Black Colin of Loch Awe
From Chapter XII of Hero-Myths & Legends of the British Race by M. I. Ebbutt M. A.
In considering the hero-myths of Scotland we are at once confronted with two difficulties. The first, and perhaps the greater, is this, that the only national heroes of Lowland Scotland are actual historical persons, with very little of the mythical character about them. The mention of Scottish heroes at once suggests Sir William Wallace, Robert Bruce, the Black Douglas, Sir Andrew Barton, and many more, whose exploits are matter of serious chronicle and sober record rather than subject of tradition and myth. These warriors are too much in reach of the fierce white searchlight of historic inquiry to be invested with mythical interest or to show any developments of ancient legend.
The second difficulty is of a different nature, and yet almost equally perplexing. In the old ballads and poems of the Gaelic Highlands there are mythical heroes in abundance, such as Fingal and Ossian, Comala, and a host of shadowy chieftains and warriors, but they are not distinctively Scotch. They are only Highland Gaelic versions of the Irish Gaelic hero-legends, Scotch embodiments of Finn and Oisin, whose real home was in Ireland, and whose legends were carried to the Western Isles and the Highlands by conquering tribes of Scots from Erin. These heroes are at bottom Irish, the champions of the Fenians and of the Red Branch, and in the Scotch legends they have lost much of their original beauty and chivalry.
The Highland Clans
It is rather in the private history of the country, as it were, than in its national records that we are likely to find a hero who will have something of the mythical in his story, something of the romance of the Middle Ages. The wars and jealousies of the clans, the adventures of a chief among hostile tribesmen, the raids and forays, the loves and hatreds of rival families, form a good background for a romantic legend; and such a legend occurs in the story of Black Colin of Loch Awe, a warrior of the great Campbell clan in the fourteenth century. The tale is common in one form or another to all European lands where the call of the Crusades was heard, and the romantic Crusading element has to a certain extent softened the occasionally ferocious nature of Highland stories in general, so that there is no bloodthirsty vengeance, no long blood-feud, to be recorded of Black Colin Campbell.
The Knight of Loch Awe
During the wars between England and Scotland in the reigns of Edward I. and Edward II. one of the chief leaders in the cause of Scottish independence was Sir Nigel Campbell. The Knight of Loch Awe, as he was generally called, was a schoolfellow and comrade of Sir William Wallace, and a loyal and devoted adherent of Robert Bruce. In return for his services in the war of independence Bruce rewarded him with lands belonging to the rebellious MacGregors, including Glenurchy, the great glen at the head of Loch Awe through which flows the river Orchy. It was a wild and lonely district, and Sir Nigel Campbell had much conflict before he finally expelled the MacGregors and settled down peaceably in Glenurchy. There his son was born, and named Colin, and as years passed he won the nickname of Black Colin, from his swarthy complexion, or possibly from his character, which showed tokens of unusual fierceness and determination.
Black Colin's Youth
Sir Nigel Campbell, as all Highland chiefs did, sent his son to a farmer's family for fosterage. The boy became a child of his foster-family in every way; he lived on the plain food of the clansmen, oatmeal porridge and oatcake, milk from the cows, and beef from the herds; he ran and wrestled and hunted with his foster-brothers, and learnt woodcraft and warlike skill, broadsword play and the use of dirk and buckler, from his foster-father. More than all, he won a devoted following in the clan, for a man's foster-parents were almost dearer to him than his own father and mother, and his foster-brethren were bound to fight and die for him, and to regard him more than their own blood-relations. The foster-parents of Black Colin were a farmer and his wife, Patterson by name, living at Socach, in Glenurchy, and well and truly they fulfilled their trust.
He Goes on Crusade
In course of time Sir Nigel Campbell died, and Black Colin, his son, became Knight of Loch Awe, and lord of all Glenurchy and the country round. He was already noted for his strength and his dark complexion, which added to his beauty in the eyes of the maidens, and he soon found a lovely and loving bride. They dwelt on the Islet in Loch Awe, and were very happy for a short time, but Colin was always restless, because he would fain do great deeds of arms, and there was peace just then in the land.
At last one day a messenger arrived at the castle on the Islet bearing tidings that another crusade was on foot. This messenger was a palmer who had been in the Holy Land, and had seen all the holy places in Jerusalem. He told Black Colin how the Saracens ruled the country, and hindered men from worshipping at the sacred shrines; and he told how he had come home by Rome, where the Pope had just proclaimed another Holy War. The Pope had declared that his blessing would rest on the man who should leave wife and home and kinsfolk, and go forth to fight for the Lord against the infidel. As the palmer spoke Black Colin became greatly moved by his words, and when the old man had made an end he raised the hilt of his dirk and swore by the cross thereon that he would obey the summons and go on crusade.
