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The Knight and the Lady of Loch Awe

The Knight And the Lady of Loch Awe

This tale has a theme common to many of the cultures whose men went off to the Crusades. Aside from the nature of the far-off campaigning, though, it takes a gentle, reflective line, and Black Colin does not exact the grisly vengeance one would find in other Highland stories.

Breathing heavily and sweating profusely in his padded leather jerkin and chain mail, Black Colin looked down at the dead Saracen at his feet. The fierce Mediterranean sun was taking its toll, but on this particular day in what had been a long campaign it was the enemy who were in full retreat, leaving the field to him and his comrades. In a flash his mind went back to his home in the cool, green glens of Scotland. There he had land, wealth, status and family but, above all else, a beautiful wife whom he had left for the Crusades. They had been married a very short time before he had ventured off. He had taken the decision to go so lightly, so thoughtlessly and without a backward glance. Now, as he removed his helmet and wiped his forehead, it sickened him to recall it.

Visions of home itself were less painful, and remembering his proud heritage while surrounded by so many foreigners, some of very high birth in their homeland, cheered him a little.

It had been during the wars between England and Scotland in the reigns of Edward I and Edward II that his father had made his name. As one of the leaders in the cause of Scottish independence, Sir Nigel Campbell had served boldly. The Knight of Loch Awe, as he was generally called, had been a school friend and comrade of Sir William Wallace, and a loyal and devoted adherent of Robert Bruce. As reward for his heroism in the war of independence, the Bruce gave him the former lands of the rebellious MacGregors. This included Glenurchy, the great glen at the head of Loch Awe through which the river Orchy flows, in a wild and isolated region of the Highlands. Sir Nigel Campbell had had a fight on his hands before he was able to expel the MacGregors and settle down peaceably in Glenurchy. Colin was born soon afterwards. As the years went by he earned the nickname of Black Colin, on account of his jet-black hair, dark skin and his temperament.

Over time the boy’s fierce temper and rashness were beaten, reasoned or loved out of him by his tough father, kind foster-father and devoted foster-mother. As all Highland chiefs did in those days, Sir Nigel Campbell sent his son to a farmer’s home for fosterage and so the boy became a child of his foster family as well as the son of his father.

Young Black Colin ate the plain food of the clansmen, oatmeal porridge and oatcake, drank the milk of the cows and occasionally enjoyed the beef from the cattle herds. He ran and wrestled and hunted with his foster-brothers and learnt woodcraft and warlike skills, such as broadsword play and the use of dirk and buckler, from his foster-father. Most importantly of all, he won a devoted following in the clan. In these times a man’s foster-parents were almost dearer to him than his own father and mother, and his foster-brethren were bound to fight and die for him and to regard him more highly than their own blood relations.

The foster-parents of Black Colin were a couple named Patterson,who lived at Socach, in Glenurchy.In every conceivable way, they fulfilled the trust placed in them. Indeed, in Black Colin’s case they did more than was strictly necessary, and became closer to him as a consequence. With his mother dead and a father who was unusually cold, the Pattersons were in his heart his first family. In some ways he came to regard his title and future responsibilities as a duty and a burden.

Sir Nigel Campbell died in his forties, leaving Black Colin to become Knight of Loch Awe, lord of Glenurchy and all the surrounding countryside while he was still only in his late teens. Colin was already renowned for his strength and handsome face and by virtue of this extra slice of good fortune he became the young man all the girls in the district wanted to capture. By luck, for a young man’s fancy can seldom be trusted, advice from his foster-mother and the wit, charms and merit of the young woman in question, he married the best, brightest, and truly loveliest of all the girls in the area.

The couple dwelt happily enough together on the Islet in Loch Awe but it was not long before Colin became restless. He had yet to perform great feats of arms, and, sadly for him, the peace in the land then looked like lasting. He was too young, too well schooled in war and too brave to be content with the life of what amounted to little more than that of a gentleman-farmer. Soon, a cause would inspire him to leave his responsibilities as clan chief, husband and landlord.

One day a traveller arrived at the castle on the Islet with fascinating tales of the many places he had been. This fellow was a palmer just returned from the Holy Land who had visited all the holy places in Jerusalem.He eloquently described his experiences, the customs and religious sites of the various distant lands, all of which interested Black Colin’s wife.

