As you stand within the crumbling walls of Castle Coeffin on the Isle of Lismore and gaze across to the mountains of Morvern, against the background of deepest tranquility you can hear a faint whispering sound, like the swishing of a silk dress or the soft breath of a sigh.
Of course, it’s the breeze rising and falling, rustling the ivy leaves that are smothering the stonework. You listen, even more intently than before just to be sure, and a single yellow leaf twirls and falls, landing silently at your feet.
Castle Coeffin a Legend of Love and Loss
Castle Coeffin (pronounced ‘koy-fin’) was built between 1200 and 1250 AD, and local tradition links it with a Norse prince called Caifean. Guarding the sea passages between the islands, the castle became one of the strongholds of the MacDougall clan: these men were the Lords of Lorn, descended from a warrior called Somerled whose brave deeds had made him half man, half legend. Their longships would have sailed up the Sound of Mull, moored in the safe harbour below the castle, and their men would have come ashore to rest, dine and be merry.
And one of them caught the eye of a girl called Beothail, whose story is preserved in a fragment of folklore that’s as beautiful as it is haunting. This is an extract from ‘Journeying in MacDougall Country’ by Walter Marshall MacDougall:
In the days when Coeffin was a Norse stronghold, Beothail of the golden hair lived there. She was very much in love with a young Viking warrior. When in far-off Lochlann [Norway] this warrior was killed, Beothail grew pale with her grief and died.
Then in the wind that buffeted the walls of Coeffin came the pleading voice of the dead maiden begging her father and brother to carry her bones to Lochlann. Finally, her bones were washed in the sacred spring of Saint Moluag at Clachan and, thus blessed, were carried to where Beothail’s lover lay buried.
Still the voice came upon the ceaseless winds of the Lynn of Morvern. A bone was missing, left behind in the well. A search was made, and the bone was found. It too was carried to Lochlann. Then the pleading ceased, though the restless winds often sound a maiden’s sigh around the walls of Coeffin.
A Castle in Ruins is a Portal Through Time
Far off the tourist trail, Castle Coeffin doesn’t get many visitors. The west coast of Lismore is sparsely populated, with only the odd whitewashed farmhouse as a sign of human presence. Purple orchids, primroses, violets and marsh marigolds run riot in the windswept landscape, and skylarks sing above the fields. In summer the old stonework grows warm in the midday sun, but at night the sea mists roll in, caressing the broken walls and releasing their spirits from the shackles of time.
Visiting the Isle of Lismore
You can spend a day on Lismore… but you might just want to stay for a week!
On the beautiful west coast of Scotland, the Isle of Lismore is only eight miles long by about a mile wide – a paradise in miniature, where life moves at a different pace. There’s a handful of guest houses and self-catering cottages, a small store and post office (but no petrol station) and the museum also has a tea room.
Getting to Lismore: From Glasgow, it’s about an hour and a half’s drive to Oban, where you can board a vehicle ferry to Lismore. The ferry is operated by Caledonian MacBrayne, and booking is recommended. Alternatively, there’s a small passenger ferry from Port Appin, just north of Oban, taking you to the north of the island. You can explore on foot, hire a bike, or use the island’s taxi service. More information on the Isle of Lismore’s community website.