The Lady of Loch Awe
Now Black Colin's wife was greatly grieved, and wept sorely, for she was but young, and had been wedded no more than a year, and it seemed to her hard that she must be left alone. She asked her husband: "How far will you go on this errand?" "I will go as far as Jerusalem, if the Pope bids me, when I have come to Rome," said he. "Alas! and how long will you be away from me?" "That I know not, but it may be for years if the heathen Saracens will not surrender the Holy Land to the warriors of the Cross." "What shall I do during those long, weary years?" asked she. "Dear love, you shall dwell here on the Islet and be Lady of Glenurchy till I return again. The vassals and clansmen shall obey you in my stead, and the tenants shall pay you their rents and their dues, and in all things you shall hold my land for me."
The Lady of Loch Awe sighed as she asked: "But if you die away in that distant land how shall I know? What will become of me if at last such woeful tidings should be brought?"
"Wait for me seven years, dear wife," said Colin, "and if I do not return before the end of that time you may marry again and take a brave husband to guard your rights and rule the glen, for I shall be dead in the Holy Land."
"That I will never do. I will be the Lady of Glenurchy till I die, or I will become the bride of Heaven and find peace for my sorrowing soul in a nunnery. No second husband shall wed me and hold your land. But give me now some token that we may share it between us; and you shall swear that on your deathbed you will send it to me; so shall I know indeed that you are no longer alive."
"It shall be as you say," answered Black Colin, and he went to the smith of the clan and bade him make a massive gold ring, on which Colin's name was engraved, as well as that of the Lady of Loch Awe. Then, breaking the ring in two, Colin gave to his wife the piece with his name and kept the other piece, vowing to wear it near his heart and only to part with it when he should be dying. In like manner she with bitter weeping swore to keep her half of the ring, and hung it on a chain round her neck; and so, with much grief and great mourning from the whole clan, Black Colin and his sturdy following of Campbell clansmen set out for the Holy Land.
Sadly at first the little band marched away from all their friends and their homes; bagpipes played their loudest marching tunes, and plaids fluttered in the breeze, and the men marched gallantly, but with heavy hearts, for they knew not when they would return, and they feared to find supplanters in their homes when they came back after many years. Their courage rose, however, as the miles lengthened behind them, and by the time they had reached Edinburgh and had taken ship at Leith all was forgotten but the joy of fighting and the eager desire to see Rome and the Pope, the Holy Land and the Holy Sepulchre. Journeying up the Rhine, the Highland clansmen made their way through Switzerland and over the passes of the Alps down into the pleasant land of Italy, where the splendour of the cities surpassed their wildest imaginations; and so they came at last, with many other bands of Crusaders, to Rome.
At Rome the Knight of Loch Awe was so fortunate as to have an audience of the Pope himself, who was touched by the devotion which brought these stern warriors so far from their home. Black Colin knelt in reverence before the aged pontiff, whom he held in truth to be the Vicar of Christ on earth, and received his blessing, and commands to continue his journey to Rhodes, where the Knights of St. John would give him opportunity to fight for the faith. The small band of Campbells went on to Rhodes, and there took service with the Knights, and won great praise from the Grand Master; but, though they fought the infidel, and exalted the standard of the Cross above the Crescent, Colin was still not at all satisfied. He left Rhodes after some years with a much-diminished band, and made his way as a pilgrim to Jerusalem. There he stayed until he had visited all the shrines in the Holy Land and prayed at every sacred spot. By this time the seven years of his proposed absence were ended, and he was still far from his home and the dear glen by Loch Awe.
The Lady's Suitor
While the seven years slowly passed away his sad and lonely wife dwelt in the castle on the Islet, ruling her lord's clan in all gentle ways, but fighting boldly when raiders came to plunder her clansmen. Yearly she claimed her husband's dues and watched that he was not defrauded of his rights. But though thus firm, she was the best help in trouble that her clan ever had, and all blessed the name of the Lady of Loch Awe.
So fair and gentle a lady, so beloved by her clan, was certain to have suitors if she were a widow, and even before the seven years had passed away there were men who would gladly have persuaded her that her husband was dead and that she was free. She, however, steadfastly refused to hear a word of another marriage, saying: "When Colin parted from me he gave me two promises, one to return, if possible, within seven years, and the other to send me, on his deathbed, if he died away from me, a sure token of his death. I have not yet waited seven years, nor have I had the token of his death. I am still the wife of Black Colin of Loch Awe."
