Glen More and the headless horseman

This was going to be a photo-feature, but then I made the fatal mistake of starting to read about the place!  So instead of just a photo, I have a ghost story to share…

Mull - Glen MoreGlen More is a beautiful valley that cuts across the Isle of Mull from east to west.  From the ferry at Craignure, you’ll head down this way if you’re travelling to places like Bunessan or Fionnphort where another ferry leaves for Iona.   It’s a place of many moods – blissful on a summer’s day, wild in winter with the wind scouring down from the slopes of Ben More.  We’ve seen short-eared owls here, and golden eagles;  in spring the verges are dotted with primroses, violets and orchids.

But in the 16th century all was not well in this tranquil glen, and in particular with the Maclaine clan whose seat was at Lochbuie on the east coast of Mull.  Iain Og, the 5th Clan Chief, had a son named Ewen (Eoghann a’Chinn Bhig, meaning ‘Ewen of the Little Head’) who lived on a crannog in Loch Sguabain.   Ewen was a fearless warrior, but his wife, a MacDougall of Lorne who was known as ‘the Black Swan’, wasn’t content with her existence;   she was ambitious for wealth and status, and wanted more lands to add to her husband’s estate.   Shades of Lady Macbeth!

Glen More and Loch Sguabain

Loch Sguabain, with crannog

Ewen petitioned his father for more property, but to no avail.   Disappointment turned into anger, and it all came to a head – quite literally – one day in 1538, when Ewen and his father arranged a mass duel in Glen More between themselves and their followers.

On the day before the battle, legend says that Ewen encountered a fairy woman who was washing blood-stained clothes in a burn.  He asked her if she could foretell his fate, and was taken aback by her reply:  she confided that, at breakfast in the morning, if Ewen’s servant failed to place the butter on the table and he had to ask for it, he would be killed.

Mull - Loch Sguabain, Glen MoreEwen forgot about the prophecy but it all came flooding back the next morning, when his servant forgot the butter.  He must have felt a horrible creeping sense of doom.  But what else could he do?  As his kinsmen gathered in the glen, he mounted his horse and led them into the heat of the battle.   It didn’t last long.  Standing on a rock, one of Iain Og’s soldiers brandished his claymore in the direction of Ewen, and managed to sever his head from his shoulders.   The terrified horse galloped off with the headless rider still in the saddle and eventually came to a standstill several miles away, above the Lussa Falls.

As a temporary measure, Ewen’s followers buried his body at the place where it fell from the horse, and marked the spot with a small cairn or pile of stones among the heather.  They came back later to reclaim it, and carried him to the island of Iona for an honourable burial.   It was said that when Ewen’s hunting dog saw the body of its master, it suffered such a shock that all its hair fell out.

But Ewen’s ghost is unable to rest in peace, and ever since that day the spectre of a headless rider on a black horse is reported to ride through Glen More between dusk and dawn.   In particular, it is believed that his appearance to one of the Maclaine clan, or the sound of his horses’ hooves galloping around the clan seat at Moy by Lochbuie, is an omen that a member of that family is about to die.

Where did Ewen’s body fall?   The location was known only to a few people and the secret was handed down over the centuries.   P A Macnab, writing in ‘The Isle of Mull‘, reveals that he was told where to find it by the West Highland naturalist Seton Gordon, who died in 1977.   Macnab followed Gordon’s directions and was delighted to discover a small cairn beside the Lussa burn, just as folklore remembers.

Sources:

Photos copyright © Colin & Jo Woolf


 

Crannog Centre, Loch Tay

More about crannogs…

The island dwelling of Ewen Maclaine is known as a crannog.  Occupied from the Bronze Age right up to the 1700s in some cases, crannogs doubled as secure fortresses in times of turmoil.  Click on the image to read more!  

 

Comments

  1. Ooh! Great story and photos. 🙂

  2. Great post Jo. Makes me glad that we live in slightly less bloodthirsty times in Scotland!

  3. We love ghosts stories around here!🙂

  4. Norma Dowling says:

    Thank you Jo; a very timely article. We drove through the Glen on Thursday in glorious sunshine and as usual looked across at the crannog. We have heard the story of The Headless horseman but good to have a written account! Earlier this month we visited Loch Tay crannog and spent a pleasant morning of discovery and imagined what it must have been like to live there, make fire, spin, dye and weave ones clothes etc. We would certainly recommend a visit.

    • Aaah, how lovely it is in sunshine, Norma! I am envious. Yes, the crannog always catches my eye, and those lochs stretching in a little line away from the glen. Mull is so beautiful. I must visit the crannog on Loch Tay, it sounds great! Thanks for the recommendation.

  5. On our recent visit to Mull, we were blown away by the stunning landscape. Love these layers of history. Thanks Jo!

    • It’s a fabulous place, Jeanette, I’m feeling like I want to go there myself now! It’s been too long since I was there. As Scottish islands go, Mull has just about everything. Thank you, glad you enjoyed this – I love these stories too. There’s a lot of folklore in P A Macnab’s book ‘The Isle of Mull’ – not sure if it’s still in print but if you ever find a copy it’s worth reading.

  6. Love the story and its is a lovely trip across, so wild and empty. Great photos🙂

  7. Brian James MacLeod says:

    Sgeul air leth fhèin ìnntinneach, ‘s tha leithid sin ri fhaotainn air an taobh seo den chuan nas mò: very helpful and informative, I am currently working on a project for my Scottish Folkore course as part of my BA Honours program in Celtic Studies at St. Francis Xavier University here in Nova Scotia. The same legend, including the spectral headless horseman, has crossed the Atlantic with our ancestors and resides in rural Inverness County, Cape Breton Island. Not only Eoghann a’ Chinn Bhig, the bloodcurdling Cù Mòr Glas Mheobail, the Big Grey Dog of Meoble, Loch Morar, also puts in an unnerving appearance in Creignish Rear, Inverness County, Cape Breton, whenever a member of Sìol Dhùghaill, the descendants of Dougal MacDonald of Meoble, Loch Morar, nears the end of his life. Tapadh leibhse gu mòr airson ur cuideachaidh.

    • That’s so interesting to know, Brian! Fascinating to hear that the legend has travelled across the Atlantic. That and the ‘grey dog’ of Moeble, too – as if the legends and the apparitions themselves are part of the clan’s consciousness and identity. Thank you for sharing this. If there’s anything to be read about it online, perhaps you’d kindly point me to the links? I cannot (yet!) return my thanks in Gaelic so I’ll say diolch yn fawr iawn, which is the Welsh version!

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