“The Saracens rule the country with a fist of iron and hinder men from worshipping at the sacred shrines,” the palmer said. “But soon this may be remedied, for coming home by way of Rome, I heard most wondrous news. It seems the Pope has just proclaimed a new Holy War.”

“What’s that?” Colin cried, coming quickly out of his daydream of what he might have done had he lived in former times, during the last Crusades. His attention was captured by the word ‘war’.

“The Pope has declared that his blessing will rest on the man who would leave wife, home and kinsfolk, and go forth to fight for the Lord against the infidel.”

“How far from me will this errand take you?” was all she could manage to say and still be in command of herself.

“Why, all the way to Jerusalem, if the Pope bids me.”


“And how long will you be away from me?” she whispered with difficulty.

“It is hard to say,” Black Colin barked excitedly. “It may be many years if the heathen try to continue to hold the Holy Land against us. In the end, the warriors of the Cross must prevail, but I can not return before that time, of course.”

“What shall I do during those long, weary years,” she asked, growing stronger as the inevitability of it all sank in.

“Why, my darling,” Black Colin responded, waking up a little from his ecstatic dreams of war and victory. “You shall live right here on the Islet and manage our affairs as lady of Glenurchy until my return. Our vassals and clansmen will obey you as they do me, and the tenants will pay their rents and dues to you. You will hold and control the land in my place.” He had thought she would be just as excited by this prospect as he was over the Crusade, for she was a clever young woman and he knew she had her own ideas and longed to influence their affairs.

“I see,” the Lady of Loch Awe said with a sigh. “But if you should die so far away in that distant land …” her voice nearly broke and she stopped, cleared her throat and tried again, pretending to be cool and practical. “How will I know? What am I to do if eventually I hear that you’ve been killed or carried off by some dread disease? How am I ever to know for certain?”

“Yes. We must think,” said Colin, a touch sobered by talk of his mortality. “Wait seven years, and if I have not returned by then, you go ahead and marry again. Take a good brave husband to help you guard your rights and rule the glen, for I’ll be dead in the Holy Land.”

“No,” she said gently, her heart breaking. “I will be the Lady of Glenurchy until I die, or perhaps a bride of Christ, hoping to find peace for my grieving soul in a nunnery. I’ll let no second husband have me or hold your land. Please,” she said, no longer acting and desperate to avoid the awful uncertainty so inherent in the campaigns of those times, especially such distant ones. “Give me some token that we can share between us, something that on your deathbed you can send to me. That way, if I get it, I will know that you will never come home and that you have died.”

“I will do as you ask but I may have no deathbed as such,” Black Colin answered, both touched and amused. He understood her need, however, and so he went to the clan’s blacksmith and had him make a very large gold ring. On one side of it was engraved Colin’s name and on the other that of the Lady of Loch Awe.

Breaking the ring in two, Colin gave his wife the piece with his name and kept the one with hers.
“I vow to wear this near my heart,” he solemnly told her, “and will only part with it if I am about to die, in whatever circumstances.”

Nodding and weeping bitterly, his lady also swore to keep her half of the ring, which she put on a chain round her neck. Then, with heavy hearts and great mourning from the whole clan, Black Colin and the  sturdy band of Campbell clansmen who had volunteered to go with him, marched away to the swirl of the bagpipes, plaids fluttering in the breeze. Many looked back with a lump in their throat, and those who were older or wiser feared to find themselves supplanted  when they came back after God only knew how many years.

Colin had not shared such doubts at the time, but they had begun to plague him recently. How could he have abandoned her with such an easy mind?

Some men’s courage rose as the miles lengthened behind them, while others became homesick or sentimental. By the time they had reached Edinburgh and boarded a ship at Leith, many were already thinking of home as an abstract ideal and looking forward to the joy of battle. All were also eager to see Rome and the Pope. Later, they believed, would come Jerusalem.