This steadfastness gradually daunted her suitors and they left her alone, until but one remained, the Baron Niel MacCorquodale, whose lands bordered on Glenurchy, and who had long cast covetous eyes on the glen and its fair lady, and longed no less for the wealth she was reputed to possess than for the power this marriage would give him.
The Baron's Plot
When the seven years were over the Baron MacCorquodale sought the Lady of Loch Awe again, wooing her for his wife. Again she refused, saying, "Until I have the token of my husband's death I will be wife to no other man." "And what is this token, lady?" asked the Baron, for he thought he could send a false one. "I will never tell that," replied the lady. "Do you dare to ask the most sacred secret between husband and wife? I shall know the token when it comes." The Baron was not a little enraged that he could not discover the secret, but he determined to wed the lady and her wealth notwithstanding; accordingly he wrote by a sure and secret messenger to a friend in Rome, bidding him send a letter with news that Black Colin was assuredly dead, and that certain words (which the Baron dictated) had come from him.
A Forged Letter
One day the Lady of Loch Awe, looking out from her castle, saw the Baron coming, and with him a palmer whose face was bronzed by Eastern suns. She felt that the palmer would bring tidings, and welcomed the Baron with his companion. "Lady, this palmer brings you sad news," quoth the Baron. "Let him tell it, then," replied she, sick with fear. "Alas! fair dame, if you were the wife of that gallant knight Colin of Loch Awe, you are now his widow," said the palmer sadly, as he handed her a letter. "What proof have you?" asked Black Colin's wife before she read the letter. "Lady, I talked with the soldier who brought the tidings," replied the stranger.
The letter was written from Rome to "The Right Noble Dame the Lady of Loch Awe," and told how news had come from Rhodes, brought by a man of Black Colin's band, that the Knight of Loch Awe had been mortally wounded in a fight against the Saracens. Dying, he had bidden his clansmen return to their lady, but they had all perished but one, fighting for vengeance against the infidels. This man, who had held the dying Knight tenderly upon his knee, said that Colin bade his wife farewell, bade her remember his injunction to wed again and find a protector, gasped out, "Take her the token I promised; it is here," and died; but the Saracens attacked the Christians again, drove them back, and plundered the bodies of the slain, and when the one survivor returned to search for the precious token there was none! The body was stripped of everything of value, and the clansman wound it in the plaid and buried it on the battlefield.
The Lady's Stratagem
There seemed no reason for the lady to doubt this news, and her grief was very real and sincere. She clad herself in mourning robes and bewailed her lost husband, but yet she was not entirely satisfied, for she still wore the broken half of the engraved ring on the chain round her neck, and still the promised death-token had not come. The Baron now pressed his suit with greater ardour than before, and the Lady of Loch Awe was hard put to it to find reasons for refusing him. It was necessary to keep him on good terms with the clan, for his lands bordered on those of Glenurchy, and he could have made war on the people in the glen quite easily, while the knowledge that their chief was dead would have made them a broken clan. So the lady turned to guile, as did Penelope of old in similar distress. "I will wed you, now that my Colin is dead," she replied at last, "but it cannot be immediately; I must first build a castle that will command the head of Glenurchy and of Loch Awe. The MacGregors knew the best place for a house, there on Innis Eoalan; there, where the ruins of MacGregor's White House now stand, will I build my castle. When it is finished the time of my mourning will be over, and I will fix the bridal day." With this promise the Baron had perforce to be contented, and the castle began to rise slowly at the head of Loch Awe; but its progress was not rapid, because the lady secretly bade her men build feebly, and often the walls fell down, so that the new castle was very long in coming to completion.
Black Colin Hears the News
In the meantime all who loved Black Colin grieved to know that the Lady of Loch Awe would wed again, and his foster-mother sorrowed most of all, for she felt sure that her beloved Colin was not dead. The death-token had not been sent, and she sorely mistrusted the Baron MacCorquodale and doubted the truth of the palmer's message. At last, when the new castle was nearly finished and shone white in the rays of the sun, she called one of her sons and bade him journey to Rome to find the Knight of Loch Awe, if he were yet alive, and to bring sure tidings of his death if he were no longer living. The young Patterson set off secretly, and reached Rome in due course, and there he met Black Colin, just returned from Jerusalem. The Knight had at last realized that he had spent seven years away from his home, and that now, in spite of all his haste, he might reach Glenurchy too late to save his wife from a second marriage. He comforted himself, however, with the thought that the token was still safe with him, and that his wife would be loyal; great, therefore, was his horror when he met his foster-brother and heard how the news of his death had been brought to the glen. He heard also how his wife had reluctantly promised to marry the Baron MacCorquodale, and had delayed her wedding by stratagem, and he vowed that he would return to Glenurchy in time to spoil the plans of the wicked baron.
