The Swan of Loch Sunart
Young love, as it always has, believed in only the dreams planted by the sprites and had little interest in this mortal world….
Words by Catherine Arkwright
Illustration by Linley Barba
The tale begins, as most romantic tales do, with a sunset over the loch. Its dying rays highlight the wild beauty of the north and the beauty of young love, shining brighter than any heavenly body. In this land, their names were Eideard and Ceana. While he was the eldest son of the chieftain, Eideard found nothing in his life quite so valuable as the hours he passed at the shore of the loch, next to his love and knowing she felt the same. Young Ceana was just the daughter of a poor crofter. She and her family were occupied with back-breaking work: tending the land and the animals under their care and consistently aware of the hardship one bad season would bring. Many of those in the village were also crofters, toiling for subsistence, though the community was strong and none were left truly hungry. Ceana’s heart was heavy, but it would lighten each time she saw her lover’s eyes.
One evening, Eideard turned to her and, in between the whispered words of love that mean little to the outside world but everything to those within, said, “I love you. Your beauty outstrips that of this loch. Your raven hair and ivory skin make you more than queenly. I wish to tell my parents that we shall marry, if you will have me.”
For many years past, this was all Ceana had dreamed of. And yet, her heart misgave her.
“I adore you.” She answered, ducking her head gracefully, “Yet I am a crofter’s daughter and you are the chieftain’s son. Let me work longer at my home, to gather such gifts for a dowry that your parents cannot complain.”
“I would not refuse you anything, Ceana but I know my parents. I love you, have loved you and will love you till my dying breath and they will too. There will be no problem.”
The sun sank slowly below the green hills in the distance, but with her lover’s assurance, Ceana felt no chill in the darkness. Young love, as it always has, believed in only the dreams planted by the sprites and had little interest in this mortal world.
Eideard went to his parents. They had known of his affection for a girl but not who she was, though his mother dreamed of a noble daughter- with golden hair, fair skin and a dowry to match. A daughter who would protect the village, strengthen it and its people and lead them well.
“Father, Mother,” he said, standing upright and strong, “I wish to marry my sweetheart. Ceana. She is strong, beautiful and kind and there can be no better woman than her. We want your blessing because we will not ever be content apart.”
His parents looked at each other in disbelief, aware that this girl would bring nothing and help no-one in the village, despite the charm she’d cast on their son. Eideard’s mother rose, heartbreak and fury written all over her face and pronounced this doom, “You shall not marry this girl while I draw breath. You are forbidden from seeing her, from speaking to her. You are a child who does not understand the weight of this decision and you will listen because my eldest son will not marry a crofter’s daughter or I will not know him.”
Hurt tore through the young man, and while he shouted in defense of his beloved, of her worth, her heart and her beauty, his mother would not hear of it. Eideard ran from the house to the loch, furious and desperate, carelessly disturbing all the creatures who lay there resting. In his misery, he barely noted the wonder of the white swans beneath the moonlight or the reflection of the stars on the loch’s face. He stayed away all night, thinking and dreaming and hoping for an answer, for a sign, a sprite to help him in his troubles.
The next morning, he slipped home and retrieved his bow, aware that he needed time in the fresh calm of the forest till he could meet Ceana that evening. For the young man was not easily disheartened. He had decided that shock and stress had affected his mother and that by hunting and increasing winter stores of food, he could eventually soothe her and win her approval.
If hunting constituted an excuse to still go to the loch every day, to still see his beloved, to still hold her hand, then there was no harm being done.
One winter’s morn, his mother asked him where he was going so early. He had planned to hunt a large beast; one he could use to fashion a cloak to keep Ceana warm in the coming depths of winter and had allowed himself the entire day to search the land for tracks, though his mother could not know the truth.
“You spend much more time hunting than you ever used to,” she said, a hint of suspicion in her voice, “You should take your brother with you and teach him to follow in your footsteps. The winter this year is likely to be a difficult one with both flood and storm.”
