Hunt for the Spanish Armada comes to Mull
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.Macleod2@napier.ac.uk.
Dr Kirsten MacLeod wants to trace descendants of the Spanish soldiers and sailors who were on Mull.