Black Colin's Return
Travelling day and night, Black Colin, with his faithful clansman, came near to Glenurchy, and sent his follower on in advance to bring back news. The youth returned with tidings that the wedding had been fixed for the next day, since the castle was finished and no further excuse for delay could be made. Then Colin's anger was greatly roused, and he vowed that the Baron MacCorquodale, who had stooped to deceit and forgery to gain his ends, should pay dearly for his baseness. Bidding his young clansman show no sign of recognition when he appeared, the Knight of Loch Awe sent him to the farm in the glen, where the anxious foster-mother eagerly awaited the return of the wanderer. When she saw her son appear alone she was plunged into despair, for she concluded, not that Black Colin was dead, but that he would return too late. When he, in the beggar's disguise which he assumed, came down the Glen he saw the smoke from the castle on the Islet, and said: "I see smoke from my house, and it is the smoke of a wedding feast in preparation, but I pray God who sent us light and love that I may reap the fruit of the love that is there."
The Foster-Mother's Recognition
The Knight then went to his foster-mother's house, knocked at the door, and humbly craved food and shelter, as a beggar. "Come in, good man," quoth the mistress of the house; "sit down in the chimney-corner, and you shall have your fill of oatcake and milk." Colin sat down heavily, as if he were overwearied, and the farmer's wife moved about slowly, putting before him what she had; and the Knight saw that she did not recognise him, and that she had been weeping quite recently. "You are sad, I can see," he said. "What is the cause of your grief?" "I am not minded to tell that to a wandering stranger," she replied. "Perhaps I can guess what it is," he continued; "you have lost some dear friend, I think." "My loss is great enough to give me grief," she answered, weeping. "I had a dear foster-son, who went oversea to fight the heathen. He was dearer to me than my own sons, and now news has come that he is dead in that foreign land. And the Lady of Loch Awe, who was his wife, is to wed another husband to-morrow. Long she waited for him, past the seven years he was to be away, and now she would not marry again, but that a letter has come to assure her of his death. Even yet she is fretting because she has not had the token he promised to send her; and she will only marry because she dare no longer delay."
"What is this token?" asked Colin. "That I know not: she has never told," replied the foster-mother; "but oh! if he were now here Glenurchy would never fall under the power of Baron MacCorquodale." "Would you know Black Colin if you were to see him?" the beggar asked meaningly; and she replied: "I think I should, for though he has been away for years, I nursed him, and he is my own dear fosterling." "Look well at me, then, good mother of mine, for I am Colin of Loch Awe."
The mistress of the farm seized the beggar-man by the arm, drew him out into the light, and looked earnestly into his face; then, with a scream of joy, she flung her arms around him, and cried: "O Colin! Colin! my dear son, home again at last! Glad and glad I am to see you here in time! Weary have the years been since my nursling went away, but now you are home all will be well." And she embraced him and kissed him and stroked his hair, and exclaimed at his bronzed hue and his ragged attire.
The Foster-Mother's Plan
At last Colin stopped her raptures. "Tell me, mother, does my wife seem to wish for this marriage?" he asked; and his foster-mother answered: "Nay, my son, she would not wed now but that, thinking you are dead, she fears the Baron's anger if she continues to refuse him. But if you doubt her heart, follow my counsel, and you shall be assured of her will in this matter." "What do you advise?" asked he. She answered: "Stay this night with me here, and to-morrow go in your beggar's dress to the castle on the Islet. Stand with other beggars at the door, and refuse to go until the bride herself shall bring you food and drink. Then you can put your token in the cup the Lady of Loch Awe will hand you, and by her behaviour you shall learn if her heart is in this marriage or not." "Dear mother, your plan is good, and I will follow it," quoth Colin. "This night I will rest here, and on the morrow I will seek my wife."
The Beggar at the Wedding
Early next day Colin arose, clad himself in the disguise of a sturdy beggar, took a kindly farewell of his foster-mother, and made his way to the castle. Early as it was, all the servants were astir, and the whole place was in a bustle of preparation, while vagabonds of every description hung round the doors, begging for food and money in honour of the day. The new-comer acted much more boldly: he planted himself right in the open doorway and begged for food and drink in such a lordly tone that the servants were impressed by it, and one of them brought him what he asked--oatcake and buttermilk--and gave it to him, saying, "Take this and begone." Colin took the alms and drank the buttermilk, but put the cake into his wallet, and stood sturdily right in the doorway, so that the servants found it difficult to enter. Another servant came to him with more food and a horn of ale, saying, "Now take this second gift of food and begone, for you are in our way here, and hinder us in our work."
