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Lachlan Cattanach was the eleventh Chief of the MacLeans. He was a fiery man, big in built and big in ego. His clan was his identity and he wanted to make it stronger than all other ten chiefs of his family before him. When he looked out from his castle on the outcrop across the sound, he imagined what it would be like to own all the sea and all the land he could see or even imagine. After many a sleepless night, and solely to make his MacLean clan even more dominant, it was arranged that he would marry a Campbell, a daughter of the sworn enemy!
Catriona was not unlike him in character; equally fierce and equally strong-headed. Her long red hair flew behind her as she stomped the land. As the sister of Colin Campbell of Argyll, she knew power. The Campbells had more power and possessions than the MacLeans; they were a strategic, brutal and feared lot, and she was proud of every inch they owned, every drop of blood they shed. Despite her strongmindedness, she had no say in who she was to marry and so marry she did. Already on her wedding night, when she looked her husband in the eye for the first time, disgust surfaced in her and she knew her marriage would be an utter fiasco.
In the beginning they both had their moments. They tried, they told themselves they would have to make it work for the sake of all their beloved power and ultimately for their own pride. They liked to show off to each other how fearless they were. There were even some moments when they bonded in their mutually outrageous behaviour. Like when they burned living cats to please the devil. And maybe the devil did come down to whisper into their ears. Because they moved on from killing cats to killing one another. Lachlan told himself he had waited long enough for Catriona to bear him a son, and since there was no proof that would ever happen, things had to change and he wanted her gone.
Catriona in her turn concocted brews and potions with wicked plants and pulverised sea creatures. She tried her sweetest smile when she put these in his drink. Sat next to him in the rare moments they didn’t fight to watch him swallow, always offering him more. There were times when he doubled over, when the bile came from his guts, even moments when the summoned fever seemed to tip him over his sanity into his death. But die, he did not.
When after the latest poisoning spree, he woke up in his own vomit, he decided it was time for her to go. And what better way to get rid of someone on an island than to drown them? While looking out of his window from Duart Castle, he plotted the perfect plan. If he did it at night, and the current would take care of the body, no one would be any the wiser. He waited for her to go to her bedchamber at night. He knocked the candle out of her hand, and then knocked her out with the heavy stone candle holder. Despite her strong and spirited personality and long words, she was a slight woman. In pitch dark he carried her across his shoulders like a sack of dead rabbits and at low tide he waded through the water and placed her body on a slab of rock in the sound. A nightly sacrifice, if you ignored his grounds.
When Catriona came to, her head bloody and bulging, it was high tide and she found herself helpless on the last strip of the black, slippery plateau. The freezing water rose quickly around her. She couldn’t swim (hardly anybody could back then). As the water rose, she looked death in the eye. She prayed to the devil and she prayed to the sky, and just when she went completely under, she had a lucky strike. A boat with fishermen had seen her struggle and they picked her up. As she shivered in her sodden white nightgown she was silent as the grave (the Campbells were very unpopular in these parts). Maybe they thought she was a White Lady and without uttering one word to her, they put her back on the land. Nobody knows how, but alive and well Catriona managed to reach her family, many islands away.
Lachlan was safe in his castle. When he had seen Catriona go under, he drunk himself into oblivion. Already having his eyes and hands on a new wife, he held a mock funeral for Catriona and sent word to her family about her unfortunate death.
Some years later, his actions, by way of the Campbell’s revenge, caught up with him. While he was staying in Edinburgh, he was stabbed to death in his sleep by Catriona’s brother.
The graves of Catriona and Lachlan – human shaped carved stones, a man and a woman, slightly overgrown with grass – are just outside the walls of Pennygown Chapel on Mull. Due to their behaviour they were denied inside the church walls.
The tidal plateau in the sound, where Catriona was laid down by Lachlan, is now known as Lady of the Rock and is best viewed from the Oban ferry.
In Mull, as in all Scottish islands, history and myth overlap. Facts are not everything. Legends and storytelling (sgialachdan) are as important as truth.
And besides, who doesn’t love a good story?
The Scottish western isles were a tribal society, full of brutal and devious complexity. Wherever you go on Mull the clan MacLean is omnipresent. They were very powerful and one of the oldest clans, with records going back to the 8th century. Many places in Mull are steeped in legend, often harking back to one of the MacLeans.
One such legendary example is the Lady of the Rock story.