Black Colin now remembered that all he had dreamt of then was glory and how he would fight with such valour as had seldom been seen in all the battles in all the world. These days all he dreamt of was home and his lady. Journeying up the Rhine, he and his Highland clansmen had made their way through Switzerland, then over the passes of the Alps. Coming down into Italy, they were astonished at the splendour of the cities, which surpassed their wildest imaginations. At last, with many other bands of Crusaders, they reached Rome. Here the Knight of Loch Awe was lucky enough to have an audience with the Pope, who was touched by the devotion of these tough warriors come to do battle for Christ so far from their homes. Later, after years of blood and struggle, Colin would remember that day with pride and a certain ruefulness.

They had been dispatched at once to Rhodes were they would fight in the service of the Knights of St. John. Often in the years to come the bravery and skill of Black Colin and his men would be praised by the Grand Master, but the dream of going to reclaim the Holy Land was never realized. All their fighting, and there was much of it, took place elsewhere.

Early on Colin had sworn that he would liberate and then worship at all the holy sites in Jerusalem. Over the years, as his men died around him, he began to regret the oath as an impossibility. He came to a decision, that he would keep as much of his promise as he could, and if he could not reach the Holy Land as a triumphant warrior he would go as a pilgrim, risking his life in the process if need be.

For his sad and lonely wife the seven years passed slowly indeed. She dwelt in the castle on the Islet, ruling in all gentle ways, but fighting boldly when raiders came to plunder her land and clansmen. Every year she claimed her husband’s dues and took good care to see that he was never cheated. Hawk-eyed as she was in defence of her husbands rights, in times of trouble she was the best help her clan ever had. There were none who did not sincerely bless her name for the kindness she showed and the good she did.

Of course, such a lovely and wealthy woman as the Lady of Loch Awe was bound to attract the notice of single men of her rank. Certainly there would have been no shortage of suitors had she been a widow. Indeed, even before the seven years had passed, there were men who would gladly have tried to convince her that Colin was dead and that she was free to look elsewhere.

“When he left,” she said, steadfastly refusing to entertain the vaguest notion of a remarriage, “my husband promised me two things: one that he would return, if possible, within seven years; and, secondly, that if he should fall, he would have sent to me a sure token of his death. The seven years are not yet over, and I have never received the token of his death. By Heaven above, and my own heart’s desire, I am still the wife of Black Colin of Loch Awe. Who will say that I am not?”

This firm resolve and unshakeable determination eventually  daunted all her suitors except one, who would not be dissuaded. Baron Niel MacCorquodale had reasons other than love or admiration or clan alliance for pursuing this lady. His lands bordered on Glenurchy, and he had long cast covetous eyes on the glen and its contents. The fair lady was prize enough, he had to admit, but she was only a part of his goal. The wealth she was reputed to possess and the power the marriage would give him were the prizes he was most intent on winning.

At midnight seven years from the day when Black Colin had gone to the Crusades, his lady wept miserably and awoke with a terrible feeling of emptiness. Bright and early that very morning the Baron MacCorquodale arrived again to pay court to her. Hiding her sadness, she received him reluctantly but did not respond to his references to her ‘freedom’.

“Until I have the token of my husband’s death, I will be wife to no other man.”


“What is the token, my lady?” asked the Baron, already thinking of sending a false one. “What exactly does it amount to?”

“I’ll never tell anyone that,” replied the lady. “You wouldn’t dare to ask about such private things between a husband and wife, would you? I will know the token if it comes.”

The Baron was at pains to hide his rage over this. Nevertheless he decided that even if he could not discover the secret, he would wed the lady and her wealth by hook or by crook. Dispatching a trusted messenger to Rome, he set about forging a letter that would convince the lady that Black Colin was dead.

On the day the Baron arrived at the castle in the company of a palmer to bring this news to the lady, she was gazing out the window and saw them coming. The sight of the palmer filled her with both excitement and dread, for she believed he might have word of her husband.

“Lady,” the Baron said with a solemnity bordering on the excessive, even in the circumstances, “this palmer has tidings for you of a most saddening kind, I fear.”

“Well,” she said, turning pale, a wretched flutter in her stomach, “allow him to give these tidings then. Palmer, what news?”

“It is bitter, fair lady, very bitter,” said the palmer. “Your husband has fallen in battle, slain by the Saracens while in the service of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes. This letter gives the details and the condolences of many officials of the Church.” All these individuals were in the pay of the Baron, of course.

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