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Issue 74 - Silver and gold

Scotland Magazine Issue 74
April 2014


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Silver and gold

The legend of Mull's treasure laden Spanish galleon

Scotland is a land of myths and legends and even if the passage of time exaggerates the truth, the majority are happily based on fact. I am, for example, firmly convinced that a large aquatic beast lives in the liquid mud of the eel populated depths of Loch Ness. It makes sense that a freshwater lake of such extraordinary size and depth should have its secrets.

Similarly, I have no doubt that the wreck of a Spanish Galleon lies at the bottom of Tobermory Bay. My only reservation is that it may not actually contain quite as much of the fabulous hoard of treasure which has prompted the many attempts at salvage over the past four centuries.

Tobermory is a picture postcard town on the island of Mull, and the story goes that after the Battle of Gravelines in August 1588, the 130 ships of the Spanish Armada withdrew up the east coast of England to circumnavigate Scotland into the open waters of the Atlantic. The flagship
El Gran Grifón was wrecked off Fair Isle; others off the coast of Ireland.

In the case of the galleon, which put in for repairs at Tobermory in September, nobody knows for certain which ship it was. Tradition has it that it was probably the
Almirante di Florencia. Or it might have been the San Juan de Sicilia, or the Duque di Florenzia. What we do know, albeit only from tradition and speculation, is that it is alleged to be carrying the pay chests of the Spanish army.

If indeed it was the
San Juan de Sicilia, as some insist, it would also have been carrying 26 guns, 63 Spanish sailors and 279 soldiers. But why would such a battleship loaded to the gunnels be given sanctuary on Mull?

Of course, you might think that it was because the 20 year old James VI was ruling Scotland and his mother Mary had been executed the previous year at Fortheringay. Now that she was dead, the
whole point of the Spanish invasion had been to oust the Protestant Elizabeth I and insert the Catholic Spanish King Philip II, her deceased half sister’s husband, in her place.

On the island of Mull, it was Sir Lachlan Mor Maclean, 14th Chief of Clan Maclean, who was in charge. Bitterly at odds with the Clan Donald chief, the self-styled Lord of Kintyre, he too was playing a dangerous game in the struggle for regional power.

The story goes that when the beleaguered Spaniards landed at Tobermory, Big Lachlan, as the Maclean Chief was known, demanded a payment but when none was forthcoming, took appropriate action. There are several versions of what happened next, all of them culminating in the galleon exploding 300 yards offshore.

But my inclination is to believe that Big Lachlan knew exactly what he was doing. If there was a hoard of gold, he would have seized it despite the Spanish men-at-arms.

By blowing up the ship, it absolved him of any repercussions from King James. Have no illusions that the financially strapped and acquisitive James would not have been kept fully informed on what was going on, and he would have known exactly what was up for grabs. As it was, within months Big Lachlan and his enemy Kintyre were summoned to Edinburgh to “consider the good rule of their country.” Whether or not a lost treasure valued in the region of £30 million still lies under the ebb and flow of the bay at Tobermory remains to be seen.

Certainly generations of the earls and dukes of Argyll have thought so, and following in the footsteps of his grandfather and father, Torquhil, 13th Duke of Argyll, has granted permission to the Poop Company of Somerset to pursue a two month search. Eight divers are currently exploring taking up where an underwater archaeological assessment by Historic Scotland left off in 2006.

Under water exploration has progessed significantly since diving bells were first employed in the seventeenth century and, this time, an air lift system is being used. Watch this space. We should know the findings in a month or two.