flimsy tale still told by the credulous natives of Loch Aweside when accounting for the name of the island. A practical age, which believes only what it can understand, naturally rejects this imaginative fabrication, and finds a more likely origin of the name in the physical aspect of the scene. The Isle of Heather still deserves its title, though the years which have rolled over it have overthrown the proud dwelling which man had erected, and left the Castle desolate and ruined. The loch, the hill, the glen, remain as they have been from pre-historic times; but the men who loved them as the scenes of their early years now sleep within their shadow, or bear the memory of them wherever they may wander in distant lands or foreign shores.

"Not by the sunshine, with its golden glow,
Nor the green earth, nor yet the laughing sky,
Nor the fair flower-scents as they come and go,
In the soft air, like music wandering by;
Oh! not by these, the unfailing, are we taught
How time and sorrow on our frames have wrought,
But by the saddened eye, the darkened brow
Of kindred aspect, and the long dim gaze
Which tells us we are changed—how changed from other days!"

The first Castle of Dunderawe, or Fraoch-Eilean, built in 1267, remained as the principal seat of the chiefs of Macnaughton for over three centuries; but in 1596, Alexander Macnaughton erected the Castle, the ruins of which now remain. In early times this clan had large possessions, and "owned all the country between Loch Fyne and Loch Awe, parts of which were Glenira, Glen Shira and Glen Fyne." The chief had also Dhu Loch in Glen Shira, Macnaughton Castle in Lewis, and Dunnaghton Castle in Strathspey, so that his clansmen formed a very powerful clan. Alexander Macnaughton, who was knighted by James IV., fell with that monarch on the fatal field of Flodden. The devotion of the Clan to the Stewarts led to the forfeiture of their possessions in 1691 and the direct line of chieftainship terminated with John early in the 18th century. The succession then fell to the descendants of John, younger son of the hero of Flodden, who had settled in County Antrim, and become a Scoto-Irish Laird. In 1878, at a meeting of the clan in Edinburgh, it was decided that the right to the chieftainship was then due to Sir Francis Edmund MacNaghten of Dunderawe, Bushmills, Antrim; and the present chief is Sir Francis Alexander MacNaghten, seventh baronet, who resides at the residence of his late namesake. His uncle, the late Lord MacNaghten, in 1887, was made a Lord of Appeal, and officiated on the Committee for Privileges of the House of Lords. The ruined Castle shows the date "1596," with the initials of "I.M." and "A.N." over the doorway, with the inscription, "Behold the End; be not wiser than the Highest," and the clan motto, "I hope in God." The building, though a ruin, could easily be made habitable, and thus preserve the memory of a once-important clan, now dispersed throughout the world.


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