The Beggar's Demand
But he stood more firmly still, with his stout travelling-staff planted on the threshold, and said: "I will not go." Then a third servant approached, who said: "Go at once, or it will be the worse for you. We have given you quite enough for one beggar. Leave quickly now, or you will get us and yourself into trouble." The disguised Knight only replied: "I will not go until the bride herself comes out to give me a drink of wine," and he would not move, for all they could say. The servants at last grew so perplexed that they went to tell their mistress about this importunate beggar. She laughed as she said: "It is not much for me to do on my last day in the old house," and she bade a servant attend her to the door, bringing a large jug full of wine.
As the unhappy bride came out to the beggar-man he bent his head in greeting, and she noticed his travel-stained dress and said: "You have come from far, good man"; and he replied: "Yes, lady, I have seen many distant lands." "Alas! others have gone to see distant lands and have not returned," said she. "If you would have a drink from the hands of the bride herself, I am she, and you may take your wine now"; and, holding a bowl in her hands, she bade the servant fill it with wine, and then gave it to Colin. "I drink to your happiness," said he, and drained the bowl. As he gave it back to the lady he placed within it the token, the half of the engraved ring. "I return it richer than I took it, lady," said he, and his wife looked within and saw the token.
Trembling violently, she snatched the tiny bit of gold from the bottom of the bowl, which fell to the ground and broke at her feet, and then she saw her own name engraved upon it. She looked long and long at the token, and then, pulling a chain at her neck, drew out her half of the ring with Colin's name engraved on it. "O stranger, tell me, is my husband dead?" she asked, grasping the beggar's arm. "Dead?" he questioned, gazing tenderly at her; and at his tone she looked straight into his eyes and knew him. "My husband!" was all that she could say, but she flung her arms around his neck and was clasped close to his heart. The servants stood bewildered, but in a moment their mistress had turned to them, saying, "Run, summon all the household, bring them all, for this is my husband, Black Colin of Loch Awe, come home to me again." When all in the castle knew it there was great excitement and rejoicing, and they feasted bountifully, for the wedding banquet had been prepared.
The Baron's Flight
While the feast was in progress, and the happy wife sat by her long-lost husband and held his hand, as though she feared to let him leave her, a distant sound of bagpipes was heard, and the lady remembered that the Baron MacCorquodale would be coming for his wedding, which she had entirely forgotten in her joy. She laughed lightly to herself, and, beckoning a clansman, bade him go and tell the Baron that she would take no new husband, since her old one had come back to her, and that there would be questions to be answered when time served. The Baron MacCorquodale, in his wedding finery, with a great party of henchmen and vassals and pipers blowing a wedding march, had reached the mouth of the river which enters the side of Loch Awe; the party had crossed the river, and were ready to take boat across to the Islet, when they saw a solitary man rowing towards them with all speed. "It is some messenger from my lady," said the Baron, and he waited eagerly to hear the message. With dreadful consternation he listened to the unexpected words as the clansman delivered them, and then bade the pipers cease their music. "We must return; there will be no wedding to-day, since Black Colin is home again," quoth he; and the crestfallen party retraced their steps, quickening them more and more as they thought of the vengeance of the long-lost chieftain; but they reached their home in safety.
In the meantime Colin had much to tell his wife of his adventures, and to ask her of her life all these years. They told each other all, and Colin saw the false letter that had been sent to the Lady of Loch Awe, and guessed who had plotted this deceit. His anger grew against the bad man who had wrought this wrong and had so nearly gained his end, and he vowed that he would make the Baron dearly abide it. His wife calmed his fury somewhat by telling him how she had waited even beyond the seven years, and what stratagem she had used, and at last he promised not to make war on the Baron, but to punish him in other ways.
"Tell me what you have done with the rents of Glenurchy these seven years," said he. Then the happy wife replied: "With part I have lived, with part I have guarded the glen, and with part have I made a cairn of stones at the head of Loch Awe. Will you come with me and see it?" And Colin went, deeply puzzled. When they came to the head of Loch Awe, there stood the new castle, on the site of the old house of the MacGregors; and the proud wife laughed as she said: "Do you like my cairn of stones? It has taken long to build." Black Colin was much pleased with the beautiful castle she had raised for him, and renamed it Kilchurn Castle, which title it still keeps. True to his vow, he took no bloody vengeance on the Baron MacCorquodale, but when a few years after he fell into his power the Knight of Loch Awe forced him to resign a great part of his lands to be united with those of Glenurchy.
Note that the copyright on this eBook has expired and it is free to copy.