“I will,” he answered, thinking desperately for an excuse to not take his brother today, “but it seems to me that a child will be too loud in the forest still. I will teach him how to fish at the loch tomorrow morning instead.”
His mother was not convinced. She watched her son leave and walk towards the forest and decided to hide to see when he came back and whether she had a rightful cause for suspicion. A crunch of frost alerted her to the presence of young Ceana and so it was that Eideard’s mother discovered her son was disobeying her, turning her fury into desperation and ruthlessness. Her already-tough heart hardened further. Old women in the village murmured tales of the witch in the woods. One had begged for her child’s life; one had bargained for a change in her husband’s character, another for wealth beyond measure. Each had received what she asked for, though as witches have always found people desperate enough to pay the steepest of prices, there was more than a little discontent. She decided to go and find this witch, ask her to remove this troublesome girl from her son’s life, once and for all.
She strode deep into the forest, her speed and rage beyond comparison, maintaining a grueling pace for hours.
“Old mother!” She cried eventually, following a small river through the trees. “Old mother, I seek a boon from you!” She wove between fallen trunks and moss-covered stones till she reached a clearing and called out for the third time: “Old mother! Hear me, I need a spell to save my son!”
A crack sounded out from behind a rock, and a small woman walked out, looking more like a beast of the forest than any human- moss grew on her shoulders and water dripped from her cloak.
“Are you prepared to pay the toll I will require?” asked the witch. “People come to me when they are desperate, yet your people have not been struck by famine or plague and nor is your son lost. What, then, do you call me old mother for?”
“He is lost!” She answered imperiously, “Send the girl away. I wish my son to never speak to her or see her again and I do not care how or what you do. Get rid of her, and tell me what I owe.”
“A curse like that requires a large sacrifice. From you, I request your most precious belonging, in exchange for the loss of your son’s.”
Eideard’s mother paused a moment. Then she handed over her cloak, given to her by her mother who had long since passed and returned home, pointing out the fateful loch to the witch as they journeyed through the forest together. As the evening was fast approaching, the witch hid herself in the long grass, watching the swans on the loch and waited for Ceana to appear. When the girl came into view, the witch cast her spell and the young girl was transformed into a swan; her feather’s even paler than her skin had been and her eyes more pained than ever before.
Eideard arrived not long after, successful in his hunt and hopeful for change. But Ceana did not come. He waited at the shore all night but still she did not come. Every morning he went and waited for her, ignoring the need for hunting and his mother’s reminders but nothing changed. Eventually, as the weeks drew by, he realized he had lost her and that whatever had happened, she was too far from him. He could not wait any longer.
More weeks passed by and he began to teach his brother to hunt the forest but they avoided the loch, for the pain was still too fresh.
One beautiful morning, Eideard watched the sunrise and felt a longing to return to the lochside. To see the birds and beasts that had previously accompanied him in his happiness and had keep the village safe. As he approached, he saw a swan, more wonderful than the others, her head gracefully turning and surveying the loch. This bird, he knew, would feed many of the villagers and he would thank it as always with respect for its sacrifice in protecting his people.
He took a deep breath and lifted up his trusted bow. Both his aim and his bow were true and the swan was struck beneath her wing, mortally wounded. She cried out, her scream waking all the creatures nearby, including those in the village. As she breathed her last, Ceana regained her true form, her dark hair spilling out over the face of the loch. Eideard collapsed. Horrified by what he had done, his heart broke. He watched as his love’s body slowly drifted down into the dark water below and felt they would never again be separated. Wading through the water to her, he took Ceana’s hand in his, pulled out his dagger and stabbed himself in the chest. By fate or chance mimicking the wound he’d caused in his beloved. They say that as the two lovers fell down together, all the swans on Loch Sunart took flight. To this day, no swan rests at the waters of Loch Sunart, in respect to the tale of love and loss.