Legends in the Landscape
With its ever-changing weather, dramatic landscapes, beautiful lochs and ancient woodlands, the Peninsula often seems to be a magical and mystical place to me and like much of Scotland, legendary stories used to explain the unexplainable and to warn us away from dangerous places, have been carried down through the generations. Indeed, photographing the Peninsula often leads me to uncovering links between legends and its landscape, just as it did when I photographed Loch Sunart one November day.
The image above was captured from the upper slopes of Meall Mor, a small peak that sits on the western flank of Ben Resipole. I have been up there many times because it is only a short distance from my house and the modest climb is rewarded with stunning views westwards over Loch Sunart to the Isle of Carna and the hills of Morvern beyond.
While taking this photograph, I saw something that I hadn’t noticed before. A small promontory sitting in front of the silhouette of the Isle of Carna, which only caught my eye because it was lit up by rays of light that had broken through the clouds.
Curious as to what it was, I did a bit of research when I returned home to find out that this knoll was both the site of a small Iron Age fort called Dùn Ghallain (Fort of the Storm) and the setting of ‘The Swan of Salen’, a mythical tale that seeks to explain why no swans are found on Loch Sunart.
It tells of a Chieftain who fell in love with a maiden of low social status. The Chieftain’s mother disapproved of the match and turned the maiden into a swan. The Chieftain, not knowing this, killed the swan while out hunting and was heartbroken to see the swan’s body take the form of his love as it died. Inconsolable, he fell on his own sword, and the bodies of the two are said to lie beneath Dùn Ghallain to this day. It is said that this is why there are no swans on Loch Sunart, making it the perfect example of a tale to explain the unexplainable.
If you travel a few miles east from there, you can find a location whose name is linked to a legend that warns you away from danger. It is Lochan nan Dunaich, the ‘Little Loch of Sadness’, where young children were supposedly lured into its waters by a Kelpie and never seen again.
Kelpies are said to be water spirits that inhabit many of the rivers and lochs of Scotland. Although usually appearing in the form of a horse, they are capable of shape-shifting and can take human-form. When in horse form a kelpie will often stand near the edge of a river or loch waiting for its prey, which will often be young children. Kelpies have magically adhesive bodies, meaning that should a child choose to clap the supposed horse, they will become attached, allowing the Kelpie to drag its victim into the water and drown them.
It is also said that they can stretch the length of their backs to carry several children to their death at once. One tale involves a group of children, where all but one climbed onto the kelpie’s back while the last child stayed on the shore. This child petted the kelpie’s neck only to have their hand become attached to it. They freed themselves by cutting off the hand only to then watch their friends, who were stuck to the kelpie’s back, being dragged down into the depths of the water where they were devoured, and their entrails thrown to the water’s edge.
When you look at Lochan nan Dunaich, a deep and dark pool of water with fallen trees around its boggy edges, you can well understand the need to warn children away from straying too close to it and with such gruesome tales about Kelpies, you can well understand how the local legend would have been to this effect. So, if you find yourself there, tread carefully, very carefully indeed.
Hi, I’m Steven Marshall, a Scottish landscape photographer based at Rockpool House in the heart of the beautiful West Highland Peninsulas of Sunart, Morvern, Moidart, Ardgour and Ardnamurchan. Get in touch for photography tuition, tours and print sales.