Updated: Dec 14, 2020

The history of Torloisk House and Clan MacLean.

The MacLeans, a bold and hardy race, who, originally followers of the Lords of the Isles, had assumed independence, seized upon great part both of the Isle of Mull and the still more valuable island of Islay, and made war on the MacDonalds with various success. There is a story belonging to this clan, which I may tell you, as giving another striking picture of the manners of the Hehrideans. The chief of the clan, MacLean of Duart, in the Isle of Mull, had an intrigue with a beautiful young woman of his own clan, who bore a son to him. In consequence of the child’s being, by some accident, born on a heap of straw, he received the name of Allan-a-Sop, or Allan of the Straw, by which he was distinguished from others of his clan. As his father and mother were not married, Allan was, of course, a bastard, or natural son, and had no inheritance to look for, save that which he might win for himself. But the beauty of the boy’s mother having captivated a man of rank in the clan, called MacLean of Torloisk, he married her, and took her to reside with him at his castle of Torloisk, situated on the shores of the sound, or small strait of the sea, which divides the smaller island of Ulva from that of Mull. Allan-a-Sop paid his mother frequent visits at her new residence, and she was naturally glad to see the poor boy, both from affection, and on account of his personal strength and beauty, which distinguished him above other youths of his age. But she was obliged to confer marks of her attachment on him as privately as she could, for Allan’s visits were by no means so acceptable to her husband as to herself. Indeed, Torloisk liked so little to see the lad, that he determined to put some affront on him, which should prevent his returning to the castle for some time. An opportunity for executing his purpose soon occurred. The lady one morning, looking from the window, saw her son coming wandering down the hill, and hastened to put a girdle cake upon the fire, that he might have hot bread for breakfast. Something called her out of the apartment after making this preparation, and her husband, entering at the same time, saw at once what she had been about, and determined to give the boy such a reception as should disgust him for the future. He snatched the cake from the girdle, thrust it into his stepson’s hands, which he forcibly closed on the scalding bread, saying, “Here, Allan, here is a cake which your mother has got ready for your breakfast.” Allan’s hands were severely burnt ; and, being a sharp-witted and proud boy, he resented this mark of his step-father’s ill-will, and came not again to Torloisk. At this time the western seas were covered with the vessels of pirates, who, not unlike the sea-kings of Denmark at an early period, sometimes settled and made conquests on the islands. Allan-a-Sop was young, strong, and brave to desperation. He entered as a mariner onboard of one of these ships, and in process of time obtained the command, first of one galley, then of a small flotilla, with which he sailed round the seas and collected considerable plunder, until his name became both feared and famous. At length he proposed to himself to pay a visit to his mother, whom he had not seen for many years; and setting sail for this purpose, he anchored one morning in the sound of Ulva, and in front of the house of Torloisk. His mother was dead, but his step-father, to whom he was now as much an object of fear as he had been formerly of aversion, hastened to the shore to receive his formidable stepson, with great affectation of kindness and interest in his prosperity ; while Allan-a-Sop, who, though very rough and hasty, does not appear to have been sullen or vindictive, seemed to take his kind reception in good part. The crafty old man succeeded so well, as he thought, in securing Allan’s friendship, and obliterating all recollections of the former affront put on him, that he began to think it possible to employ his stepson in executing his own private revenge upon MacQuarrie of Ulva, with whom, as was usual between such neighbours, he had some feud. With this purpose, he offered what he called the following good advice to his stepson :—‘My dear Allan, you have now wandered over the seas long enough ; it is time you should have some footing upon land—a castle to protect yourself in winter, a village and cattle for your men, and a harbour to lay up your galleys. Now, here is the island of Ulva, near at hand, which lies ready for your occupation, and it will cost you no trouble, save that of putting to death the present proprietor, the Laird of MacQuarrie, a useless old carle, who has cumbered the world long enough. ” Allan-a-Sop thanked his step-father for so happy a suggestion, which he declared he would put in execution forthwith. Accordingly, setting sail the next morning, he appeared before MacQuarrie’s house an hour before noon. The old chief of Ulva was much alarmed at the menacing apparition of so many galleys, and his anxiety was not lessened by the news that they were commanded by the redoubted Allan-a-Sop. Having no effectual means of resistance, MacQuarrie, who was a man of shrewd sense, saw no alternative save that of receiving the invaders, whatever might be their purpose, with all outward demonstrations of joy and satisfaction; the more especially as he recollected having taken some occasional notice of Allan during his early youth, which he now resolved to make the most of. Accordingly, MacQuarrie caused immediate preparations to be made for a banquet, as splendid as circumstances admitted, hastened down to the shore to meet the rover, and welcomed him to Ulva with such an appearance of sincerity, that the pirate found it impossible to pick any quarrel, which might afford a pretence for executing the violent purpose which he had been led to meditate. They feasted together the whole day ; and, in the evening, as Allan-a-Sop was about to retire to his ships, he thanked the laird for his hospitality, but remarked, with a sigh, that it had cost him very dear. "How can that be,” said MacQuarrie, "when I bestowed this entertainment upon you in free good-will?" "It is true, my friend," replied the pirate, "but then it has quite disconcerted the purpose for which I came hither; which was to put you to death, my good friend, and seize upon your house and island, and so settle myself in the world. It would have been very convenient for me; this island of Ulva; but your friendly reception has rendered it impossible for me to execute my purpose, so that I must be a wanderer on the seas for some time longer." Whatever MacQuarrie felt at learning he had been so near to destruction, he took care to show no emotion save surprise, and replied to his visitor: "My dear Allan, who was it that put into your mind so unkind a purpose towards your old friend ; for I am sure it never arose from your own generous nature? It must have been old Torloisk, who made such an indifferent husband to your mother, and such an unfriendly step-father to you when you were a helpless boy ; but now, when he sees you a bold and powerful leader, he desires to make a quarrel betwixt you and those who were the friends of your youth. If you consider this matter rightly, Allan, you will see that the estate and harbour of Torloisk lie to the full as conveniently for you as those of Ulva, and that, if you are disposed (as is very natural) to make a settlement by force, it is much better it should be at the expense of the old churl, who never showed you kindness or countenance, than at that of a friend like me, who always loved and honoured you.” Allan-a-Sop was struck with the justice of this reasoning; and the old offence of his scalded fingers was suddenly recalled to his mind. "It is very true what you say, MacQuarrie,” he replied, "and, besides, I have not forgotten what a hot breakfast my step-father treated me to one morning. Farewell for the present; you shall soon hear news of me from the other side of the Sound.” Having said thus much, the pirate got on board, and commanding his men to unmoor the galleys, sailed hack to Torloisk, and prepared to land in arms. MacLean hastened to meet him, in expectation to hear of the death of his enemy, MacQuarrie. But Allan greeted him in a very different manner from what he expected. "You hoary old traitor," he said, "you instigated my simple good nature to murder a better man than yourself ! But have you forgotten how you scorched my fingers twenty years ago with a burning cake? The day is come that that breakfast must be paid for.” So saying, he dashed out the old man`s brains with a battle-axe, took possession of his castle and property, and established there a distinguished branch of the clan of MacLean. —From “Tales of a Grandfather”.

by Sir Walter Scott

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