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The legend of the landscape: story time in the heart of Argyll.

Calm and serene on a wintry Loch Sween so let’s have some story time, 2022 is “Scotland’s Year of Stories”. With that in mind, I have a wee personal story of my ancient (some would say tenuous) claim to the oldest stone castle in Scotland and Mac Suibhe family links to these pristine marine protected waters of the Argyll Hope Spot.

“Sween” is a sheltered sea loch and the name derives from the Mac Suibhe clan or clan Sweeney which means “well disposed” or “pleasant” in Gaelic.

Surrounded by a protected national nature reserve, the enchanting hills of Knapdale and some of the last remaining rare ancient temperate rainforest in the world, the meaning behind the name is very much understated.

A wintry swim in Loch Sween, surrounding by some of the last remaining Atlantic oakwood rainforests in existence. To say it’s “pleasant” is an understatement.

My paternal granny Teresa Coyle R.I.P was a Sweeney or Suibhne in Donegal, Ireland. A native Gaelic speaker who regularly mentioned that “we came from Argyll”. Her endeared sister and my great-aunt Margaret sadly passed away earlier this month at her home in Donegal R.I.P, 102 years old - the last of that generation. So it feels like a good time to honour my ancient heritage and connection to the majestic coastline of Argyll, that I now call home.

Like Coyle (Mac Giolla Chomhghaill) the name Sweeney is gaelic in origin, and common across the west coast of Scotland and north west Ireland. Here in the heart of Argyll, the landscape is synonymous with being the centre of the ancient Gaelic kingdom of the Dàl Riata which interestingly orginated and expanded from the north coasts and counties of Ireland into Argyll.

The ancient rainforests which surround Loch Sween. Rare lichens and and liverwort adorn the trees, a testament to the clean air

Sweeney itself is derived from Suibhne O’Neill, chieftain of Argyll who commanded territory across Knapdale from Loch Awe to Loch Fyne. The Mac Suibhne clan stronghold evolved to be the strategically located castle on Loch Sween, from which the loch gets its name, with commanding views out to the sound of Jura. However, Argyll in the early middle ages was dominated by a mash up of bloody changing alliances, Viking raids and clan rivalry.

My ancestors, the Mac Suibhne, were independently minded and a bit rogue which seemed to invite a bit of drama. A feisty bunch! This meant eventually losing their stronghold of Castle Sween around 1300 following an alleged fall out with the Scottish noble establishment and king. A dramatic exodus of the Mac Suibhne from Argyll then followed, with a large proportion ending up on the north west coast of Ireland as mercenaries. This mercenary arm of the Suibhne of Argyll, now in Donegal, soon established themselves as a respected and feared Gaelic warrior class.

Fast forward to the 20th century - my granny Teresa, great aunt Margaret and eventually my old man, Donal (Gaelic for Daniel) were born in the wild hills of the Gaelic speaking Donegal where their warrior ancestors from Argyll first sought sanctuary, hundreds of years earlier.

“Knocking about the knaps”. The uniquely corrugated landscape near the mouth of Loch Sween, where it meets the Sound of Jura.

I can’t say that I follow in the old Gael-Norse family tradition of fighting, more a swimmer than a warrior. But it might explain my rusty beard and resilience to the cold!

It’s good to be back and connect with my roots. Suibhne gu bràth!

I love swimming in bodies of water and landscapes that are steeped in stories and legend. Argyll and the Isles isn’t short of them. Stories are important, they keep the magic of the landscape alive and connect us to who we are.

Maybe I’ll share a few stories on my sessions this year!

Argyll. Into the wild. Into the water.


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