Hunt for the Span­ish Ar­mada comes to Mull

The Oban Times - - News - SANDY NEIL sneil@oban­

DO YOU look a bit too Mediter­ranean for Mull? Do you have fam­ily sto­ries of an an­ces­tor from Spain ship­wrecked in Scot­land af­ter the Span­ish Ar­mada?

Then Dr Kirsten MacLeod, a lec­turer at Ed­in­burgh’s Napier Univer­sity, would be in­ter­ested to hear your tales for her re­search project and doc­u­men­tary film when she vis­its Mull next week from May 16-19.

Dr MacLeod, a Scot from Skye, was once told by a boyfriend’s mother: ‘You must be from the Ar­mada.’ At first she didn’t have a clue what the lady was talk­ing about, un­til she started re­search­ing the for­got­ten his­tory of the fa­mous cam­paign.

At least two de­feated Span­ish galleons, car­ry­ing many hun­dreds of sailors and sol­diers flee­ing the English Chan­nel via Scot­land be­fore head­ing back to Spain, foundered off Mull and Fair Isle, the is­land be­tween Orkney and Shet­land, in 1588.

His­tor­i­cal ac­counts tell of 600 ‘Spa­niards’ de­part­ing Ed­in­burgh for the Low Coun­tries on July 25, 1589, but it’s a mys­tery what hap­pened dur­ing the in­ter­ven­ing months on these is­lands.

Oral his­to­ries, passed down in fam­i­lies, tell of some Spa­niards stay­ing and fa­ther­ing chil­dren. In Orkney, there is a fam­ily called the Costies, which they think comes from ‘Costa’, a Span­ish sur­name.

Dr MacLeod ex­plained: ‘The is­lands of Mull, Westray and Fair Isle all have dis­tinct local his­to­ries that re­late to the Ar­mada. This project seeks to in­volve local peo­ple in the telling of these Ar­mada his­to­ries.

‘It would be fas­ci­nat­ing if we could trace some sur­vivors of the Ar­mada, and find fam­i­lies who are de­scen­dants of those who were saved in Scot­land.’

This story of the Ar­mada started on July 21, 1588, when a Span­ish fleet of 130 to 140 ships, led by the Duke of Me­d­ina Si­do­nia and car­ry­ing ap­prox­i­mately 7,000 sailors and 19,000 sol­diers, set sail from La Coruna.

King Philip of Spain had Pope Pius V’s bless­ing to wage a ‘holy war’ to re­in­state Catholi­cism in Eng­land. But 10 days later, his im­pe­rial fleet was de­feated by El­iz­a­beth I’s war­ships, com­manded by Sir Fran­cis Drake, in the English Chan­nel off Ply­mouth.

The Ar­mada fled up the east coast of Eng­land, but Drake called off the chase at the Firth of Forth on Au­gust 12. The Span­ish fleet took a route home to Spain around the north of Scot­land, west coast of Ire­land and into the Bay of Bis­cay. But on the way al­most half of the fleet was lost as ship­wrecks, mostly off Ire­land but a few sunk in Scot­tish waters.

The San Juan de Si­cilia, one of the big­gest ships in the Ar­mada com­manded by Don Diego Tellez En­riquez, ar­rived in Tober­mory Bay on Septem­ber 13, 1588, with ap­prox­i­mately 343 men on board.

Then, mys­te­ri­ously in Novem­ber, the San Juan de Si­cilia ex­ploded and sank with some men on board, 300 yards off what is

Scot­land uniquely gave Span­ish sailors asy­lum” Dr Kirsten MacLeod

now the New Pier in Tober­mory Bay.

Wil­liam Asheby, the English am­bas­sador at the Court of King James, wrote to Fran­cis Wals­ing­ham, spy­mas­ter to Queen El­iz­a­beth I, that the San Juan de Si­cilia had been blown up. Blame fell on the MacLean clan chief and an English plot, for MacLean had com­man­deered the Span­ish to help raid neigh­bour­ing is­lands.

Around 600 ‘Span­ish’ were mus­tered in Ed­in­burgh on July 25, 1589, and were trans­ported home. What was left of the San Juan de Si­cilia’s crew ar­rived two days later. In all, only 60 ves­sels and 10,000 men made it home to Spain.

Ru­mours of gold on board the San Juan de Si­cilia fuelled numer­ous div­ing ex­pe­di­tions, and there is now very lit­tle of the wreck left. But what in­ter­ests Dr MacLeod, she says, is the rem­nants in peo­ple’s mem­o­ries on Mull, and in the com­mu­ni­ties around the sec­ond wreck in the North­ern Isles.

The El Gran Gri­fon, led by Cap­tain Juan Gomez de Me­d­ina with 43 sailors and 243 sol­diers on board, shel­tered and lodged in rocks off a Fair Isle Bay on Septem­ber 27, 1588. All 300 Ar­mada men made it ashore, out­num­ber­ing the local pop­u­la­tion, but 50 Span­ish men sub­se­quently died on Fair Isle, buried in the ‘Spa­niarts grave’.

The re­main­ing crew waited a month be­fore be­ing shipped to Shet­land and then to Orkney and An­struther in Fife, where James Melville, min­is­ter of An­struther, granted them asy­lum and re­lief. Later the Spa­niards were shipped across the Forth to Ed­in­burgh and onto Spain in sum­mer 1589.

‘Some men made it back to Ed­in­burgh with the help of local peo­ple and were given safe pas­sage back to Spain,’ Dr MacLeod said. ‘Scot­land uniquely gave Span­ish sailors asy­lum. In Ire­land, they were taken as pris­on­ers of war and slaugh­tered. It is a mes­sage for our times: how we deal with strangers in our midst.’

You can catch Dr MacLeod on her tours of Mull, Westray and Fair Isle, gath­er­ing per­sonal his­to­ries and knowl­edge of the Span­ish Ar­mada, to un­cover the myths and the sto­ries about Span­ish on the West Coast. Her email is K.Ma­

Dr Kirsten MacLeod wants to trace de­scen­dants of the Span­ish sol­diers and sailors who were on Mull.

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